If you follow our Facebook page, you’ve seen me post some behind-the-scenes photos that hint at my writing process. Which involves notebooks and a Platinum Preppy fountain pen converted to an eyedropper and filled with purple ink (Noodler’s La Couleur Royale, for those of you who might care).
That’s right. The vast majority of my work on this blog, especially in more recent times, has started out as handwritten work. For that matter, almost every piece of fiction I’ve written since becoming serious about writing has been handwritten, too.
You’re probably wondering, “Jorfimus, why on Earth you would do that when you have a perfectly functional computer?” That’s a good question, dear reader. And that’s what I’m here to talk about today.
I’ve talked a bit about this in the past here and here, but I’ve never really gotten into my own process very deeply. I’ll start with the more practical reasons, since those will likely be more interesting to most of you. First and foremost, writing by hand means that when I type the work up, I’m already on a second draft. I do a lot of editing while I transfer from page to screen, actually. The process of rereading my work to type it up forces me to look back at it and evaluate it. Most of my grammar and word choice edits are done in this stage, and quite often I’m happy with the results I’ve achieved after typing a post up. Most of what you read here is a second draft.
That’s not to say that some things weren’t done directly on my computer. Frequently for music reviews I’ll jot down a bunch of notes and observations about the songs as I listen to them, and convert those to prose when writing the post on WordPress. My recent post on Neverwhere was only half written by hand. Which is a bit ironic, actually, because while I don’t know the details of Gaiman’s writing process, I do know that he uses fountain pens himself. On the extreme end, both of my reviews of Nalani & Sarina’s work were written entirely on my computer. So there’s that.
Another practical reason is marginalia. My handwritten drafts are, after all, the first rough drafts. Often I’ll think of something after I’ve written a paragraph or segment that I’ll want to add in later. This things get scrawled in the margins to be added during the transfer/editing process. Or maybe I need to write a note to myself — refine this part, move this section over there, insert a link here, check this fact, things like that. The ability to leave those kinds of notes for myself is one that’s missing on the computer, and one which I find extremely helpful and necessary to my writing process. After all, it’s not like everything is written all at once. If I don’t mark these things down, I won’t remember them later when I go back to what I was working on. The flexibility provided by a physical medium is still the best way to annotate while in the middle of writing something.
A third reason is portability. I can’t bring my computer with me everywhere I go, and to be honest, writing on my phone is just annoying and more trouble than it’s worth. I might use the WordPress app to make a quick edit here or there, but honestly I really don’t use it to write. I use it to check our stats and monitor spam on the fly.
A notebook and pen, though, I can always have those on hand. Or I can pick them up pretty much anywhere. Which I’ve done on those occasions when I need to start writing and don’t have a notebook with me. Such was the case with my first post of the year, which was drafted entirely on the train into Manhattan in a notebook I bought at CVS on the way to the train station. A pen and paper need no batteries and can go anywhere a computer can, and beyond. They’re invaluable for getting ideas down quickly.
Which brings me to my fourth point — speed. This sounds a bit backwards, I’m sure. I can certainly type faster than I can write (if you want it to be legible, that is). But that’s actually the problem. Working on a computer, I actually type too fast. I make too many typos and my thoughts speed up to match my hands, which means I’m making sloppy writing choices and giving myself more work later on. I make enough typos during conversion the way it is; why open myself to more by typing everything directly? When I’m writing by hand, I can only go so fast, which means my thoughts slow down and I can write a must stronger piece. Using a fountain pen forces me to slow down even more to keep things legible and to keep the nib in the best position for writing. My handwriting is still miserable, but I can read it better than if I were using a regular pen. And the quality of my writing in much higher, because I have more time to think before putting the words down.
I suppose that about wraps up the practical reasons. Which leaves me with the more esoteric ones. Be warned, things are about to get a little weird for all you readers who are not part of the pen world. Which I assume is most of you, actually.
Writing by hand is an ancient practice at this point. Computers have only been around for a few decades, after all, and typewriters were only invented in 1714 at the earliest, and weren’t commercially successful until 1867. Before that it was all handwriting until it was sent off the printing press, and earlier than that there wasn’t even a press. This means that when you pick up a pen and use it to put words on a page, you’re continuing a practice that goes back literally centuries. The ballpoint pen was invented in 1938, and the fountain pen in 1827. Before that there were pens and quills that needed to be dipped in ink — dip pens, by the way, are still used today in art, especially for comics and manga, as well as in calligraphy. Prior to that… well, I don’t know, actually, though I’m sure the information is out there somewhere. All of this history lends an almost spiritual or mystical quality to the act of writing by hand.
I told you it was going to get weird.
If I open a blank document and say to myself “I’m going to write something,” without actually having something that I’m trying to get out of my head and saved in some form, it’s going to be a long time before any words start to fill that screen. Give me a notebook and a pen, the ideas are much more likely to start flowing. Why, you ask? It comes down to a simple matter of connection.
For me, writing by hand is a much more direct link between my mind and the page. There is a natural flow of idea to hand to pen gliding over paper, leaving behind a physical version of what’s in my head. There’s nothing personal about typing. It’s all fingers beating on plastic buttons to send electrical impulses that eventually materialize on the screen as letters, words, paragraphs. It’s cold and disconnected. Typing is a means to an end. It’s not the direct act of creation. You can’t say “I made these words with my own two hands with nothing but an ink-filled stick to guide me.” You can only say “I used a data input system to make my words appear on a screen.”
As a side note, that description makes it sound like I only think of pens as a tool, which is far from the case. But my feelings and respect for pens aren’t really the topic here; be on the lookout, though, for some pen reviews coming soon!
Anyway, that direct conduit is important for my writing process. Without that connection and flow, my words and ideas just don’t come as naturally, for the most part. There are certain exceptions, as I mentioned above, and less creative work I often do without the aid of writing instruments. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever drafted an essay by hand. Those were all written in a stress-fueled frenzy the night before the due date, the same as any good student. The point is, though, that there’s something about writing by hand that really sparks creativity and facilitates the process of putting ideas into words. No digital advancements can even come close to replicating it. That’s because the act of writing is a distinctly sensory experience that even the closest analogs, like the Surface, can’t touch.
There’s the obvious, of course — the feeling of a pen in your hand and paper beneath your wrist and fingers. There’s the sight of words hitting the page — particularly pleasing when using a fountain pen or a sufficiently wet rollerball or gel pen, because you also get the sight of wet ink glistening in the light and changing hue as it permeates the page and dries. There’s the sound of the nib moving across the page, that light whispering of metal on paper. And there’s even a distinct set of smells that go along with the process. Different papers often have subtly different scents, and fountain pen ink has a distinctive and not all unpleasant odor. Even some mainstream inks have a noticeable smell — the Uniball Jetstream comes to mind here as an example of a particularly aromatic pen. Wood pencil users will agree with me on the topic of smell as well, since their chosen instrument has such an easily recognizable scent which is integral to the writing experience.
I’m sure by this point you’re thinking I’ve gone off the deep end, but I’m not alone in my advocacy for the handwritten word. There are entire communities dedicated to it — just ask the Fountain Pen Network, the fine folks at r/fountainpens, or Brad Dowdy over at The Pen Addict, who’s something of minor celebrity at this point in the world of pen blogging. There are countless sites devoted to pens and inks of all kinds. And the pencil isn’t forgotten, either. Next time you’re in downtown Manhattan, for example, swing by CW Pencil Enterprise on Forsyth Street and say hi to Caroline Weaver. She’ll be able to tell you quite a bit about that wood-and-graphite stick you’ve been taking for granted.
When it comes down to someone’s writing process, it’s not my place to knock what works for someone else. Many months ago I talked about Midnight Murder Party, an ambitious project by a good friend of ours. He writes exclusively on his computer. And it certainly pays off for him. But if you’re not someone with an established writing process, or maybe you’re just looking to try something new, maybe it’s time you picked up a pen. Maybe you already have a favorite, or maybe you’ve yet to find one. Whatever you use, though — pen, pencil, computer, phone, crayon — what matters most is that you’re writing. And at the end of that day, that’s the only thing that’s really important.
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