In Defence of Pens and Paper

Every writer is different. I make no claims to the popular method by which the majority of writers prefer to create their drafts. However, as a casual observer, I have noticed that it is not uncommon for writers to start and end their projects completely within the digital realm, be it on a dedicated word processor or a cloud-based writing app, on a personal computer, laptop, tablet or even… and myself, personally, I find this one hard to conceive, on a smartphone.

Nothing against writers using their phones to write! I understand that for some this is the most convenient or comfortable way to compose, perhaps even the most necessary given a lack of other options. Personally though, I could never do it and I actually commend those who persevere and manage to write entire tomes within the confines of a small rectangle of glass and metal.

The digital approach.

In fact, there’s nothing wrong at all with an all-digital approach to the writing process. In many cases, if your work is properly backed up, this is probably the safest way to ensure your progress and completed projects are protected against damage and destruction. And of course, editing is far easier on a word processor. Even as I draft this blog post, I admit to using my Chromebook, composing this completely within the WordPress draft editor. It’s extremely convenient. Why would anyone bother to use a physical format for their writing?

Specifically, I’m talking about using a notebook (or any type of paper) and writing instrument to record words before eventually transferring them to a digital format of some sort. I’m sure there are still writers out their pecking away at typewriters in a smoke-filled office with a warm glass of whiskey perspiring in the heat of the afternoon sun out there but, I would suspect that they are in the minority. But I know, again from casual observation, that at least some of us do handwrite before we type. And the question to be answered here is, why? What’s the point?

In all honesty, there are quite a few drawbacks to handwriting a first draft.

It’s slower.

I don’t know about you, even at a full speed free write, I cannot get words down on paper nearly as fast as I can while typing. Then again, I don’t really think fast enough for it to matter when I write as I constantly second guess myself in regards to word choice and diction.

Handwriting can be messy.

I have terrible handwriting. Sometimes to the point of not being able to read what I wrote, especially if I’m trying to get words down quickly. Also, I’m a terrible speller so, without the aid of spellcheck, reading back what I previously wrote can sometimes be quite a task. Not only that, but one always runs the risk of smearing ink or spilling liquid or food onto the page (if one is as clumsy as I am).

Notebooks are generally unsafe.

Notebooks are not dangerous, not necessarily. But any writing in a notebook (or a legal pad or, god forbid, loose leaf) is subject to all the dangers that generally befall paper such as getting ruined by the aforementioned spilt liquid. More than that, unless the writer has access to one of those fancy locking journals, an unsecured notebook is free to be read by any who happen upon it. And I don’t know about you, but for me, few things are worse in life than having my unrefined words read by human eyes that aren’t my own.

Are there any benefits to handwriting?

There are indeed pros to using a pen and paper when writing, but they are highly subjective. If one has a proclivity for it, there is something quite satisfying when writing with a quality pen, feeling the smooth gliding across the paper and watching the black stroke marks appear and fill page after page can definitely give one a certain feeling of accomplishment. In truth, it has always been my dream to have shelves of notebooks full of my own indecipherable writings similar to John Doe’s in the movie Seven (of course, with less murderous psychopathic undertones).

I honestly prefer the process of handwriting. I find it easier to arrange my thoughts with a pen in my hand. I tend to scratch out words, sentences, or even passages that no longer fit or that I become unhappy with. I find it easier to write out of sequence when writing in a notebook, sometimes placing numbers or letters at the beginning of passages to help me better stitch them together once I begin the second draft on a screen.

It’s possible that I could still write like this using a word processor but I feel like it’s still simpler to flip through multiple pages that to constantly scroll back and forth through a document. More than that though, when I begin to place my words in formatted paragraphs, I can’t help but edit as I write – a deadly sin for writers everywhere but one that I am especially prone to.

In transferring words from paper to screen, I find that it forces me to really read back what I wrote earlier and filter out what does and doesn’t work while not having to necessarily focus on creative output. This adds in a built-in round of editing essentially and knowing this helps me let loose (so to speak) when I sit down to compose my initial draft on paper. What I mean is, I am less self-conscious of how bad my first draft is when I know for sure that I will have to reckon with how bad it is once I’m in the process of typing it up.

Find what works for you.

As with most things in life and with writing especially, there is no set approach to follow when eking out a first draft. The only rule is to do what is most comfortable and (more importantly) what allows you to be the most productive. If that means you can best write 100k word count novels on Google Docs whilst laying in bed on your phone, than so be it, do you. My defence of my antiquated method is only that it is the best way that my brain can process the complex process of drafting a novel without overthinking it. It works for me even if it might not work for you.

And in truth, that’s the only defence the writer really needs whenever someone questions their methods.

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