Writing with Pen and Paper

Last month, I watched Tim Ferris interview Neil Gaiman, and they discussed Gaiman’s habit of writing his first drafts by hand in a notebook, using a fountain pen. Here’s a snippet from that interview:

“If you’re writing on a computer, you’ll think of the sort of thing that you mean, and then write that down and look at it and then fiddle with it and get it to be the thing that you mean. If you’re writing in fountain pen, if you do that, you just wind up with a page covered with crossings out, so it’s actually so much easier to just think a little bit more. You slow up a bit, but you’re thinking the sentence through to the end, and then you start writing.”

I already journal by hand, and it hasn’t escaped me how I feel better connected to the creative part of my mind when I’m working with a pen and paper instead of a keyboard. So I wondered: Perhaps I should give Gaiman’s approach a try?

Although I was afraid my hand would get tired, and my handwriting would be illegible, it turns out that I love writing fiction by hand. Not only is it fun, but it comes with all these weird bonuses you don’t get when working on a computer. Like Gaiman suggested, hand writing forces me to slow down and think before filling up a page, and therefore I’m less inclined to drop waste-words on the screen and waste even more time fiddling with them. Additionally, seeing the story in my mind’s eye is far easier when I’m using a pen. I don’t know why, but I’ll run with it! And I love the way writing in a journal makes my first draft feel entirely private, much more so than when I work on a screen. There are no distractions inside a paper journal, and no notifications jumping out to fuck with you.

Hand writing also prevents me from slowing down too much during the drafting process. Tweaking sentences as I go would leave a fat mess on the page, so hand writing forces me to wait for the second draft before I edit. That’s when I’ll shift the story from paper to the screen. I might be moving more slowly when writing by hand, but at least I’m continually moving forward, not backward.

So far, I’ve only found two downsides to going old-school. I’m a bit paranoid about losing one of my journals, given that paper doesn’t lend itself to automatic backups. (eep!) And my hand does get tired (and my handwriting gets sloppier) after 1000 words or so. In practice, this means I’ll break up my writing across more than one session. That’s not bad, just different.

It’s fun to select a journal that fits your story. For example, I’m writing a “cupcake cozy” in glittery blue ink inside a floral-print journal, while my next spy novel is in a sleek wine-colored Leuchtermm. Meanwhile, my witchy novel is in a black journal with a stained-glass appearance. Instead of living as “files” on my computer, the manuscripts themselves become colorful and unique, they feel like toys in my toybox, ready to be picked up and played with. And the more I get into the hand writing, the more I begin to embellish, adding small sketches to help me work out a setting, or making notes about cover art. I’m so used to typing that it’s taken me a while to remember paper is non-linear. I can write AND draw AND make notes. It’s all there in one place.

Huzzah for experimentation! I didn’t think I’d enjoy working by hand, but it’s been great.