Earlier this year, I talked to Bair Hurley at the Writerly Bites podcast about writing by hand. I write all my first drafts by hand, sometimes my second drafts too. I often recommend writing by hand to my beginner writing students who are afraid of the blank page. When we’re writing on a computer, it seems very formal immediately. Because that Times New Roman looks so neat and perfect in the Word Processor, we want the writing to be perfect too. We start typing, that red squiggly line shows up. Now we’re going back.
When we’re writing by hand, it’s much easier to think of our draft as something impermanent, like a grocery list. It’s notes.
I often teach “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott, which is a very funny chapter from her book Bird by Bird. It’s all about turning off your inner critic and freeing yourself to write your first draft.
She says, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.”
In my experience, writing by hand can help us free that inner child. We can return to an earlier stage in our lives when we scrawled all over the page with abandon.
For me, the biggest benefit to writing by hand is avoiding the internet. The computer just has too many distractions. I’m one of those people who has all kinds of browser add-ons to limit my ability to use distracting websites. I have one that eliminates the feed of social media sites, and another that sets a time limit. Still, I keep finding new ways to waste time online.
What I have to do is go into a room with no devices, just a pencil and paper. Then I can only think about the words on the page.
I always dread finishing a draft, because then I have to go to my computer and face all those temptations again. Still, there are benefits to having to completely rewrite the story when I type it up. When you have a typed first draft, it’s easy to accept the major choices you’ve already made. Instead of thinking about if that scene is really necessary, you just fiddle around with the word choices. But if you have to type up the whole thing, why spend the time typing up a scene that’s not working at all? Plus you’ll find that you’ll make improvements to the word choice too, without even thinking about it.
Don’t take it from me. A lot of successful writers still write by hand: Joyce Carol Oats, Quentin Tarantino, and Neil Gaiman to name a few.
I’ll leave you with the words of Stephen King, who switched to writing by hand after years of typing. He said writing by hand “makes you think about each word as you write it[…]the sentences compose themselves in your head. It’s like hearing music, only its words. But you see more ahead because you can’t go as fast.”
Congratulations! You completed your manuscript during National Novel Writing Month. But now what the heck do you do with your unwieldy 50,000+ word novel? You know it’s not ready to be published, but you don’t know where to begin on your second draft. Do you hire an editor? Do you start revising the first sentence? Well, you can start congratulating yourself on your hard work so far. While it’s true you have a lot of steps to go, once you have a roadmap for your revisions, the process won’t seem so daunting.
Take a Break
Sometimes, it’s hard to see the faults in a fresh draft. When you’ve just written something, it sounds brilliant! But put it aside, at least for a week or two, so you can start to see it with clearer eyes. When you look at it again, pretend that this is a book written by a stranger. Losing your emotional attachment to your first draft is an essential part of the butcher job you are about to perform.
Think About The Big Picture
When you pick up your manuscript again, read it over, not just once, but many times. You can take notes as you go. Don’t worry so much about the small details like word choice and sentence structure in the first round of revisions. You still have too many major changes to make. It would be a shame if you crafted a perfect sentence, only to scrap that entire chapter.
Here are the most important questions to ask:
Is the point of view working? If your novel is in the third person, would it be better in first, or visa versa? A first person novel can make the reader feel closer to the characters, and writing in third person can give the reader some more space to reflect and judge the characters. Both can be effective for different types of stories.
Does your novel primarily follow one character or more than one? If you follow more than one, are both characters equally well-developed in your story? Are they contributing an equal amount to the plot? You might need to add chapters focusing on the primary character who isn’t pulling their weight yet.
Is the tense working? A novel written in present tense can put the reader into the action, but it sometimes leads to awkward sentences. A novel written in past tense gives more opportunities for reflection and larger context. This is one of the most important decisions you can make about your book.
Does your draft begin at the start of the story? It’s very common for writers to start out with a lot of backstory, character introductions and descriptions. This can be very valuable for you, as it helps you learn about the book you want to write. But the readers don’t necessarily need to see it. It is best to start the story as close to the start of the central conflict as possible.
Are there any plot holes or redundancies in the story? Are there any chapters that should be cut out entirely? Do you need to add another chapter or two?
Break Your Changes Down Into Steps
Now that you know what you want to change, it can feel overwhelming to actually sit down and do it. Just like when you wrote your first draft, it’s best to set manageable goals. If you realize that you need to add three chapters that focus on your second main character, set dates for when you want to finish each one. For me, I like to write a little slower now than when I wrote my first draft.
Set some time aside to work on your first and last chapters. These are the most important parts of your book.
For your first chapter you want to consider the following:
Can the reader identify the main characters and do we learn something about their personalities? Make sure that the characters aren’t just introduced with backstory and description. The best way a reader can get a sense of a character’s personality is by watching them interact with other characters and make decisions in real time.
Does the reader learn when and where the story takes place? We shouldn’t get three chapters in and then learn that the story takes place in Victorian England. The setting should be established as quickly as possible. Sensory details, like smells and sounds, are important throughout the book, but especially in the first chapter.
Is there a hint of danger? The whole conflict doesn’t need to be spelled out in the first chapter, but there should be a mystery or a hook that makes the reader want to keep going.
For you final chapter you want to consider the following:
Does the ending come too suddenly? A good ending should feel like a surprise but not a cheat. The crisis of the story should not be resolved with a deus ex machina or coincidence. Make sure your all your main characters are active, not passive, and making choices that lead to the conclusion.
Did you leave any loose ends? Make sure you resolve all the subplots and character arcs. Think about the overall themes of the book as well, and what final statements you’d like to make about them.
Does the ending leave room for interpretation? Nobody wants to be told “and they all lived happily ever after” these days. Give the reader space to imagine what the future holds for your characters.
Pull Out a Fine Tooth Comb
Now that you’ve gotten the big things out of the way, it’s time to get to the sentence level edits. For a lot of writers, myself included, this is the most fun part about writing. Small word changes can make a big change in the emotional impact of a line. It can be satisfying to learn to pull these emotional punches. Words are power.
You want to find any awkward sentences, redundant phrases and clichés. One pet-peeve of mine is similes that sound pretty but don’t add anything to the story, so I always do a CTRL-F search for the words “like” and “as” to find all my similes and cut any that seem unnecessary.
In this stage, you want to read your novel aloud, maybe many times. It’s a big book, so break it down and do one chapter a day. Instead of reading it out loud myself, sometimes I like to use a text to speech reader while I edit the text. For me, this is the most effective way to find typos and other small mistakes.
Now that you’ve gotten the best draft that you can, it’s time to see what readers think. There are a few ways to solicit feedback. You can always start by asking your friends and family. They will usually be excited to see what you’ve created and willing to read it without asking for anything in return. However, friends and family are often too generous with their critiques, especially if they aren’t writers themselves. Another option is to hire a professional editor, but they can be expensive.
If you don’t have the money for an individual editor, you can find a writing group or take a writing class. I teach writing classes online and in greater Boston, which you can learn more about here.
In a writing class, you will get feedback on your writing in exchange for giving feedback to others. Reading the work of other aspiring writers is a great way to learn more about writing. Not only are you getting practice examining a manuscript critically, but you now know other writers who can give you tips and tricks. Having a network of writing friends is one of the surest ways to grow as a writer.