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.”