8 ways writing longhand frees your muse

8 Ways Writing Longhand Frees Your Muse

Whenever I crack open a hefty volume of Dickens, I’m inevitably overwhelmed by the realization that this entire 800-page novel was written by hand. The writer’s bump on my middle finger throbs just thinking about it. Without doubt, our 21st-century technologic additions are a decided blessing. But we’ve also lost some things along the road to the future. We’ve amped up distractions and made it far too easy to stifle creativity by editing and tweaking before a thought is even half-formed.

Returning to the caveman technology of pen and paper can have a surprisingly freeing effect on our muses. Although I write my first drafts on the computer, I’ve learned to free my imagination in the first rush of creation by writing my outlines longhand in a notebook. In the process, I’ve gained a number of benefits.

Writing longhand…

1. Discourages the tendency to censor or edit.

Removing the temptation to glance up at a previous paragraph and switch out words and phrases allows my raw thoughts to flow onto the page. I don’t judge them, I don’t edit them, I don’t censor them. I just pour them out.

2. Brings writing down to a primal level.

There’s something about the tactile experience of ink on paper that is inimitable. It presents a return to writing in a purer, more instinctive form, without the intercession of complicated electric tools.

3. Removes us from our notes.

Moving our writing away from the computer also means removing ourselves from our notes. Instead of relying on old scraps of inspiration, we’re able to produce what the story needs as it needs it from the well of our subconscious. The results are often startlingly cohesive and powerful.

4. Provides a change of pace.

When we’re stumped by a tough story problem or even general burnout, changing our location and our methods can sometimes be just the trick for jumpstarting our creativity.

5. Frees imagination by allowing sloppiness.

Something about the near illegibility of my handwriting seems to break down my need for perfection. Instead of toiling over word choice, I’m able to dash down my thoughts as quickly as they come to me. I find this particularly vital in the early creative stages.

6. Frees us from distractions.

Pen and paper physically remove us from the computer and all its distractions, including the siren song of the Internet.

7. Allows a critical editing during transcription.

The necessity of transcribing our notes onto the computer allows us the opportunity to apply a critical eye to what we’ve written, once the first rush of creativity is past.

8. Gives us an instant hard copy.

Unless your house burns down, your handwritten hardcopies aren’t likely to randomly self-destruct as computer files are known to do. Even if you lose your notes after you’ve typed them up, you’ll always have a hardcopy as backup.

I love my technology. I love typing. I love the clean look of my Times New Roman letters appearing on the virginal white of my screen. Sometimes I even love that taunting blink of the cursor. But writing longhand is an invaluable technique my writing would suffer without. In a recent Writer’s Digest article, freelance author Dick Dickinson agreed:

In today’s stream-of-consciousness world of e-mail, text, Facebook and Twitter, initials become sentences and words take flight before thoughts are well-formed. What to do? Well, are you ready to turn the clock back, oh, a few centuries? To hone concentration and put consideration back into your writing, and for a striking change of pace, try using a … pen. Consider the advantages: There is no insert, spell check, cut and paste, or delete; just your words drawn on paper with an ancient technique.

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is a very individual choice. I can use longhand for brainstorming out a chapter or an idea, but writing actual prose–I actually do worse! This might have to do with the chaotic way I write. Even typing on a typewriter was just as bad as writing longhand. Computer is more friendly for me because it gives me to hop around at will, which the other two options do not. I can’t go back and add a sentence I thought of easily; if I scratch a paragraph I’ve thought better of it, it looks more discouraging than like the story is taking shape.

    I’m also a lousy typist to start with. My fingers can fly over the keyboard, but I’m also in a constant state of backspace this, backspace that, and I still make a ton of mistakes. Never the same mistake. If I were to take something longhand, I would make three times as many mistakes than if I just typed in straight. So that also adds to the feeling that writing by hand is more work than it’s worth.

  2. I think this is so true! I’m not about to give up my computer, however, I think it’s true that we put words on a electronic page so quickly that we don’t take time to think about what we’re actually writing. And it’s so easy to go back and change a word here and a sentence there while we’re actually in the process of getting words down, that it’s distracting sometimes.

    I’m definitely going to think about this the next time I’m stuck in my writing. Thank you!

  3. I used to love sitting down with a pad and pen. My handwriting stinks, but somehow it just felt good. There is a different kind of connection with our words when we hand write them. Love this idea and will try it – that is if my arthritis will allow.
    I especially like the editing advantage while you transcribe. :)

  4. I used to only be able to write stories longhand. Now I can do either. But reasons 1 – 6 don’t really apply: I still edit, I still stare blankly at the empty page, I still get distracted, I still look at my notes (usually on scraps of paper), I still worry over word choice…

    But I did hear that the main difference about writing longhand and typing is the parts of the brain. Because you use both hands to type (hopefully), you use both sides of your brain; but writing longhand only uses the creative side.

    P.S. The numbers are off in the poll. I voted for #9 assuming it was supposed to be #7 – a definite advantage when moving the story to the computer.

  5. @Linda: I have to type my drafts as well. I actually value the urge for perfectionism during the actual writing phase. Not being able to go back and correct myself ad I write would drive me crazy.

    @Andria: Writing longhand wad something I discovered as the result of a minor bout of writer’s block years ago. It’s been one of my mist valued tool ever since.

    @Jan: There’s something very special about pen on paper. I love just flipping back through the inky pages.

    @Jenn: How interesting about the different sides the brain becoming involved during typing vs. handwriting. I hadn’t heard that before, but it makes sense. You’re absolutely right about the poll! That’s what happens when I do these things late at night, I guess. I’ll get that fixed. Thanks for pointing it out!

  6. Great post. I discovered writing longhand works better for me. I don’t sit there staring blankly at the screen, nor do I worry about misspellings or if something looks right. I sit down and start writing, letting the thoughts flow. It’s very freeing. Plus when a thought comes to mind about something else in the story, I can jot it down in the side margin.

    Plus, like you said, when typing it up, I find myself expanding upon and adding to what I’ve written. Yes, some minor editing comes into play, but I try not to get into major editing since it is a draft.

    And I can write anywhere versus being tied to my computer inside. Love sitting outside on my patio, listening to nature, while I write.

  7. I think the magic of writing longhand, for me, is that allows me to make mistakes. My handwriting is so atrocious anyway that I don’t have to worry about keeping the page looking nice. I can cross out lines, write all over the margins, even doodle if I want. And, you’re right, it is very freeing!

  8. Even though I use a laptop, there are sometimes when it’s impractical to haul a laptop around. That’s why when I was doing the first draft of my first sci-fi-ish project, I handwrote the whole thing. I could take it on the boat, I could do it easily in a car (no matter how much you turn the brightness up, my laptop cannot seem to get bright enough on battery power in direct sunshine!) The only thing that was tough was trying to find something I’d referenced earlier! :)

    As long as you’ve got a good pen (I prefer Uniball’s Signo pens) and a decently hard surface to write on, you’re good to go. I like that about writing by hand.

    But, I’m still doing my next projects on the laptop.

  9. I like the balance of using both pen and computer. My brain works well when I categorize its tasks, so dividing certain stages of the writing process into longhand and typing is beneficial for my process. And I’ll agree that the Signo is a great pen!

  10. I occasionally do the pen and paper thing, but my thoughts tend to flow faster than I can write, then I get frustrated. If I type, I can usually get the idea down before it vaporizes.

    But I agree that it is freeing and writing in a fresh way with a different background tends to shake the muse awake.

    Just sitting on my porch with pen and paper or taking my notebook into places where my computer can’t come (don’t have a laptop)has been very helpful.

    BTW: my favorite pen is Dr. Grip by Pilot. It’s supposed to be good for arthritis and bad wrists. It costs about $8, but you can buy refills for it instead of tossing it when the ink runs out. :)

  11. What you mentioned is exactly why I’ve never tried to do my actual writing longhand. But I like the fact that writing longhand forces me to slow down during the early stages. At that point it’s more about developing the idea than capturing it perfectly on paper.

  12. It’s interesting you would post this, because during NaNoWriMo last year, I tried both ways. Handwriting was great when I couldn’t access the computer, but this one online program named “Write or Die” really had me churning out the words. I can pump the words either way, I guess.

  13. Adaptability is a good trait for writers. If we lock ourselves into a certain routine and think that’s the *only* way we can write, we’re severely limiting ourselves.

  14. I was about to say I lean more toward the computer–I type faster than I write and fear losing the thought. But then I read Jenn’s comment about how writing longhand only uses the creative side. I’m sold! I want the creative side to win out, hands down, so I will do more writing with pen and notebook first.

    And to think this post has offered up suggestions for good pens, too. Can’t wait now to get to Office Max!

  15. You may decide writing longhand isn’t for you. But it’s definitely worth a try, in my opinion!

  16. I love to write longhand. The only problem is now I have notebooks upon notebooks that need transcribing. But it is refreshing for the muse, as you say.

  17. Admittedly, all that transcribing that be hard on your wrists. I try to get my notes transcribed as soon as I’m finished with them, both because the material is fresh in my mind and because I don’t want to let it pile up.

  18. I love it because I can do longhand anywhere..the local cafe, on a picnic, on the couch. It frees up my imagination, forces me to keep going without editing.

  19. Portability is a big plus. I don’t often take advantage of it, though, just because I often have a difficult time concentrating in hectic or noisy atmospheres.

  20. I had been struggling recently with writing scripts. The idea of typing it on the blank comp screen actually scared me! Then I remembered, I used to always handwrite first.

    In Jr. High, I had a teacher that required us to write rough drafts with pencil and paper. Didn’t like it then, but I think it actually works best for me. I’m able to just get it all out without worrying about how it looks and format issues because it isn’t what I’m gong to be showing anyone else! Then I naturally edit as I type it into the computer. I usually don;t do too much editing afterwards. It’s cool. :)

    Anyways, I spat out a scene in just a few minutes with handwriting yesterday. I’m definitely going to be doing that more often. It’s also healthier than letting the computer waves get ya even more!

  21. What is it about that big white computer screen that can be so terrifying? Eliminating the need to format is definitely a benefit of writing by hand. Nothing breaks your flow of inspiration faster than having to stop and look for the right button.

  22. lol it’s the fact that on the screen, it looks done, but I know it’s not. and I really don’t like writing it unless I’m sure it’s pretty much the way I want it. I know, something I got to get over. ;) lol. Oh well, more paper and pen for me!

  23. I prefer to know where I’m going with the story as well, which is why I outline. Writing blind – and making many false starts as a result – is something I relegate to longhand writing, not typing.

  24. I love the tactile experience of writing with a pencil and/or the look of the script on the page (especially when I use different color pens). The scratching against the paper is musical. However, I use *that* as a launching point to writing my fiction on the computer.

    When I freewrite or brainstorm, I prefer the old fashioned method, but my hand starts to cramp up after awhile and it’s frustrating not to be able to put those thoughts down! I actually wrote a rough draft novel (editing now) that started with the question of whether Shakespeare would have been such a literary genius if he hadn’t been forced to handwrite, if he’d had access to computers, etc.

    Your article was very insightful and informative. I very much enjoyed reading it.

  25. Sounds like a great premise! I would dearly love to know how the great classics might have differed had they been written using modern tools – and vice versa for the modern greats.

  26. I discovered something similar while taking a revision course. The teacher had us write all the scenes we wanted to add to our ms by hand and then type them up.

    I thought this would be a total waste of time, but as it turned out, I got so much more emotion, conflict, and setting into each of those scenes because my brain and muse and time to connect and communicate as I was writing.

    I will always revise longhand from now on.

  27. There’s a lot to be said for the speed of typing, but there’s also a lot to be said for the slowness of writing by hand. Both sides of the coin have their benefits.

  28. Dear K.M. “Automatic handwriting” is what got me started as a writer, no really. Used by the Dadaïsts as stream of conscious writing and coined as Writing down the Bones (what the hell is that I asked at the first ever writing group I attended in the U.S.), oh, automatic handwriting I deducted after the wary glances of the other writers and a reluctant (what is she doing here) explanation of the group’s hostess.
    Imagine my distress when my right arm no longer wished to perform the way it ought to for handwriting. Typing is what is left for me, and while I’ve overcome my sorrow, and found a way to get down my stream of consciousness, I still miss handwriting for every aspect you mention in your post.

  29. I can scribble notes, possible plot points or character traits. I can make lists of brainstorm ideas. I write scene summaries on post-it notes and stick them on my tracking board.

    But I can’t write a scene–or much of anything in longhand. I can’t write fast enough–I can type about as fast as I think. And then I can’t read what I’ve written.

    I hate workshops where they give prompts and make you write longhand. I need a pen with cut and paste.

  30. K.M. On another note, your name works associative. How fun to read about you chasing Billy the Kid and Jesse James on horseback. Before my eye caught your “sandy hills” I imagined the sand paths leading through the forests and meadow(s) (“weiland” = meadow in Dutch) of my childhood.

  31. @Carla, Transcription can be tedious, especially when you’ve left decades of notebooks unattended. However, I do remember what happened roughly in which years, and often draw material from the notebooks on my shelves. I’m considering to get a voice recognition program to use for transcribing certain sections of my notebooks. With ‘stream of consciousness writing” there’s a lot that doesn’t need to be transcribed anyway.

  32. @Judith: Sorry you’re no longer able to pursue handwriting. But at least you’re still able to type! If I ever get to the point where I have to dictate my work, I’ll probably have to throw in the towel. Not many forests in western Nebraska, but lots of meadowlands/prairie. Wide open spaces are our specialty!

    @Terry: Sounds like a worthy invention! I can think of several authors who would probably fork over their cash for a pen with cut and paste.

  33. I enjoyed this post. :) I really prefer writing with pen and paper but have been forced to turn to my computer for time’s sake. I still use a notebook for my brainstorming and notes though, which I think keeps me grounded.

  34. There’s something special about pen and paper. Always makes me feel like a “real” writer. ;)

  35. I love that I can doodle and brainstorm and cluster by hand. And I used to write on notebook paper that I stored in a 3-ring leather notebook. Not the best way, I’ve been told because of the tendency to rip out pages, though I don’t think I ever did that. I used to use one of those fountain pens with the cartridges, too. Made me feel so writerly. Wonder if they still make those?

  36. Somebody gave me a calligraphy pen and bottle of ink once. I never did any serious writing with it, but it was lots of fun!

  37. I still enjoy writing small parts of scenes and ideas in a notebook. I like to jot little thoughts/notes in the margins, scribbles about characters, etc…but the bulk of my writing is on my MacBook.
    I’ll always have a soft spot for paper and pen, though.

  38. At the end of the day, I’m a computer girl. But I’d be loathe to entirely surrender my trusty pad and pen!

  39. I love this post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (and trying to do more of it). In fact, your post inspired the post on my blog today!

  40. Better crack out those pens then! :)

  41. I enjoy writing longhand when brainstorming, working out something that has me stuck, or writing poetry. The journal in my purse is a lot smaller than my laptop and doesn’t require a battery or other electrical power, so I can break it out anywhere (and often do).

    However, having lost almost all my possessions to a certain hurricane in ’05, I will never again be without a laptop and a portable hard drive as backup. The only writing that survived that catastrophe was what I had mixed in with the files I packed for the evacuation. I lost a lot of my poetry and a few stories I’d written (none publication worthy, but still…), and I determined that would never happen again.

    Now, I realize I could lose my electronic files too, but the laptop and PHD are a lot easier to evacuate than piles of notebooks, so I’ll chance it.

    Besides, I generally produce more with my laptop than my notebook. I think it’s because my hand falls asleep if I grip my pen too long…

  42. Whenever I try to figure out what I’ll grab first should my house ever catch fire in the middle of the night, my writing is always on top of the list. So sorry you lost your poems. That sort of thing is irreplaceable!

  43. I journal and I have tons of journals going back to the 80′s. There is something about a blank piece of paper and a pen that gets me going. However, if I’m writing speech or material to be published I use pen and paper to mind map (have several notebooks of them too) as opposed to writing a formal outline or prose. Handwriting works well with creating poetry I’ve found. I started back writing poetry last year and have already taken up two journals of mind-maps and rough drafts.

    I’ve noted this before: it is interesting how ebooks are becoming popular but journals (of all shapes and sizes) and pens are becoming just as popular, if not more so.

  44. Interesting comment about poetry and longhand writing. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I’d have to agree. I think it’s because poetry is such an organic process. Writing it by hand brings you closer to the words.

  45. VERY well said! I personally find myself more creative and less editor mode every time I write long-hand. I often write my best stuff when I am on the recumbant bike exercising away while writing with pen and paper. I previously thought that was perhaps due to more blood going to my brain…but maybe its just the act of writing with pen by itself. What I have found crucial to this process, however, is having a really nice smooth-flowing ball point pen. I wonder what it was like writing 800 pages with quill and ink well…

  46. As a rabid multi-tasker, it’s often been my goal to somehow fuse my exercising with some other task. For a while, I managed to get some reading done on the Nordic Trac, but I switched to skipping rope, and my hands became too busy!

  47. I discovered my love of writing at an early age, and while my family did have a computer I was allowed to use, I wrote all of my stories in notebooks and stray sheets of paper (I still have some of them!). There was something about holding a copy of my stories, the scratching sound of the pen or pencil, and my messy handwriting (which I’m ashamed to admit is just as messy years later) that brought out the creativity in me.

    Now, I write all stories, blog posts, etc. on my computer, because it’s easier, faster, and more convenient, and I personally like it better. Still, I like to write notes about my book longhand. Hm, you’ve inspired me. Maybe I’ll actually write something on paper tonight with a… what are those things called? Pencils? Yeah, that’s the word ;)

  48. My mother despaired over my handwriting. I always told her that sloppy handwriting was a sign of genius. ;)

  49. I can never think of a time when I’m not writing something down, either via my laptop or in the writing journal/dream journal I keep by my nightstand when I feel inspired to keep track of things in my head, among other places. I use a balance of both writing electronically and traditionally. Notably, when I’m on the go, I can’t haul my laptop with me, and sometimes I don’t feel like jotting down things via my Ipod Touch (though it does come in handy in some measures), so I carry my favorite ink pen and pad and I’m ready to go. Another advantage to writing with pen and paper: the pretty ink pens. :) Something about writing with my favorite pen gives a little extra step in my day, especially when a good idea comes to mind.

  50. I love my iTouch for portability, but, I agree, it can be a pain to use in typing out long notes. Sometimes writing something out by hand is just plain faster and easier.

  51. Actually, Dickens was a professional shorthand reporter. It’s still a feat, but not as hard on the hand as long-hand. Shorthand was considered a useful gentlemanly skill in that era.

    I prefer paper for lists and offline research, even some online research. Copying links or chunks of text is easiest online. For writing, though, I’ve lost the feel for paper. I’m too used to being able to throw something down, then edit it. Also, I type faster than I write (assuming I want to read it again). Sometimes I even type notes to the kids’ teachers, edit, then handwrite them!

  52. I believe it. Before the advent of the typewriter, I’m sure people used every shortcut they had at their disposal to lessen the physical stress of longhand writing.

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  1. […] started doing some trusty Googling and sure enough, there is quite a bit out there about the perks (and some drawbacks) of writing longhand – specifically writing first and even second drafts […]

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