One question I am asked frequently about my writing process is why I write the first draft of any project by hand. In this digital age where we have mini-computers in our pockets at any given point, laptops, tablets, and other devices, some people find it strange that I like to carry a notebook and a dozen pencils everywhere.
It’s not that I have never written a novel’s first draft on a computer. Bound to the Heart, apart from the first couple of chapters, was typed up rather than written down. The novel was part of a travel course in college, so I only had about four months to complete the first draft (though I will admit to doing the majority of plotting and character development over the break between semesters).
I had wanted to write the first draft of Bound to the Heart by hand as I had done for Guises to Keep, but time was a factor and not necessarily on my side. Guises to Keep took four years to finish. I didn’t have that long to do that with Bound to the Heart, so I resorted to technology.
A few months after graduation, I started working on Against His Vows, which I am writing by hand. I’m only about halfway done, and it’s been about eight months. Granted, I am also editing Guises to Keep at the same time in addition to creating new content for this blog and have a job so I’m a little more spread out than I was with Bound to the Heart (which I made my sole writing focus at the time).
I am well aware I work quicker with a computer, but I have not digitized my writing process yet.
This week is all about why I prefer to keep things analog.
One of the things I noticed with Bound to the Heart was my inner perfectionist coming out more than it did with Guises to Keep. I can only attribute a part of this to it being a graded assignment. Seeing the story unfold on screen in a Word document rather than in a notebook had a bit of finality to it.
I think this is because a digital first draft generally looks cleaner than one that is written by hand. On paper, you get smudges and eraser marks or wrinkles and tears and other things that mar the page, whereas any changes on a digital version are neatly taken care of by a simple press of the Backspace key. With that, there is no evidence that these changes were made.
However, I like to see proof that I am growing as a writer. I like seeing that my notebook is a little beaten up and worn. It’s not perfect, but it’s fitting for the first draft.
First drafts are also more personal to me. With a computer, the text is crisper. Yes, you can mess around with fonts to make it look handwritten, but there is still a sense of uniformity. Every D will be the same, as will every T and every J. Writing by hand, there are little differences between letters. Sometimes I’ll write in cursive, sometimes I’ll print. The spacing changes depending on my posture. The words develop a slant as I’m writing faster in an effort to capture my thoughts in the moment. It feels like there’s more of me in a handwritten draft than a typed one.
And those little quirks can actually be really helpful to me later on as I’m typing things up because they can help me see how a scene flows. If the words are further apart, that might mean I wasn’t as invested in the dialogue at that moment and need to write a more captivating conversation to draw readers in. A scene I move through quickly might be one I want to slow down and explore in a greater depth.
As Terry Pratchett once said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” and writing it by hand can help me explore it on a level that a computer might not.
Disconnecting From Distractions
Technology is a marvelous thing. The internet is a personal favorite of mine. We are able to connect with people all over the world and learn new things about subjects we love and discover new interests.
But the internet is also one of the greatest hinderances in my writing process. As an easily-distracted person, it doesn’t take long for me to bounce around and end up miles away from the thing I was actually setting out to do. I might be researching a specific topic, but bounce over to social media for a second, then wind up on a completely unrelated topic. Meanwhile, I’ve got YouTube or Netflix playing in another window, so I get sucked into that.
And nothing productive happens.
With a handwritten first draft, it is so much easier to disconnect from those distractions and focus on the task at hand. If anything, I’ll have my laptop open to Pandora or Spotify for music but keep it a good distance away.
Plus a notebook doesn’t require WiFi or a charger, so it’s pretty infallible in that sense and brings me to my next point.
I started Guises to Keep during my freshman year of high school. At that time, I didn’t have my own computer. I did, however, go through several binders with sheets of loose-leaf paper. And I carried them with me everywhere. Between classes, in the cafeteria, on the bus, or just wherever I was when I happened to have a few minutes to jot something down.
Even now, although I do have a laptop and go back and forth about getting a tablet, I like being able to write on the go and know that wherever I am, I can take advantage of any time I might have and not have to worry about lugging my computer everywhere to do it.
Just as I do with the paper edits phase in my editing process, I make notes in the margins as I’m working through the first draft. These may include things like reminding myself to research something to make sure it’s accurate to the time period or expanding on a description, a character who might need more of a presence as well as a note to add things to other chapters like going back to incorporate the bracelet a character is wearing in the current chapter so it appears in the second.
While there are ways I could do it in a digital version, it always seems to take more time than it would to jot things down as I do on paper (there may be a quicker way I’m not familiar with). At this point, when I’m editing, I’ll throw an asterisk at points I need to go back to so I can search for them later on.
Writing things down also helps me to remember them, which prevents the chance of my forgetting to make a significant change for several drafts.
A Classic Act
Let me preface this by saying I do not intend to compare myself to the likes of the greats. I know I am not even remotely able to match them in talent. But in method, I am close.
When we consider who those greats are, authors such as Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens come to mind first.
These writers did things the “old-fashioned way,” a term I’ve put in quotation marks because this would have been contemporary in their time.
While we can giggle at the thought of the Bronte sisters carting their laptops to the local Starbucks and sitting down to write over a Pumpkin Spice Latte and scones, this would not have been the case. They, like so many others, worked simply with a pen and paper.
As a historical fiction author, there’s just something about the feeling of writing a novel by hand. I have an actual quill and ink set that I’m learning how to write with, as well as ballpoint quills just for that reason. I love being able to write as my characters would have while I’m shaping their stories. It’s more intimate and personal to me, and that’s what I like to have when writing character-driven stories.
Writing by hand is not necessarily the perfect way of doing things. I’ve lost many a notebook to a drink knocked over by a clumsy cat. Sometimes the pencil marks or ink fades. Sometimes a page falls out and you’re stuck trying to recreate what you had. Or you nearly lose the notebook altogether.
But as it is with so many things, it’s a matter of personal preference. By no means am I saying it is a sin to write your first drafts on a computer. There are a number of advantages a computer can boast that a pen cannot, and many reasons why it makes more sense to embrace technology than to stockpile notebooks.
It just depends on the way you like to work.
I’ll end this on a note not from a writer, but an artist by the name of Jack Dawson.
“I got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper.”