Writing a Novel Longhand

Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oates. Neil Gaiman. Amy Tan. Jhumpa Lahiri. J. K. Rowling. Truman Capote. Vladimir Nabakov.

What do all of these people have in common? They write/wrote their works longhand, with paper and pen or pencil, before typing them up on either typewriter or computer.

There are several reasons to eschew the computer when writing a novel. There are no online distractions or rabbit trails. It is easier to write forward rather than getting stuck in an endless and premature editing cycle. You don’t have to make sure you’re seated by an outlet. Paper and pen are more portable and are not a pain in the TSA screening line. It’s far easier to write outside where the sun might completely obscure a laptop screen. And we know that looking at a screen all day is not good for our eyesight or our sleep cycles.

Recently I read an article about how taking notes longhand improves recall in students (this despite the push to get laptops in schools). I had a laptop in college and I never brought it to class. I didn’t need a study to tell me that physically writing notes on paper helped me remember what I was learning. If I don’t write it down, it’s gone, baby.

I enjoy writing on paper. I have been journaling for about a year and a half in an unlined notebook. I always write my poetry longhand, scratching out verses and changing words and drawing lines on the page before typing them up. But when it comes to fiction, I really haven’t tried it.

Some people can’t imagine writing a novel that way because they write scenes out of order and it is easier to manipulate the document on the screen than it would be on paper. I always write chronologically, starting at the beginning and writing straight through to the end, though I do sometimes go back while drafting and edit what I’ve already written. In revision, I often add entire new scenes earlier in the story, but that could easily be done in the first typewritten draft.

Anyway, this past weekend I got it in my head to try it with whatever I’m writing next. It will mean I won’t be watching word counts rack up (at least, not until I type the second draft) but I have to wonder if I might benefit from it.

Sunday evening I bought a pack of four .8 mm black uni-ball pens and a pack of three narrow-ruled moleskin journals, 120 pages each, for a total of 360 pages, pre-divided into a three act structure. The pens are pink on the outside, distinguishing them from all my other many pens, and will be used solely for writing in these notebooks.

Now, I do have terrible handwriting, especially when my mind is on a roll. And there may be times when my handwriting cannot keep up with my thoughts like my typing fingers would. But I imagine there will be fewer typos (fast typing means fumble fingers sometimes for me) and I won’t feel the need to go back and correct the ones that do occur because I know I will get them in the second, typed draft.

One benefit I can count on is this — because I won’t want to “mess up” these notebooks, I won’t actually start writing the next story until I’ve done a lot of preliminary work with character arcs and plotting and feel fairly confident that I know the story I’m telling before I put pen to paper.

I’ll be sure to let you know how the experiment pans out.

3 thoughts on “Writing a Novel Longhand

  1. Hi Erin, Caught your presentation at Write on the Red Cedar a couple of years ago and started following your blog, which I enjoy. Today’s topic is seredipitous for me because I’m in the middle of writing my next stand-alone mystery and have started this very morning to switch from the computer to longhand. The decision stems from stumbling over the secondary protagonist’s POV. This character’s story takes place pre-computer time and my hope is by returning to pre-computer techniques, his story may flow more easily. We’ll see!

  2. I always write first drafts long hand. Ideas just seem to flow more easily. I do rewrites on computer, something which I struggled with at first.

    My suggestion to you is to not worry about messing up your beautiful notebooks. Just let it flow. My handwriting is terrible. The messier the better! I have a stockpile of old notebooks that my daughters deigned not worth keeping with lots of lined paper that I use for writing. I think I have enough of them to last me through 2025! I just love filling them up, then tearing the pages out after I type them. I save them in a folder until the book is finished, then recycle them.

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