Friday, February 11, 2011

Thoughts on Writing Longhand vs. on Computer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I grew up writing reports for school in longhand. When I really wanted to make a report fancy, I used a typewriter.

Computers in high school and college were rare. The odd Apple IIE was in the county library or the school’s lab. The computers bombed a lot and the printers were unreliable. I stuck with my Brother typewriter that had the capability of remembering a line of text. I could look at the line and correct it on the tiny screen before it printed out.

When I was an intern at a London magazine in college, I was given the assignment to report on spring fashion. The editor wanted it later that afternoon. There was no internet then (no internet that was accessible to regular people, at least), so I looked out the window at what people were wearing and wrote it into the story. I jotted it down in longhand on paper, then typed it up.

In fact, that’s how I wrote everything—on paper before copying it over on the typewriter.

When I started novel writing, I naturally gravitated to paper. I found it very disorganized, though—I wrote out of order sometimes and there were scenes that needed to be in other parts of the story. And frequently I knew I was writing stuff that was helping me know a character better, but it was material that was going to get axed before the last draft. I used lots of highlighters and actual scissors to help me organize my scenes.

It didn’t take me long to realize that to write faster and reach the deadlines that were starting to mount up, I needed to switch over to a computer. Besides, I’d frequently lose the different pieces of paper that my story was on.

I learned how to be creative on the computer. But I kept revising on paper. I’d print out my manuscript (which is a lot of paper, if you think about 270 or so pages, single-sided) and then I’d take the manuscript with me everywhere. I’d pull it out of my huge pocketbook and edit it while waiting for school to let out, etc.

I do think that sometimes reading on paper can help find errors that reading on a screen can’t. But still—it was a really slow process. I’d have to turn pages on the manuscript, find the change on the page, find the spot on the computer, make the change…and then make sure I’d marked that I’d made the change or else I’d forget where I left off. It was also expensive and a waste of resources to print out that much paper…and I’d keep printing new versions of the manuscript to reflect changes. I switched to revising on the computer.

My struggle and eventual switch to mainly-electronic writing made me especially interested in a post on A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing. It involved a study (VANWAES, L., & SCHELLENS, P. (2003). Writing profiles: the effect of the writing mode on pausing and revision patterns of experienced writers Journal of Pragmatics,) on typing vs. longhand. You can read the study yourself, but I’ll quote a few of the findings (directly from Livia Blackburne’s blog:

1. The computer writers took half as much time to write the first draft than pen and paper writers.
2. The computer writers wrote texts that were approximately 20% longer.
3. The computer writers had a more fragmented writing process than the pen and paper writers.
4. Computer writers made 80% of the revisions in their first draft, as compared to pen and paper writers, who made only 50% of revisions in the first draft.

The authors observed that pen and paper writing seemed a more systematic and planned out process. This makes sense because it's harder to make a change on pencil and paper. With computer writing, you can just start writing and make changes as you go along.

This was similar to what I’d found with my own writing. It might have been nicer to write on paper (in many ways, I find it more enjoyable), but it sure is a whole lot quicker to write on the computer.

My writing friend, Hart Johnson, ran an informal survey on her blog a while back. She was curious about the ages and backgrounds of writers who wrote longhand, vs. those who wrote on the computer. She found that the writer’s age was a factor (anyone who grew up on a computer was obviously going to find writing on a computer more natural) but also what else the writer did on a computer—if their day job was really uncreative, they might associate the computer with the non-creative day job and write longhand instead.

Do you write longhand? On computer? Or both?


Lois Winston said...

I guess I'm the exception to the rule going by Hart's informal survey. I grew up using a manual typewriter, not even electric, but I've never written longhand. I've always found my thoughts flow better and faster if I'm typing them out. Thanks to an 8th grade mandatory typing class, I can type somewhere between 60 - 70 wpm. Writing by hand? I'd probably still be on my first ms.

G.M. Malliet said...

That bit about associating computer tasks with the day job resonated with me. I write in longhand - and that is partly why - but am ever so grateful for the computer once I am dealing with a big unwieldy manuscript.

I still find pen and paper easier to reach for when jotting down ideas. Powering up a computer can be a pain.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Oh, I'm *so* slow on longhand. Typing, I'm a speedy 90-100 wpm. I may *think* better on paper, though.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Gin--I think brainstorming is easier on paper...for me, anyway.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I can do nothing with pen and paper. I can barely write a grocery list longhand. My brain and my fingers are welded together thanks to fifty years of typing. I can see how people relate non-creative work to using a computer, but I've been using typewriters and computers for both for so long the two are separated by the type of task at hand rather than the mechanics of doing it.

Beth Groundwater said...

Another factor in using the computer vs a pen and aging is PAIN. Writing longhand for any period of time (like writing personal notes on Christmas cards and addressing them) hurts my aging hands. But I can type most of the day on a computer with no or minimal pain. I'm careful about holding my hands in the correct position above the keyboard to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, though. I had a flareup once and had to wear a splint for awhile.

Darrell James said...

I don't know how anyone ever completed a manuscript long hand, though I know some still do. Without cut/paste, edit/delete, and do-overs I'd never get anything written. As for typing, I'm pretty slow. But that's okay, I don't think much faster.

Keith Raffel said...

I still remember writing my graduate thesis out in longhand and then typing what I'd written. I'm with Sue Ann. I couldn't do that anymore. My brain and fingers have developed a seamless connection.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Interesting post! I usually find writing on computer effortless, although if I'm without I can scribble out a scene. When I get stuck, however, I often switch to pen and paper for a while--the different process sometimes jiggles my brain somehow, and new thoughts shake out.

An aside - anybody remember having to format footnotes when typing a paper? Measuring up from the bottom of the page?

G.M. Malliet said...

"Anybody remember having to format footnotes when typing a paper? Measuring up from the bottom of the page?"
YES. That was the worst. I wasted more paper because the first four times the *&^%$# footnote ran off the page.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Sue Ann--I've gotten to be pretty much the same. If I'm writing a note to my children's teacher, I'm typing it. I just type almost everything now.

Beth--That is a very good point. I get writer's cramp quickly if I'm writing longhand. I'm a little concerned about carpel tunnel, though.

Darrell--Remember the old correction tape in the typewriter? We'd have to type the mistake over and over again until it whited out. Ahh...those were crazy days.

Keith--I wouldn't be able to *read* what I wrote. My handwriting is just horrible.

Kathleen--I do the same thing when I'm stuck. Isn't it funny how it helps?

Oh YES! *Footnotes*! Oh, that was just an insane process.

Mary Vaughn said...

Characters and research are in notebooks. That just seems to work best for me when I'm moving along. More and more everything else is being done on the computer. Someday I may have to go to voice to text because of nerve damage in my right hand.
Maybe that's why I encourage people to be open to change. You never know done the line what you may have to overcome to do the things you love to do.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Mary--Very good point. If writing is important to us, we'll find a way to do it--longhand, computer, or speech to text. :)

Alice Loweecey said...

I'm a total mixture of styles. I learned on a manual typewriter--to this day I still bang my keyboards. If I'm tired of staring at a computer screen, or if it's a beautiful day, I'll write outside longhand with a fountain pen. I love the flow of ink. Sometimes it makes the words flow too. But when I'm outlining, it's a spreadsheet all the way.

Anonymous said...

I compose exclusively on my laptop but I will make notes on paper (curiously, only with a fine point mechanical pencil) if a computer is not handy. I probably write a few thousand words a week on paper, but they are merely notes. The continuous creative work is done on a computer.

I wonder if fruitful analogies could be made with the transition from quill pens to fountain pens, and then from fountain pens to ballpoint pens. Increasing convenience must have had its effects on process for a long time, lamented or discussed at the time but later forgotten.

If, as the survey found, writers tend to write faster and more on computers, then it is the mechanism for me. I'd much rather face a situation where I have too many words than not enough.

Also, I always keep my computer running. That's the point of a convenient tool, isn't it? My problem is finding the quiet and relative solitude I need for creative writing.

Julia Buckley said...

I've always loved pens and paper and any excuse to use them. Back in the 80s I did start jotting my books on pads and scraps of paper.

But now, despite my continued love for stationery supplies, I do just about everything on the computer--even lists--because I type so much more rapidly than I write.

Anonymous said...

Longhand, all the way. Better for the brain and the art.