For a recent feature assignment, I tried something new. In a sense, it was the most retro of tricks: writing the first draft longhand.
I have done this in the past when I’ve needed to crank out copy during a flight’s takeoff and landing or when laptop batteries were waning out of reach of a plug. What I had noticed about these experiences was that the process seemed a little less painful. Writing the words by hand made me less likely to reject them; I had already made a tiny commitment to them through the scratching of my pen. Crossing off is harder and messier than pushing the backspace button, and the physical continuity of paper kept me exploring a direction I might otherwise have abandoned at the first hint of struggle. With this in mind, I decided to take up the technique by choice instead of desperation.
Once I got a bunch of words down, I had an easy busywork task to do—typing in what I had written. Behold! I had something to work with. The blank page had somehow been laid with a rough, rough draft. It took the edge off the misery of that first step.
To explore this further, I sought the advice of SciLance’s resident expert on longhand, Anne Sasso (bio), who does nearly all of her writing on a stack of scratch paper using a Pentel P205 mechanical pencil with 0.5mm HB lead. Anne says:
“I always used to think that I was hopelessly antiquated and wasted all kinds of time with my technique but then I realized that it’s quite efficient. I get the first round of editing done as I type and then it’s just a question of fussing, fiddling, and tweaking. Sometimes, the structure gets rearranged. But I’m often surprised at what’s there when I print it out because while I was scribbling, it sounded like total crap.”
I only got through the first third of my 1800-word story on paper before I lost momentum and typed in what I had. Still, that was enough to put a scaffold in place that made the rest of the article easier to write on-screen. (Anne says she also stalls out before she gets to the end. She jumps to another section as she writes if she gets stuck.)
One other obvious benefit of the pen-on-paper approach is that Twitter, Facebook and other distractions do not exist on notebook pages. Though neither Anne nor I isolate ourselves from the computer while we write, writing longhand does reduce the siren call of social media and email during the writing process.
All in all, I’d say it was a success. (Here’s the published story at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) I’m pretty sure I’ll do it again. Frankly, I’ll do anything that makes writing a first draft less painful.
Any other real-pen-wielding writers out there? Confess! Any tips?
Image credit: Jessica Marshall