Handwriting Your Novel— Part One

Neil Gaiman does it. J. K. Rowling, too. Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare— most of the greats of English literature have done it.

Yet when I tell people that I write my novels in longhand they react as though I am some kind of exotic creature. Writerii masochisteria, perhaps.

Writing in longhand has been very good for me creatively. I’ve done five of my seven Nanowimo wins writing in longhand, including every novel I ever liked well enough to want to finish and take to the next level. Handwriting is a vital part of my process, even at my technical writing day job.

So, for those of my fellow Confabulators who have expressed a interest, I give you reasons to consider adding longhand to your creative writing toolbox.

“I could never write a novel in longhand because…” The three reasons I hear most often are the fear of losing ideas because handwriting isn’t as fast as either typing or thinking, fear of hand pain, and hatred for the look of your script. Pain and legibility are technical issues I’ll address in future posts in this series. Today I want to talk about longhand and the creative process.

A primary benefit to notebook and pen is that they are infinitely portable. There are no battery or connectivity issues. All you need is a moderately flat surface, and a knee will even work in a pinch. You can write while taking a walk, camping, on an airplane or bus, in a boring seminar— just about anyplace except the shower [0]. Any time you get an idea, you can jot it down right away. You don’t have to get back to your desk, wait for anything to boot, or steal a friend’s phone so you can text yourself.

You also have an instant hard copy, and an automatic archive of your ideas [1]. Plus— added bonus!— your work is private. You can’t get hacked, and Big Brother definitely needs a search warrant before taking a peek.

There is a certain delight to geeking out over stationery and writing implements, and you will be in good company [2]. I wrote this first draft in a $2 composition book from Wal-Mart and with a much beloved fountain pen. You may develop a love for Moleskines and gel pens, or mechanical pencils and legal pads. Even the ubiquitous Bic Crystal Stic has its charms [3]. I have always found good office supply and hardware stores an excellent venue for creative thinking.

Writers often express concern that they can’t handwrite fast enough to keep up with their thoughts. This slowness, however, is actually a feature of longhand, rather than a bug. You have time to consider each sentence, craft it, and find the right word rather than picking up the first word that happens to be lying around. Handwriting is a good way to get past a mental block, too— I’ve often started a timed writing exercise with no idea what I am going to say, so I start out by writing slowly and neatly and by the end of the exercise I’ve ended up someplace I never would have expected.

If you like to draw, a notebook is a great place to incorporate sketches and maps into your work. The transition between text and sketch is seamless.

The Internet is a distraction more easily managed when you’re already offline [4].

Longhand places a hard boundary between composing and editing your text. You can’t go back half a page and tweak a sentence endlessly. Handwriting is inherently messy, with misspellings and crossouts [5] that allow you to eschew perfectionism. Your inner editor will be happily distracted by these issues and forget to criticize your actual creative content.

Even when you do cross things out, those deletions have a permanence. On the computer, they’re just gone, and cannot be recalled, which is a pity when you finally realize you had it right the first time.

As far as editing goes, you get a free first pass edit you when you do transfer your manuscript to the computer. You get an opportunity to do a close read of your text, and chances are you’ll do at least some tweaking and rearranging. If the idea of dumb typing fills you with horror and enuii, why not try dictation software? Reading your work aloud is an excellent way to refine word choices.

Finally, longhand makes your brain work differently than typing. Handwriters pause less frequently when writing, and they tend to pause at the end of sentences and paragraphs, rather than mid-phrase [6]. Longhand is meditative, resulting in increased flow and deep concentration. Handwriting is also an aid to memory and learning.

I find my writing style is much different when I handwrite rather than composing at the keyboard. Keyboarding is more like straight transcription—just the facts, ma’am— while in longhand I am creating ideas, not just recording them. Brainstorming is nearly impossible while typing.

Give handwriting a try. If you haven’t done it in a while, start small, with a journal entry, a five or ten minute writing exercise, or a couple of pages for warmup. Think of it as meditation, as exploration, as a link to all the writers in the past who have also sat exactly as you are, putting pen to paper, and creating something that never existed before.

[0] Since there are waterproof notebooks, writing in the tub isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
[1] Setting up your notebooks for searchability is a topic for a future post.
[2] Check out the Pens, Paper and all that Good Stuff! discussion on the Nanowrimo forums for a sample.
[3] Mostly to my cat, who loves to steal them off my desk and dunk them in his water bowl.
[4] Cats, on the other hand, are a distraction never easily managed.
[5] But without that horrible red undersquiggle staring at you, judging you silently, angrily.
[6] I wonder how much of this has to do with making that &*^#%! red undersquiggle go away?


  • I am definitely a huge geek when it comes to office supplies like pens and notebooks, and I used to write because I liked the actual act of writing with a pen on paper. I am really taking your “handwriting a novel” lessons to heart, and I’m excited to start practicing writing by hand starting in January so I am prepared to write my NaNo novel by hand next year!

  • Renna says:

    Just curious , how do you do nanowrimo in longhand? I mean , how do they keep track of your word count? Also if you’re doing a novel how do you find a notebook large enough? I have been searching the web all night.

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