Going Old School: Writing longhand

Welcome to Writers’ Uni-Verse-City (or WUVC for short because every university has an acronym), a place where writers/bloggers can meet to discuss the craft of writing in the Internet age. WUVC will involve independent research, setting a curriculum and hopefully finding other participants (like you – readers/bloggers/writers) to: chip in, give tips, suggest books and other materials for study, teach me the ways of the warrior writer, and offer to guest post here at Uni-Verse-City (contact: annotationseditorial@gmail.com).

With laptops and computers by the dozen, the advantages for copy or cut and paste and generating word counts at the click of a button, it has become commonplace for most writers to put fingers to keyboard than put pen to paper.

Sometimes when I’m lacking in motivation to write or I just need some downtime after work, I read author interviews or watch videos of author interviews. These have proven to be fascinating. First of all, you get an insider’s look to the author’s personality, get to hear them talk about their own work and can also glean some great writing tips. One of the most common interview question is “what’s your writing process like?” or some variation of this.

Each author has a different answer, whether they must listen to a certain type of music, have a specific beverage, be in their office or at a café, each person has their own way of creating stories. During my leisurely research, I’ve been amazed to learn which authors are pantsers and which are plotters, but even more astounding is discovering the authors who write by hand. I will talk a little bit about Jackie Collins, Cecelia Ahern and J.K. Rowling, who all like to writing longhand.

I recently came across a video interview with Jackie Collins, a New York Times best-selling author of 28 romance novels. In an interview on her latest novel, “Goddess of Vengeance” she said that the book was 2,000 hand written pages. 2,000 pages. She has got to have strong wrists to produce that much text by hand. She has an assistant who types up her written work and then she edits off a typed-up version. Very interesting.

Here’s a quote from Jackie Collins on her writing process:

“I’ll stagger to my desk and I will pick up my pen and I will write a sentence. I write in longhand. It takes me a long, long time to write my books. I have them bound in leather when the book is finished. I do a lot of things on the computer but when it comes to writing I want that black felt pen and I want that yellow legal pad and I’m good to go anywhere in the world.” (source)

Cecelia Ahern writing longhand (thebookshow.skyarts.co.uk)

An author, who I’ve read two novels by so far, Cecelia Ahern, also writes her novels by hand. In earlier interviews with Ahern on her first best-selling novel, P.S. I Love You, I’ve read that she used to write from 10pm at night until about 6am, and that wasn’t because she had a day job, it was because that was the time of day she liked to write.

Cecelia Ahern says on her process:

“I write longhand. I’ll do a chapter and then type it into the computer and edit as I go along. I use pen and paper because I love the physical act of writing — and that you can sit down anywhere and do it longhand without worrying about low batteries or internet connections. I can write pretty much anywhere.”  (source)

Another author who writes longhand is J.K. Rowling. I watched an early video interview with Rowling where she took the cameraman into her house and had all her notes and drawings spread on the floor. It was like looking at a gold mine of work. Rowling did so much research, note taking, idea generation and even drawings of her characters and their world. It appeared to me that she was so much a plotter that when it actually came to writing the novels, it was the fastest part, but this could also just be my perception.

J.K. Rowling said on her writing process:

“I still like writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use “narrow feint” writing paper. But I have been known to write on all sorts of weird things when I didn’t have a notepad with me. The names of the Hogwarts Houses were created on the back of an aeroplane sick bag. Yes, it was empty.”  (source)

How romantic an idea it is to write by hand with pen and paper. I can image that it is somehow freeing to be away from the glowing screen and blinking cursor. Maybe it really could fuel creativity and allow the words to flow faster without typos or being able to delete so swiftly. I also read in these author interviews, I can’t remember if it was with Jackie Collins or Cecelia Ahern or even someone else, that they have to think about what they are going to write before the pen touches the paper because of the fact that there is no handy delete key. The only option is to scratch it out and make a big mess or crumple the paper up.

I think I just might try to write something in longhand. I like writing on the computer because I can type much faster than I can write and when I do write fast it gets very messy. Maybe I’ll start with a blog post just so I can do something from start to finish and see how it turns out.

Do you do any longhand pre-writing? Do write full drafts by longhand? Do you think the physical act of writing would change your creativity? The direction of your story? The final product?

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About Nicole Basaraba

Nicole Basaraba is a Canadian writer focusing on topics of travel (Mondays), writing and literature (Wednesdays), lifestyle (Fridays) and her experiences living in the capital city of Europe: Brussels, Belgium.
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21 Responses to Going Old School: Writing longhand

  1. thesweetkitten says:

    I think I stick to my laptop!

  2. When I get stuck. When I stare at the screen, knowing SOMETHING is wrong, it’s often because the voice in the scene is not right for the POV character, or there’s a niggling hole in my plot. Or, my character is urging me to let him/her take over and wander off-the-plotted-path.

    That’s when I sit outside (if I can) and begin to write longhand (for my eyes only). Picture names with arrows, random lists of questions; some with stars, some with question marks, many crossed out (but still there). So. Yes. Longhand is part of my writing process.

    During my loosely defined “plotting” stage, I like to use index cards to write out the scenes AFTER I do a willy-nilly list of ideas and scenes and plot points. I then transfer the disjointed scenes to index cards, place them in proper order within each act. During the writing process, I add to them, and toss some out.

    But, I find it impossibly slow to write the novel itself longhand. Why? Because a wording change makes the page messy and I want to pitch it all in and start a new page. NOT a productive mindset for writing forward.

    Thanks, Nicole for a thought-provoking topic. Off to sit outside (with a notebook and pen.)

  3. How cool! I don’t have much experience in writing novels YET but I will say right now I do both. When I am brainstorming, working on plotting, sketching out ideas etc, I usually do it hand written. I like a smooth rolling blue pen on crips paper. LOL!
    But for character sketches and sketching out scene ideas, I enjoy typing since I can type faster than I can write so I capture ideas better.
    Love this post!

  4. Great topic, Nicole, and I especially liked reading about these authors’ writing style. It makes me feel more ‘typical.’ I have a habit of writing the beginning of a scene or overview of a chapter, then I type it onto the computer–editing as I go. Could I be like Cecilia Ahern? I also have a cork board that I fill with setting and character sketches, family trees, my fictional town mapped out, furniture styles, and a bunch of other stuff related to my trilogy. Dare I say I’m a little like JK Rowling? Nah, I’m just me. And I do whatever works to get that seed idea fully developed and in book form.

    BTW, I only write with black gel pens on white, wide-ruled paper. Unless I’m in a pinch, then I pull out my Moleskinne for my notes-on-the-go. Loved JK’s use for a plane’s barf bag. I’d so do that if I were desperate. 🙂

    • I think it is safe to say you have a very similar process to Ahern and Rowling. It sounds so much more creative a fun doing it this way. I really should put myself to write at lead a blog post by hand. Test it out.

  5. Great article! Fascinated to hear about writers who plow through a first draft entirely by longhand. I LOVE longhand myself, and I’ve been known to break it out for short stories or prose poems, but I can’t imagine writing a whole novel that way!

    TBH my favorite part about writing longhand is the diary collection you get to accrue. Also, from a technical point of view, writing longhand slows you down and forces you to pay more attention to your writing. Especially at the sentence level. So, that can be useful. I think it’s often a more intimate way of writing than staring at a computer screen.

    • You have a great point of writing longhand slowing you down. Maybe that’s a good thing and you end up producing stronger work from the beginning, which doesn’t need so much editing later. Hmmm… interesting to mull over.

  6. Roxana says:

    Okay, so I might not quite qualify as a writer, but I do write by hand. All my high-school “novels” were written like that, late at night, in the kitchen, eventually on the floor, with my back against the fridge and with music in my ears. I still have them. It’s the only way I can actually write. Computers are too stiff and cold for me. I need pen and paper. 🙂

  7. Ellis Shuman says:

    Most of the short stories that I included in a 2003 collection were first written out by hand at a Starbucks coffee house in Tel Aviv. The advantage was that when they were typed into the computer, they were edited in the process. Then I got a laptop, and my efforts at completing a novel were done in a more advanced manner.

    • I agree. I think writing longhand and then typing it up later would reduce the amount of editing needed. Plus it must be enjoyable to write by hand in a coffee house. So writerly. 🙂

  8. Em says:

    I love the theme of ‘I can write anywhere’ and I tend to write longhand when I am travelling or in a cafe and then type it up. I have found it useful to ‘edit’ slightly as I type it up.

    I am like you though, I type quicker than I write and my writing gets messy if I try and write fast !

  9. marilynbrant says:

    Nicole, I love this topic!
    When I’m plotting or first starting a new chapter or scene, I almost always write longhand. Then, when the pages are so messy with scratch-outs and arrows and tiny scribbles in the margins, I type it, print it and edit/add notes to the freshed printed pages in pen again…until I can barely read it. Then: retype, print, repeat x 3,000…or however many drafts it takes me to get through the chapter :). It’s a very slow process, but I write chronologically, so I can’t move onto the next scene until I have a fairly solid draft of the scene before.

    • Thanks so much Marilyn. I’ve been very curious about your writing process. After reading your book, I can tell that you are a very precise writer. It was so well written and I think must be the editing and multiple drafts that really makes it shine. 🙂 Thanks so much for commenting.

      • marilynbrant says:

        Thank you for saying such nice things about the book, Nicole! I’m delighted you enjoyed it. As for the editing and the multiple drafts…I clearly need to do a LOT of revising with a whole novel if I can’t even leave a comment without typos!! (In my remark above, “freshed” should have been “freshly” — LOL!) So, you see? I’m sure it comes as no shock that I spend a gazillion hours on editing. 🙂

  10. Pingback: Sunday Link Love, Stylish Blog Award, and ROW 80 Update 1/22/12 « Annalise Green

  11. Sven says:

    When I google “longhand novel”, your post is near the top, Nicole. I am going to try my ‘hand”–hee hee–at longhand writing. I’ve hit a roadblock with the Mac, and it’s labyrinth of “save as” and “file” commands, nevermind the lugging it to the library every few days.

    Many other famous writers, such asJohn Irving (Cider House Rules, Garp, etc.) write longhand. Many have hired typists to enter the longhand into the computer. Heck, some–like the late Sidney Sheldon–transcribe their novels. Yes, he literally dictated them. Barbara Cartwright, romance queen, used to have a courtroom stenographer write down her novels, as Barbara sat on a couch and pet her cat and dreamed up the novel No joke!

    And should we forget about all the fabulous authors–JD Salinger, Gertrude Stein, FS Fitzgerald, Hemingway, some of the best ever–who had to type directly into a Smith Corona typewriter, one peck at a time. That was before White Out! No wonder the few modern typing writers, like Cormac McCarthy and director Woody Allen, savor their typewriters so divinely: they’re almost irreplaceable.

    Longhand, by pen, is slower, but more thoughtful. Longhand can be input with Dragon Naturally Speaking v.11, and even if it gets one in 20 words written like alphabet soup, we are going back and editing the entire thing again, right? If you’ve not tried it, at about $60, it’s much better than prior versions, and one can read their longhand into a desktop $20 microphone and save boatloads of keyboard time. That is one tip I might suggest to you, my fellow free-hand writers.

    John Irving writes his first drafts in fancy $35 Boorum and Pease bound journals. For the rest of us, stenographer’s pads–the kind with spiral bound at the top and flippable for a flat lay on the desk–works wonders, and can easily poise on a monitor side stand for easy transcribing–try that with a leather bound journal.

    Many, from my online search this morning, espouse freehand writing as a remedy for computer snags and viruses. But, don’t forget, although computers get the sniffles with a virus and might lose our hard work in one massive “ka-choo”, paper is not forever.

    Just ask my neighbor down the way whose house is now cinders after their cat, Jinxy, kicked over a tea candle.

    Thanks, Nicole. Great post!

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