Handwriting Your Book

handwriting a book letter-761653_640I’m guessing that most of us are always on the outlook for ways to increase our productivity, to open wider to inspiration, and get/keep the ideas flowing. But writing, like any art, is a process that defies capture, that eludes attempts to analyze, to reduce, to constrain. What works for one person won’t work for the next. All we can do is keep trying new things, or simply keep doing what has worked for us in the past. On a whim, I wrote my latest book in longhand.

Yes, I heard the gasps, the sudden intake of shocked breaths. Longhand?? Like on lined paper? With a pen? Yes, exactly.

Why would I do that? Decades ago, that’s how I wrote. From about 1975 to somewhere in the early 1990s, I wrote all my books in longhand. I carried around a legal pad with me everywhere I went, and I wrote on my breaks at work, on my lunch hour, waiting in the doctor’s office, during commercials while watching TV.

The only drawback was that once I was done, I (or someone else) had to type up the flaming thing. I always hated that part, because usually when I had finished writing a book, I was completely drained by it, and I wanted no part of sitting down and going over the whole story again right away.

So why would I go back to that?

I think one of the biggest motivators was that I wanted to unchain myself from my computer, stuck way back at one end of the house in my office. Oh, sure, I have a laptop, but it’s old and cranky and slow. I also have a tablet, but I hate typing on it. I hate screen keyboards. I can’t touch type on those, plus they don’t have that satisfying *click* when I hit a real key. And the truth is, the tactile senses are very important to me when I’m writing.

So I started handwriting for the mobile convenience, but I quickly realized that the physical movement involved in the act of writing by hand is (to me) seductive. I love the feel of the pen in my hand, and I love the act of drawing the ink across the paper. I found myself regaining my old cursive, the flowing hand with lots of flourishes, rather than the hasty scrawl I’d gotten used to for signing credit card receipts. I remembered how much I loved the process of forming the letters, the sweeping curves and the dipping links that join one letter to the next.

And crazy as it might sound, I believe the physical process drew out more inspiration. I just have this gut feeling that using my arms, hands, and fingers in this way pulls on my brain cells, fires them up, energizes them. For ages I’ve had this image in my head of a story swimming around in my brain, finally jumping the dam of my foramen magnum, rushing down my arm like a cataract, spreading into my fingers as a river at its delta, finally cozying up to my pen and sliding across the gap in a weird osmosis as blood changes to ink and then … voila. Writing. Lots of writing. Inspired writing. Inspiration that comes so fast, it’s hard to keep up with it sometimes.

Is there any way to prove it? Nah. All I can say is that it worked for me. This latest book is the best I have written in quite a while. It shocked the crap out of me with its insight, its emotion, and its hopefulness.  Obviously I can’t say that’s a direct result of handwriting, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the two are connected on some level. And I’m not sure that anyone can refute that.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

54 thoughts on “Handwriting Your Book”

  1. I’ve heard good things from others about this method. But for me it’s out of the question. I can’t even read my own handwriting 30 minutes after I’ve written it. lol

  2. Why would anyone try to refute it? Neil Gaiman writes all his books longhand. He does brilliant work. And Kevin Anderson dictates his books while talking long walks through the mountains.

    And both of those methods drive me absolutely crazy. 😉

    So really, the only key is: try lots of methods. Try all of them, if you can. And then use the ones which work best for you. It might be handwriting, or voice recognition software, or good old fashioned typing. Or something else entirely.

    For Melissa, inspiration and writing quality seem to be connected to her pen. For me, I am at my absolute best on an iPad with a keyboard (less distractions than at my desktop). For other people it will be something else.

    Use what works for you.

    1. Interesting contrasts, Kevin. Dictating would drive me nuts, as I often look back at the last few paragraphs. But you’re so right–use whatever works for you. We’ve got lots of styles to choose from. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  3. I completely agree about the feel of the pen in my hand, and how it glides across the paper… While I always enjoyed typing things out, because it allowed me to write faster, I am always drawn to the allure of ink and paper!

    1. A kindred spirit, Annette. There’s nothing I love more than going to the store (remember stationery stores?) and looking at pens. And if I found a really, really great one, I’d buy several dozen.

  4. You could try writing with a “smart pen” like LiveScribe. You still write by hand, but the pen records what you write and sends it to an electronic file. I believe they have the ability to convert handwriting to typed words. I’ve always wanted to try it.

  5. This method helps when I’m blocked creatively. I like pens with free-flowing ink–not ballpoints. A fountain pen used to work magic for me. Now, I rely on those Uni-Ball/Roller Ball pens. I often write longhand when I have a migraine and can’t stare at the bright computer screen.

    Want to hear something strange? My handwriting changes depending on which character’s mind I’m in!

    1. Linda, I love Uniballs! Great pens. Funny about your writing changing with the character. I’ll have to pay attention to that and see if it holds true for me. Thanks for commenting.

  6. I agree with the “Uni-ball” whatever. I love the flow of the ink from the pen. Mine just doesn’t look like writing when it’s finished flowing.
    I was hampered all my early years by a brain that moved far faster than my ability to write, and my script suffered for it. My teachers in Grade 10 told me to take typing the first chance I got, and I haven’t looked back.
    Now I type about 70 wpm, and it’s still not fast enough, but it is readable at the end. And spellchecked as well.
    So, while the physical act of handwriting frees your creativity, it stifles mine. keyboarding frees my mind, but not quite fast enough. I have yet to try transcription software, but maybe that’s the best bet.
    Of course, there was a guy who thought a chisel and hammer was the best way. Rosetta or someone, wasn’t it? He could write in three languages as well!
    Different strokes for different folks 🙂

    1. LOL, Gordon. I actually learned “service rep shorthand” in the years I worked for the phone company, and I could fall back to that if I were pressed by speeding brain impulses, but my normal handwriting seems to be fast enough. Not sure if that means my brain is slower than yours or my handwriting is faster than yours. At any rate, we’re both better off than the guy with the chisel! Waaaaaay too slow!

  7. I took a vacation a couple of weeks ago and did not take my laptop. I didn’t write a book while I was there but I did write out some sections that I hope to use in an upcoming book. You’re right, there is a special feeling to it. I look back on scribble from years ago where I wrote short stories by hand and I have a nostalgic feeling for them. It’s not enough for me to go full-on handwriting but it makes you think doesn’t it. Maybe next time I feel blocked I’ll pick up a pen. Thanks Melissa, this was interesting.

    1. Thanks, Martin. I’ll be interested to see if it does work for you at some odd time. I’ve finished that book now, but I’m contemplating handwriting my next one, too.

  8. I write a lot in longhand (I have terrible handwriting), preferring the Pilot G2 with blue ink. I’m a great typist (okay, now I’m a great keyboardist), and I’m perfectly comfortable using machines (computers or typewriters). But I view writing in longhand as extremely practical. Over the years, much of my writing has been accomplished moments of “free” time (coffee breaks, lunch breaks, waiting in offices, etc.,). There’s nothing like the sheer portability of paper and pen! I always pack easily accessible paper and spare pens when I hike, go on a trip. I go for cheap notebooks because I use so much from day to day, and I don’t have to worry about coffee stains or ripping pages out. But there is a bonus when it comes time to transcribe: It is another chance to edit. Here’s how I do it: I scan all of my handwritten pages into a pdf file. Then I open the pdf in a window at the top of my computer screen, with my word processor in the lower part. Since I’m not shuffling paper, I stay “in” the story with fewer distractions, and I move through the transcribing pretty quickly but also quite thoughtfully. If needed, I can zoom in on a word that’s illegible. When working on a long project, I often write by hand during the day, and transcribe at night. Usually, though, my longhand drafts outpace my transcribing, especially toward the end of a long project.

    1. William, interesting process to scan the handwritten pages in. I never thought of that. I would actually transcribe the day before’s work as a preface to starting in again, but I did no editing at that time; didn’t want to take the time. I was typing like mad just so I could get back to the real writing. I found it very helpful to type it up like that, little by little, rather than waiting until the end and typing up the whole thing at once.

  9. I wouldn’t even attempt to refute it. As Kevin McLaughlin said, “Use what works for you.” I do wonder, though, if there’s some truth in it. It may be that the brain-to-dominant-hand connection is a more efficient route to that “book inside.”

    Just think of all the great literature written by those who had nothing but quill, inkpot, and paper available! No eraser, no liquid paper, no correction tape NO BACKSPACE.

    I can’t handwrite anymore, at least not for very long, and only marginally legible. Arthritis. But I am crazy about pens and inks and paper and beautiful notebooks. Sigh. Nature is cruel sometimes.

    1. That’s what I wonder, too, Candace, if there’s not some neurological link between the brain and the fingers. I’ll bet artists feel the same way as they’re painting or sculpting. Thanks for adding that.

  10. Interesting article, Melissa. When I first put my hand, literally, to writing a book, it was the easiest way for me. Back then I had no computer, just an electric typewriter which I was pretty good with. But it was much easier for me to hand write then type. Enter the computer. I would stare at the blank screen and my mind would be just as blank, so I carried on with the handwriting. But over the years I have gained an ease at filling blank computer screens with words that now flow easily. Like Candace, I can’t write for long periods of time as my fingers seize up and become painful. As for my writing, well, like Yvonne, half the time I can’t read much of what I write either. I print or do something halfway between printing and cursive and that is much better until I surpass my fingers’ ability to keep moving the pen. Then the work deteriorates into words which no longer resemble any known words. I used to be a very neat writer, back when I had fountain pens. With the advent of the ballpoint (which we were not allowed to use at school), my writing declined. I have never used a uni-ball. Maybe I should try one.

    1. Having the right pen makes a huge difference to me. I especially like pens with a chisel point, like an old calligraphy pen. I don’t know why, but just being able to make the line thin or thick as I write gives me pleasure. I could spend hours looking for pens. It’s an addiction, but luckily not an expensive one.

  11. There is something both cathartic & inspiring about writing by hand. I wish my hand was strong enough to write for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time.

  12. Thank you for this, Melissa. That used to be my style, too. First draft longhand in a succession of marble composition books. Then type it in and play with it. I miss that heart-to-hand connection sometimes. (*cracks open new notebook*)

    1. Yes, heart to hand. I never wrote in the marble books, altho I remember them. Legal pads worked for me, or just pads of blue line. Actually, anything that would take the ink. I’ve got files of scraps of napkins, contact memos from work, envelopes. You know.

  13. LOVE writing by hand. Started it for one reason or another (extended time away from a computer?) and ended up doing 60k words of a 75k novel by hand. Writing flows better for me by hand for some reason, or at least it seems to.

    I’ll write as much as I can each day, then transcribe either at the end of the day, or first thing the next day, and I end up doing a mini-edit as I transcribe. That way the 1st digital draft is much tighter.

    I use just a simple Bic mechanical pencil, and a Cambridge hardback “business notebook.” I’ve tried both flipover and book style notebooks, and find that the flipover is more versatile for unconventional writing areas–like my lap!

  14. I’m glad it’s working for you, but I’d be in bad shape if I had to write out my novels by hand. I really have trouble reading my handwriting, and I hate retyping stuff.

    Still, I can see how it might be unique. I tend to edit on paper, even though I hate the retyping. But, I can see so much better on paper than on screen. Writing longhand seems like it’s similar for you, in that you just get a different really useful vibe by doing it that way.

    1. Yes, I do a lot of editing on paper; hate to print out the whole book to do it, but I do find it easier than on the screen. Right now I’ve sent the book to my Kindle and I’m editing there, altho I will have to retype the changes. There’s so many ways to go at this, and as we’ve all said: whatever works.

  15. I love the sound of pencil on paper as I write. I think it is a left over from when I once scratched out notes on musical manuscript. Lead has texture and form and is visually appealing to me on the paper. Last year, living in Toronto, I searched high and low downtown to find decent lead pencils which could be sharpened to my requirement and not encased by plastic, a ‘staple’ tool. A lot of fun, meet some great people and ended up with two fat red Primary Printers from Staples.

    Really enjoyed your latest posts.

    1. Thanks so much. I’m afraid I don’t share your penchant for pencils, but obviously it’s still a tactile stimulation. I do love the scratch of a calligraphy pen across paper, so very similar. It is interesting, though, how we love our manual instruments. I’m betting artists go through the same deliberation when choosing their brushes and palette knives.

  16. Way back in the late 80s and early 90s I had a Brother Word Processor which I used while working on and receiving my masters. (One professor was such a stickler for one inch margins he did fail some students in his classes for margins mere millimeters off.)

    Anyway, that old word processor had not been plugged in in over ten years. I had also taken a couple of non-credit writing courses along the way and the stories I wrote were on the discs. So, I crossed my fingers, placed it on my kitchen table, it weighs a ton, plugged it in and it started up, sounding just like the motorcycle it always did. (Almost, loud bugger.) Along with some naive essays about Ethics in Public Administration, I found several even-more naive stories I had written way back then. Printed them and have worked on a couple, hoping to salvage something from them.

    Interesting what we can find hidden away when we start looking.

    1. Barbara, good thing you saved those when you did; never know how long those discs will last. I have a similar drawer in my rolltop, stories I wrote (or started) decades ago. What’s interesting to me now is the fact that I have absolutely zero memory of some of them, and no notes to kick my brain into gear. It seems strange to me that these things were a strong enough idea for me to start to set them down, but now they’re completely gone. Good for you for taking that time trip.

  17. I actually committed myself to writing out a book using a Boogie Board with the Sync blue tooth that actually records my writing and sends it to evernote to keep.

    I could actually write two books at one time I learned.

    One I could type and the other I could hand write and I got so much done.

    I carry my boogie board with me at all times for notes and thoughts and ideas and I tell you, my productivity level is so on point and I don’t forget those stories that pop into my head that I want to write more about later.

    Typing yes is good, but hand writing does something to the creativity level of my brain that typing couldn’t.

    I loved this article.
    The link to the Boogie Board is there. http://amzn.to/1map1YO

    1. Sylvia, thanks for the kind words and the directions to Boogie Board. That’s a new one to me, so I’ll check it out, but anything that boosts productivity is a good thing. I can’t quite wrap my head around working on two books at once (I’ve done that for a short period, but always one book will win out). Sounds like you are a writing machine. Keep it up!

  18. Something that might help on the mobility front is trying a bluetooth keyboard with your tablet. While I usually work on a laptop, I have a keyboard for my tablet as well because it’s easier to lug around when I’m away. It works well and gives you that satisfying clicking you like. 🙂

    I don’t think I could write an entire book by hand. But I’d love to try digitally writing w/ the s-pen. I’ll have to try it for a short piece, chapter, or section and see if that simplifies the handwriting-to-type issue. I know I don’t have the patience to manually convert, and I try not to put my work in others’ hands until it’s been through at least a couple of revisions.

    1. Jenn, obviously there are a lot of technical tools that we can use or combine and try different ways to write. I don’t think the keyboard on my tablet would work for me, since I’m usually in my recliner and there’s not enough lap room for all. But the s-pen is an interesting idea. Let us know if you try any of those, and if so, what the verdict is.

  19. There are some characters who just demand to be written in longhand… in one of my WIPs, it’s an elderly grandmother… I stared at the screen for a week before a whispery voice told me, “go get a pen.” And yes, it’s in a marble composition book…
    Oh, and I love you all the more for knowing that u wr a SR at TelCo. I ws 2. And yes, speedwriting STILL finds its way onto the page when the words are flowing quickly. LWTC @CBR. DA, DA. CNK. DAK. Gahhhh… how many braincells did Mama Bell take from me! And don’t even get me started on USOCs…. I can still order a 1FR, TMLBT, TTR, and ESX for you.

    1. Leland, LOL! Kindred spirits of the telco kind. OMG, 1FR, TMLBT–that’s really dredging up the old brain cells. I worked at various offices for 21 years, and still have lots of writing notes on green contact memos. I always swore I was going to write a book about little Suzy Servicerep and use all the anecdotes I heard or experienced. We need to compare notes sometime.
      And I’m so glad you listened to that little voice that said, “Get a pen.” So much of what we do is by feel, by intuition. Anything that stirs up the subconscious and adds depth and meaning to our writing is a good thing. Thanks for sharing that.

  20. Would like to use pen and paper, however I can’t read my writing 🙂 My hands aren’t as limber as years ago in penmanship class. Agreeing with Kevin, Candace and others – whatever works. It’s all good.

  21. Yup, whatever works. 🙂 I’ve never liked writing with pencil — too scratchy, and the letters are too fat when the lead wears down. I have a similar problem with the razor-tipped Uniballs and their scratchiness. 🙁 Staples has a house brand gel pen that it calls an Optiflow — I like those — and somebody mentioned the Pilot G2 already.

    But I don’t think I could go back to writing longhand. I suspect that for most of us, our penmanship would get better with practice. But I’m happy with both writing and editing on screen, to the point where I consider retyping any sort of notes a waste of time. I even have a Logitech keyboard/cover for my iPad. I guess I’m firmly stuck in the 21st century.

  22. I still keep a notebook on my nightstand, should a story idea – or a change to a current story – erupt into my head in the middle of the night. I got my first computer in the spring of 2000, but I continued handwriting my regular personal journals until the summer of 2013; shortly after I suffered a critical injury to my right arm that almost rendered my right hand useless. I then switched to a Word journal, which functions better for me. I don’t have an e-tablet, but I do have a laptop. I also still have trouble growing accustomed to tapping away on the keyboard. It’s like ending a call where you’ve gotten into an argument with the other person. Slamming down the phone’s receiver is so much more satisfying than just angrily pressing “End Call.” No wonder the e-generation are a bunch of softies!

    1. I have to agree with you on that, Alejandro; the silent technologies just don’t have the satisfaction that the punching, clacking ones do. Which just shows again that we as humans enjoy that brain-hand interaction and the corresponding feelings and sounds that accompany them.
      As for journals, I noticed decades ago that my writing changes dramatically depending on what’s going on. When I go back and read my old journals, I can tell a lot about my state of mind just by the slant of the handwriting. Thanks for adding that. Hope your right hand has healed sufficiently. That would be truly crippling, in more ways than one.

  23. Well said, Melissa! I have tried both ways, and for my latest book, I came back to using a pen for the first draft. (Yes, I am choosy about that pen, too!) I like being able to leaf back to see what I wrote last week, rather than scroll somewhere. I like putting colored tabs on pages to track a sequence or a character arc. And I find that I can think better with a pen in hand. For the second draft, I type it in, revising as I go, and that is helpful too, even though I dislike the typing process. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this with us.

  24. So true to my heart, Melissa. I’ve always loved to write longhand and have journals full of my writing. I then switched to the laptop thinking I had to get more with it but this year I returned to my trusty pen and paper. It just works better for me. I have a very small collection of fountain pens and hope if my writing earns me a bit of cash to expand it! It’s also so much more portable, I try and write at different times of the day, because i don’t want to be dependant on one time.

    1. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the new technology that’s supposed to make things faster, easier, more portable for us sometimes… doesn’t. And it sounds like more than a few of us are falling back on the “old” ways. I guess there’s just not much room for improvement on pen and paper. Thanks, Jo.

  25. I’ve had to spend a lot of time translating old scribbles from my working notebooks for most of my books. Those were written by hand, often in several languages. So they need translating and transcribing. I always like to do this by hand, preferably with a fountain pen. I also write my outline structure by hand, generally with the original fountain pen I bought in 1956, which still works beautifully.
    With the passage of years, my handwriting has become a bit sloppy, but the discipline it requires imposes clarity of thinking, as I hate having to scrub something out and rewrite it.
    My alternative is to resort to an ancient portable typewriter. That still works well too. 🙂

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