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In Which I Do Things the Old-Fashioned Way—or, Writing with Pen and Paper

March 21, 2018

Whenever I visit schools to talk about the writing process, I get to the part about revision, and a collective groan goes up. So I, of course, tell the students that revision is where the magic happens in writing—where you take the sludge you’ve just thrown on the page and mold and compress and shape it until it towers like a prize-winning sand castle.

 

And if that doesn’t convince them, I tell them how good they have it. “When I was your age,” I say—immediately dating myself as no longer young and hip because I’m old enough to use a phrase like that—“revision was a lot harder.” Oh man, this is sounding like the proverbial story my parents used to tell me about walking five miles to school uphill—both ways.

 

But bear with me. Today, if you want to move a sentence, no problem, just cut and paste. Want to cut an entire paragraph? Just highlight and hit delete. And adding words doesn’t require an ugly caret (you know, one of those triangle marks kind of like an arrow). Just plunk your cursor where you want the new information and start typing.

 

And then I tell students how we used to have to do it: Recopy everything by hand! Talk about making a person not want to revise. Why should I replace the word “go” with “saunter” if doing so means rewriting an entire page—and that’s assuming I don’t mess up somewhere else and have to start over three times.

 

I was in high school when my family bought our first word processor. Finally, my editor self could go wild! I could cut and move things. I could add entire sentences or even paragraphs—and the word processor would shift everything for me. Granted, it took forever to reformat the page, and it might lose a few lines in the process. But still, the hand cramps it saved me!

 

So, I clearly am a fan of technology and the advances it brings to the writing process.

 

HOWEVER. You knew there would be a however, didn’t you?

 

However, sometimes a computer just can’t take the place of good old pen and paper. There’s something different about the way our brains work when we’re typing and when we’re writing. I don’t know the science behind it—and I really don’t need to (though if anyone knows, feel free to chime in—I’d love to hear it). All I need to know is that I think and process information differently when I have my hands on a keyboard compared to when I’m clutching a pen in my hand and furiously scribbling away on the page. I suspect it has something to do with the tactile feel of the the pen and the tangible act of forming words on the page, but whatever the reason, it works.

 

While I often write a first draft on the computer (because my typing hands are faster than my writing hands and my head is faster than both at this stage of the process), I prefer to do my revising on paper. It’s not pretty, with lines crossed out here, rewritten, and crossed out again, and arrows zigzagging across the page or even across multiple pages. But it works for me. It allows my imagination to just kind of ooze onto the page. And that’s what I need when I’m revising. Of course, later I have to go back and decipher all those marks so I can make the changes on my electronic manuscript, but that’s later me’s problem. For now, I can scribble to my heart’s content.

 

Pen and paper (or notecards, ah how I love notecards!) are also excellent for outlining. I use notecards as a sort of freeform brainstorm of all the potential scenes, descriptions, and more wandering around in my head. Later, I can rearrange them, move them, pull cards out or put new ones in.

 

And even though I haven’t written an entire draft on paper in years (welcome back, hand cramps), I have been known to work out difficult scenes entirely on paper. When I’m first playing around with an idea, just noodling potential scenarios, I might sketch those out (with words, not my rudimentary stick figures) on paper, too.

 

Paper is great for journaling as well. This year, I set myself the challenge of starting each writing session by writing a poem—gotta exercise those creative muscles so they don’t get flabby. I find that writing poetry on paper feels much more organic and natural than pounding it out on a sterile, lifeless computer. That direct conduit from my brain to the paper through my arm allows me to sling words onto the page uninhibited by whatever it is that holds me back when I’m staring at a blank screen.

 

Plus, I hear you can use paper if you’re ever in a situation where you don’t have an electronic device with you (unthinkable, I know, but I hear it happens).

 

So next time you’re stuck or you want to experience your work in a whole new way, put aside the computer (and tablet and phone) and pull out a good old-fashioned piece of paper and a pen (I find colored ones make me the happiest, incidentally). Then let your imagination slip right out onto the page with the ink. You might be surprised at the results.

 

What about you? Do you use old-fashioned pen and paper for any part of the writing process? Do you find it differs from typing on a computer or other device, or is it just me? Let me know in the comments.

 

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