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SHOULD I WRITE BY HAND OR BY COMPUTER WHEN WRITING FICTION?


image of black and white text saying be creative with a lightbulb
It's up to you whether to write by pen or computer, typewriter or iPhone. Just harness your creativity..

When I first started writing, I wrote by hand. Not because I thought it was better to write by hand, but because I didn’t own a typewriter, or I didn’t know where one was in my house. But I wasn’t taking writing seriously at that point, so it didn’t really matter. Once I did take my writing seriously, I switched to a typewriter, one of those clunky old ones that made a ding every time you reached the end of the line. And then one day this thing called a word processor arrived on the scene. It was magic. But I wasn’t sure which to use for my fiction. So, I asked myself this: should I write by hand or by computer when writing fiction? Which is better?


Using a word processor, you could type and erase and print (I think it was a disc that you had to put into a computer to print, but I don’t remember). It was incredible. I wrote a novel or novels with it and was able to print it out without a Jackson Pollock painting of white out. From there we went on to better word processors, and eventually the computer, which was a miracle. You could write an entire novel, edit it, print it, and life was great. But (and there is always a but) I’m not so sure it helped the writing, meaning the actual work I produced. And that’s because writing using a pen or pencil or crayon for that matter isn’t the same as typing or using a computer. Your brain works differently when you write by pen than it does by “writing” using a typewriter or computer or, these days, even your phone.


“I don’t write directly on to the computer because I don’t think well facing forward with fingers on a keyboard. I think better looking down holding a pen. And the concentration quotient of pen and paper is higher than when I’m moving words around on screen.”
— Joshua Ferris
Picture of author Joshua Ferris
Then we Came to the End author, Joshua Ferris

To see if I was only imagining the difference in the quality of my writing, I tested out the theory. I’ve written fiction by hand and written fiction by computer and there’s always—always—consensus around which work is better. Hint: it ain’t what I’ve “written” using a keyboard.


“Various studies over the past couple decades have demonstrated that writing by hand makes use of large regions of the brain involved in language, thinking and working memory. So if your brain is getting more of a work out when you use your pen, it’s more likely your creative juices are flowing more generously as well.”

I’ve written fiction multiple times by hand and many more times by typing/using a computer. My chosen writing tool for many years now is Microsoft Word. I’m old school now, apparently, as there are quite a few software programs that are specifically made for writers, including Scrivener, ProWritingAid, Evernote, NovelPad, and on and on. I’m sure they provide a great deal of functionality, but I’m okay. I’ll leave that to the more adventurous, the younger generations, the folks who prefer more tools at their disposal. Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but I don’t care. What works for me is what works for me.


I have a published novel, a bunch of published short stories in journals and online, this blog, and five drafts of novels in various stages. One’s out with my agent, hopefully to be sent out soon to editors at publishing houses. Every single one of them were typed on my computer. My process when writing a novel is to type it, print it out, then edit and revise by hand, reenter the edits into the Word doc, and then do it all over again until I feel my novel is as good as I’m going to get it. Currently, while I do that with my current novel, I’ve also started another novel, which I’m going to try to finish by May. Only this novel is different. This one I’ve decided to


  1. Outline prior to writing it (I usually only outline after I’ve written a novel’s first draft), and

  2. Write by hand using a pen and leatherbound notebook (leatherbound because, in a way, I assign more value to it than a black and white or other type notebook). So far, it’s going well. I think.


“I’ve also found that handwriting offers fewer distractions than typing. When I type on my computer, I sometimes get pulled away by an incoming email or disappear down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Not so with handwriting. When we sit down with our notebooks, we’re far less likely to get distracted and far more likely to focus on the writing itself.”
--Kyle A. Massa, Speculative Fiction Author, fantasy, science fiction, humor

The people who have read the fiction I wrote using a pen have told me that there was just something more real, more personal in what I wrote by pen. That there was more depth there than what I’d written when I’d typed a story. I should note, it was a blind test, meaning the people who read my work had no idea which story or novel was written by pen, and which was written using Word, and thus typing. There was no ambiguity in which they preferred. It wasn’t even close. While writing, and after completing my manuscripts, I felt what they were telling me, though it was difficult to put into words, even to myself. My brain tells me it makes no difference (I think I’m just convincing myself of this because of how much faster I am able to write using a keyboard), while my heart tells me I’m deluding myself if I think that. And studies seem to back that up.


“When tested head to head, handwriters perform better because they are better able to conceptualize and retain information than those who type. Some writers like Neil Gaiman and Tess Gerritsen have taken that research to heart and write their first drafts by hand.”

“A study of Japanese university students and recent graduates has revealed that writing on physical paper can lead to more brain activity when remembering the information an hour later. Researchers say that the unique, complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand on physical paper is likely what leads to improved memory.”
--University of Tokyo

But writing by hand, writing by typing, or using a computer or even your iPhone is a personal choice. I don’t plan on always writing by hand. I find my current process of being a pantser and using a computer, in my case a laptop, more efficient and more enjoyable. Plus when I write with a pen my language is chicken scratch, and I’m not always fluent in chicken scratch. So, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. For now. Because I’m sure, somewhere down the road, I’ll give it another go. Just for shits and giggles.


Cully Perlman is an author and Substantive Editor. He can be reached at Cully@novelmasterclass.com 


Picture of Cully Perlman author
Author, Cully Perlman

 

 

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