The Pen. Is It Still The Tool For Writers?
Contributor
Written by
Morgan Prince
June 2014
Contributor
Written by
Morgan Prince
June 2014

On my writing journey I've learned lots of things about myself, about how to write, and about how others do things. I know that I struggle to write if there's anything important going on in my life; I just can't move past the excitement, trepidation, or worry. I've learned that there are lots of different ways to write a book, and that no one agrees on one "right" way. And I've learned that everyone has their own way of creating and putting a novel together.

Over the last few years, I've also learned that handwritten notes are no good for me. When presented with the word "writer" my mind conjures up images of a man with black hair and dark-rimmed glasses sitting at his desk, pen in hand, staring thoughtfully ahead. Pen in hand? I wonder if this is just a generational thing, or if it's something that all writers think they should do. When I first started trying to write a book I had my laptop for the actual writing, but most of my notes were handwritten in notebooks or on Post-its. Other writers blog about how they carry a pen and notebook around with them just in case they get hit with inspiration while they're out.

 

The problem is, even if I do write things down, I never go back and read them. I have numerous half-filled notebooks around the house with scrawls of ideas and research, but not once have I read through them. I love the idea of writing with a pen, being inspired by my own words and seeing my handwriting in front of me. I feel like that's what real writers do. But I can't work that way. If I take handwritten notes while researching, the information just doesn't go in.

I have tried to use a pen and paper to hash out ideas, but I always get to a point where I give up. This week I've been learning a lot about outlining ideas, plotting, and character creation, and I've taken most of my notes on the computer. I've been reading websites with a notes page open, ready for ideas to strike. And I've made more progress this week than ever before.

My novel was at a standstill before this past week. I've finished the first draft, but I still haven't managed to finish a second, and it's been months! So, in the middle of last week, I decided to stop moping and get on with organising my plot lines and making sure it all works. I stumbled upon a website (http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com) that helped me outline my novel, and I'm currently looking at my characters and making sure they all fill a vital role in the story. The primary difference this week is that all of my work has been done on the computer, as opposed to the past, where I did some (the creation) on the computer and the rest (the planning and researching) as handwritten notes. In four working days I've managed to make loads of progress and my story has already changed drastically.

Working exclusively on the computer means that all my notes are in one place and I'm not rushing around the house searching for that yellow notebook with characters in it. It's what works for me. Being able to tab through windows instead of searching through pages makes such a difference. If I'm out I have my phone, and it syncs with my Mac so that all my notes are accessible. Technology has come a long way since I was in school, and it makes it so much easier to keep track of all my scribblings.

Having done both I finally know that this is my preference: nothing handwritten, everything on my computer. I wonder if younger generations of writers will, like me, prefer computers over handwritten notes?

How many notebooks do you own? If you hand-write your notes, how often do you read through them? I'd love to know!

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Comments
  • Morgan Prince

    Joanne - I would love to be able to go to the beach to write! I think I'd still have to take the laptop though. ;)

    Lorelei - Thank you for reading and commenting. You're right about the modern technology thing it does open things up more. Printed versions are much better for read throughs, like you I get lost in the screen somehow.

    Valerie - Well done on finishing your first book! That's great. I'm currently learning about my characters and trying to give them a personality. Not an easy task. I think we all want to write a better novel and this writing journey is all about learning and getting our stories across. Good luck with your next book. 

  • Valerie Bush

    I started writing my first book by writing it, but I got smart and started using my lap top. I figured if I wrote it down then it would be easier to transform it from the notebook to the computer. I have two or three more stories that I have started on paper. I have to learn how to give my characters more of an identity. I just finished my first book and I'm ready to get started on the next one. I want to be able to write a better novel, so thanks for your post.

  • Lorelei Elstrom

    Thanks for the post, Morgan. For me, the modern technology is 1000 times better at opening up the creative process because you can easily insert ideas, juggle thoughts, use the online thesaurus, replace entire chunks, and refine content. Modern tech is almost always better. (We can still ride horses, but cars have opened up our lives so much more). I will say that for big picture editing and read throughs,  I love to sit with printed versions of works in progress and make pencil notes in the margins. I tend to get lost in the computer pages and get disoriented in the big picture.

  • I remember getting my first computer and thinking I'll never be able to write on it. I got past that. Now I create equally in both spaces. I still carry notebooks everywhere...and yes I do transfer the information to the computer...and usually the editing begins during the transfer...because I spend so much time for work on the computer, writing by hand also feels like a break with the routine, take the writing elsewhere, outside usually...literally...sitting on a hill over looking the beach, everything else forgotten as my hand chicken scratches across the page becoming almost illegible even to me with the urgency to keep up is one of my favourite writing sessions in recent memory...there are places, like the beach, where I don't like lugging the office with me (and the lap top is the office) ...but packing a pen and notepad...and a book to read...now that's a day at the beach.

  • Morgan Prince

    Wow, thank you all for your comments.

    It does seem like it's a personal preference rather than a generation thing. I learned to type when I was training to be a secretary and I find, like Paula Lozar, that I can type much faster than I could hand-write anything. My ideas flow so fast (sometimes!) that my hands can't keep up, whereas if I'm typing keeping up is not a problem.

    Kimi - yes those backups are essential aren't they? Not so long ago we had a small problem with our backup system and had to change it. In the transition period I didn't work because I was terrified of losing something important. :) 

    I think Paula is right there is no "proper" way to do things, it's all about what works for you.

  • Helen Gallagher

    Nice, thoughtful piece, Morgan. As writers, I guess we're lucky to have so many great tools and choices available.

  • Jenna Sauber

    I love pen and paper, but like you, when it comes to writing blog posts, stories, or other long-form pieces, I jump on the computer. I write dozens of letters a year, and still love buying notebooks for little thoughts and ideas here and there, but I've gotten so used to my laptop that it's just second nature to me. I even have an old typewriter now, but I only use it for letters as well. As a kid, I wrote my stories and poems in notebooks all the time -- until my parents got me a software program called Creative Writer -- and I was hooked ever since. 

  • Robert W. Finertie

    I'm definitely a pen-in-hand person.  That's the way ideas flow for me.  Ideas don't flow through the keys of a computer for me.  I presently have ten(10) notepads full of hand-written ideas.  I write the scenes that want to be written long-hand in pen using a Uni-ball GRIP.  Later I scan the notes to find the scenes I need and then type them up and insert them where they belong in the story line.  I'm tickled that you have found what works for you.  It may be generational, as you suggest.  After all, I'm eighty-two.  Bob

  • Kimi

    I'm definitely a PC-kind of gal. I threw over typing in high school for drama, as I wasn't patient enough for correcting mistakes on the typewriter. The PC, however - AHHHHH! The Writing Angels sang on high when I was able to type on the PC and store things in one tidy location (with back-ups, of course). I do some notes by hand, but sometimes I can't read them.

  • In high school typing was a choice for me. If I wanted to learn I'd have to quit choir, but I'd been singing forever and loved the teacher and all my fellow crooners. I taught myself to type with two fingers to be able to at least get through college and all those term papers, but then came the real desire to write. So, notebooks were my best choice. I used to travel back and forth to New York City 2 hrs daily and so I had a nice block of time to fill those blank pages, which I then gave to a really good typist to turn into documents. I find that now I can pretty much work on short pieces on the computer with no problem, but my method is my own creation!

  • Patricia Robertson

    I have tons of notebooks. I always hand write notes, sometimes reread them, sometimes if I'm really industrious I put them all into a file and hide the file in a cabinet where I rarely if ever look at them. But they are there if I need them! I think just the effort of writing it down helps me remember. I prefer to do rough drafts on paper. It works for me.

  • Paula Lozar

    Forget what you think "real writers" are "supposed" to do, and do what works for you. I learned to type at age 12 (on a manual typewriter), and from then on I wrote almost everything -- from college essays to short stories to a Ph.D. dissertation -- on a typewriter. In 1984, appropriately, I purchased my first computer, and since then I've written everything (including the drafts of 6 novels) on a succession of computers. The fact is that I can keyboard faster than I can hand-write, the results are better-looking, and revisions are a snap. I think the quality of my writing was improved by using a keyboard.

    That said, when I'm taking notes -- either listening to a talk or doing research -- I almost always use pen and paper. I think it helps me to remember the material. But usually what I write down doesn't make it into my creative endeavors in exactly that form. And, as I get older and my hands get stiffer, I may rethink this part of the process!