Write By Hand and Let it be Messy
Written by
Alissa Johnson
March 2013
Written by
Alissa Johnson
March 2013

When I was a kid, I went to canoe camp every summer. I paddled the boreal forests of northern Minnesota and Canada with a group of six girls, portaging 85-pound wood canvas canoes across narrow, rocky trails and learning that I was generally capable of more than I thought.

But I learned something else, too. One night, lying in the tent and writing in my journal, I noticed that my tent mate wrote one line in her journal for every six or seven that I wrote. She paused a lot, studying the letters on the page and contemplating each sentence. The spaces between each line were even, and none of her writing was smudged.

"I like to make sure every line is straight and perfect," she said.

I looked down at the scribbles in my journal, the way the lines were crooked and sometimes ran into each other. I vowed to be more like her.


Over time, I trained myself to write straight, even lines and to write each letter carefully. It looked nicer, but I also captured fewer thoughts and memories. There was way less substance.

I call this the Perfect Pages Syndrome. It's hazardous, and it spreads.

It's most debilitating when you sit down with a clean sheet of paper or a new document on your computer screen. Instead of writing, you get paralyzed because you expect your first line to be the perfect beginning to a story.

But at this stage of writing, your first sentence isn't about perfection. It serves one purpose and one purpose only: a way to begin moving your pen across the page. To discover what your story or essay or book or blog post is about.


I broke free from Perfect Pages Syndrome by trading in my beautiful journals (as much as I loved their thick, off-white pages and their leather covers) for a spiral bound notebook. I took my cue from writers like Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg.

There is nothing aesthetically beautiful about a notebook. There is nothing to "mess up". In a spiral bound notebook I can write as fast and as messy as I want. I can turn off the voice that expects perfection and let the rough draft be an act of discovery.

My handwriting has gotten sloppier and sloppier--sometimes illegible, even to me. But I uncover more ideas and write more often, and I'm freed from the need to have a perfect first sentence.


Get a notebook, or a stack of lined paper--anything that feels utilitarian. At the top of the first sheet, jot down five places you've visited. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and pick one place. Write about it by hand, with no expectation that you're doing "good" writing. Just write.

If you're on a roll when the timer goes off, keep writing. If not, stop. Walk away from the paper. Make a cup of tea. Eat a piece of chocolate (or two). Then go back and reread your writing.

Underline sentences or ideas that you love, the thoughts that you could explore further. Notice that in just ten minutes you've tapped into the details of your own experience and the possibility of telling a larger story.


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