Is the Pen Mightier?

by Rob Quehl 

A few months ago, I met with some writers at a coffee shop. Most were participating in the National Novel Writing Month competition. Every one of them had their laptop in front of them. They type, type, typed away, before, during, and after the meeting, while my dinosaurian hand grasped a ballpoint.

Keeping notes in the 21st CenturyI own a laptop, and had tried to make the switch several times, hoping to save time by inputting directly into my computer. But for some reason, I always went back to my old way: writing the base story with pen on paper, then typing it in later. I didn’t know why it worked better; I just thought it was because I was a terrible typist. But recently, I found the difference aptly described in Susan Bell’s book: The Artful Edit.

Susan discusses Judith Freeman’s experiment in handwriting her novel Red Water. In the past, typing directly into her computer had made the writing process choppy.

Judith Freeman:

“When writing longhand, the brain and the hand are connected. Once you let an idea unfold, you keep unfolding it. Ink flows, ideas flow with it. When writing longhand, I am not tempted to constantly go back, scroll up, stop and reread. When you type, especially into a computer, you don’t give your imagination the chance to really follow things through.”

Susan Bell expands on the idea:

“Clean and professional looking, the typed page can induce the illusion that the sentences on it are finished and ready to be inspected. It is impossible to make that mistake with a hand scrawled note.”

In the same book, Tracy Kidder discusses this concept with respect to editing:

“One of my gripes about the computer is that it encourages a kind of editing that I don’t think is very useful. That is, you can move stuff around endlessly. I did a little editing for the late lamented New England Monthly. One writer was writing a piece that we really needed and all he kept doing was taking the same bankrupt paragraphs and moving them around.”

Amen! Exactly the same thing happens to me when I attempt to edit “tough spots” in my book. I stare at the screen, cut and paste, move it back again, switch words, but get nowhere until my eyes go buggy staring at letters on the screen. At this point, I’ve learned to turn off the computer, calm down, take a break, then go sit somewhere in a nice coffee shop, with nothing in front of me except a pen and a blank piece of paper. It’s only then that I can start from scratch and write something fresh that can solve the problem I’ve been stuck on. It takes time, but it always works.

So my intention is not to argue that you should come back and join me in the Stone Age, but only to consider handwriting as another option, especially if you reach a tough spot in your work that has you stumped.

Good luck.


Rob Quehl lives in Kitchener and is currently working on two novels

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2 responses to “Is the Pen Mightier?

  1. So true, Rob. And now that some schools are no longer teaching hand-writing, what kind of stories and novels can we look forward to in the future? Becky

  2. Rob , I’ve been looking at Cambridge Writers home page and your article grabbed me. I just return my own gift to myself of a tablet mainly because they couldn’t tell me how to use it w/out wanting my $$ , I get lost w/the Teck savvy . And I think I’m Too old at 67 to change my ways. Do you know of other Cambridge Club that don’t meet on Wednesdays.

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