I had to be taught how to use a computer. My first one was an IBM on Windows 95 and I’d spend forever on Storybook Weaver. We used floppy disks in school and watched our videos until the tape wore through. And my thirtieth birthday is still a good way away.
Perhaps it’s the younger generation, having grown up with computers, but the question arises again and again: do you write with a pen and paper or do you type everything? The answers are fascinating. One girl was dumbfounded that I had written Aurelius completely by hand and I reminded her, somewhat tongue-in-cheek that the majority of books had been written that way. It was only about 70,000 words before editing anyway.
Technology is a great blessing but some would say the old ways are the best ways. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting question and one worth considering.
Personally, I had always preferred typing up my stories but I had never finished a novel that way. I don’t recall what possessed me to purchase a notebook to write Aurelius but it ended up being the first novel that I had ever completed. It turns out paper works for me.
There’s a peculiar pleasure in finding the ideal notebook (I have discovered mine is an A5, lined Moderno softcover with cream paper) and pen (these aren’t plugs at all but I do love my Lamy Safari with their petrol blue ink) and in being able to hold the work in your hands and see how far you have come. In the same way that some people can sleep almost anywhere, I can write almost anywhere and having a physical notebook is much easier than remembering a laptop and charger. The notebook never runs out of batters on a long journey and it’s much smaller and lighter to shove in a backpack.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of writing by hand is that I’m far more focused — I can’t browse pinterest or skim instagram. If my phone is distracting, it has an off button or can be left in another room. It’s not impossible to eliminate distraction on a laptop but it does take a little more willpower. Lastly, my handwriting is my own and in some strange way, that makes the story my own. Word processor fonts are standard and impersonal and I find it much easier to connect with a story that doesn’t look like any old person might have written it. It’s strange, I know, but my handwriting makes it my own.
On the other hand, I have heard a number of objections to using pen and paper (usually from teenagers and young people). The most common is that their hand gets sore if they write with a pen. So do mine when I go over two or three hours but the truth is that it’s because they don’t write enough. Gripping and moving a pen requires muscles, muscles which, like all other muscles, don’t develop overnight. There must be practice in order for strength and endurance to build up. In relation to this, the second biggest objection that I have come across is that the person has messy writing. Once more, this is simply a matter of practice. It is important to say that some people have genuine reasons that they can’t grip a pen or why their writing is messy. Strokes, arthritis, problems that affect your fine-motoring skills are all a sad reality but they are genuine reasons, laziness is not.
There is also the fear of losing whichever notebook it is that you are working in. I’m no stranger to this fear. All I can say is that you need to be very, very careful. But it may also pay to put your email address or some form of note saying ‘if found, please contact’ in the front just in case.
Lastly, what about editing? It is all but impossible to edit when you write by hand, which is partly why I like it so much. It makes me finish things because I can’t go back and tweak it all the time. That said, when I finished my first draft of Aurelius, I typed it up onto the computer both for backup and for ease of editing. Major revisions and edits are best done on the computer but a notebook and pen is an excellent way to get down a first draft without too much distraction or inconvenience.
It is a little disconcerting how far computers have progressed in my lifetime. One of the biggest reasons that I’ve heard for using a computer to write is that the fonts are standardised and legible, unlike a person’s handwriting. Another is that it is faster to type. I worked it out that although it takes me longer to write individual words, the time it takes to write a thousand words on computer or on paper is the same for me. Staring at a computer numbs my brain so I spend more time staring and thinking about what to put next, balancing out the constant (but slower) flow of working by hand.
There are two major reasons that are less to do with preference and more to do with convenience though. The first is that it is much easier to share your writing in digital form. It’s much easier to email a document or share it via google docs (or whatever your preferred method is) than it is to share a wodge of paper. Google docs is in fact a tool I recommend for writers, particularly in the editing and revisions stage, as well as when you are ready for betas. It allows the document to be shared with options to edit and comment and can be accessed on and offline. On top of that, it’s much easier to transfer an article onto your blog by copying and pasting than by typing it all out (though typing it from written is a good opportunity to edit and proofread).
The second major benefit of having digital documents is ease of editing. It is much harder to scrawl in the margins and rearrange chunks of a hand written book than it is to nip into a word processor file and reshuffle your paragraphs. The Search and Replace command is a real gift when you get to the editing stages and I know that many writers swear by the Grammarly app. I have my own thoughts on Grammarly but that will be a post another time.
However, in our day and age, there are downsides to computers too, they aren’t as simple as they used to be. The most obvious problem is the internet. Many writers struggle with the temptation to look at Pinterest, read blogs, check their social media, and ‘do research’ when what they need to be doing is writing. These things aren’t bad in their place but when they become a form of procrastination you have a problem. But all is not lost. There are simple, and even free solutions.
The first is the most obvious: unplug your router and set a timer. Bear in mind the other people in the house though. If you live with your family or have a flatmate then you need to talk to them first. They might find it helpful to have some enforced, internet-free time too but all likelihood is they’ll say no. In which case, there are other options.
One is to install an app that blocks either specific sites or the whole internet. I have a number of friends who recommend the Freedom App, which blocks apps as well as websites. This is a paid service. A similar, but more basic program is Cold Turkey. Cold Turkey is free and comes in two parts: Blocker and Writer. Blocker works for anyone who is easily distracted and needs the internet to be blocked. Writer is specifically for writers, funnily enough. Whether you set a time goal or a word count goal, it won’t let you exit the program until you’ve hit your goal. This particular program was designed to help your attention and to wean people away from their addiction to social media and the internet in general. It’s a case of trying the programs (Freedom App has a thirty day trial, as far as I know) and working out what suits you best. Both come recommended.
A second problem that comes with using computers to write is tech failure. The simple solution is to take care of your tech and not do anything silly that might contract a virus. It’s important to backup your work (another reason for google docs, it stores your documents online) on Dropbox, Google Docs, and external hard drive or a simple memory stick. More than one backup is always good. Though tech failure is a problem, it’s much easier to guard against than losing (or damaging) a notebook.
Lastly, there has been research which shows that the blue light caused by screens and digital displays stimulates the brain in such a way that it causes trouble with sleep. If you’re an early bird, this isn’t such an issue but if you are a night owl, it may be. The recommendation is that people turn their screens off at least an hour before they go to bed (this includes computers, tablets, phones, and TV). It is the best way but another option is to use a filter on your computer. My laptop has a built-in red light setting which changes the colour to a warmer, more natural glow after 6pm (the settings are adjustable). It’s not ideal but it does make a difference.
SO COMPUTER OR PAPER?
In the words of Miguel and Tulio from Pixar’s The Road to El Dorado, ‘Both. Both is good.’ Both have their benefits and drawbacks and so it is very much a case of preference.
As someone who is easily distracted and tempted to keep going back and editing to the point of getting nothing done, I prefer to write first drafts with pen and paper. For me, that’s the only way that I’m going to finish anything. But when it comes to revisions and editing, I couldn’t be more thankful for my laptop. Typing up the draft gives me the chance to go over the manuscript and see what needs to be done, and having the files on my computer makes it infinitely easier to implement those changes. Despite this, I make all my notes for edits on paper so that I can have them in front of me as I write.
In the end, the choice is yours. Try a few things and find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Never be afraid to try something different now and then because your preferences may change as you develop as a writer. There’s no right or wrong method, no matter what anyone says. We all have our favourite ways to work.
- Do you write by hand or on the computer?
- Why? Which do you prefer?