To Write Longhand, Or Not To Write Longhand

The debate among writers whether to write by hand or type has been going, I guess, since typewriters were invented and certainly has gained a new dimension with the introduction of the computer keyboard. I jot down ideas and draw mindmaps on paper, but once it comes to the actual writing I have always been the keyboard type. I realize that this promotes the risk that I will spend far too much time polishing words and grammar rather than develop the story and iron out mistakes and imperfections later.

But recently I attended an event that showed me yet another aspect of this issue. An aspect that I find quite interesting from the reader’s point of view: longhand can sometimes show us what the writer felt.

The event involved my favourite German author, Eva Demski, and the actress Leslie Malton reading and talking about letters written by a woman at the turn of the 19th century. Karoline von Günderrode was a contemporary of Goethe, Clemens Brentano and Bettine von Arnim; a head-strong, very creative and impulsive young woman, a true romantic who took her own life because of unrequited love.  (She wanted to make sure it would work and so waded into the river Rhine with stones tied in a scarf around her neck but succeeded in thrusting a dagger through her heart.)

Not only was it fascinating and entertaining to listen to the voice of this young woman from the 18th century brought to life by the actress and to hear the contemporary author’s dry remarks that, with all due respect, this was all a bit too much “teenage drama queen” for her liking. The audience had also been handed a facsimile copy of one of the letters, and at this point the argument pro writing longhand gained a new dimension for me.

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This is a letter Karoline wrote to her lover after he had dumped her for the first time, telling him in an acidly witty manner to go stuff himself. Never mind that I cannot actually read this old “Sütterlin” writing very well. The second page contained various crossed-out sections and created an overall look of messiness, but that was strangely contradictory. Karoline was distraught, yet her words are very composed; and yet again the general scrawl and the fact that she crossed out two lines – very decidedly so – indicate the confusion within her. Or so one can read this. Eva Demski offered another interpretation: that she wanted to show her ex-lover that he wasn’t even worth a clean copy to her. All this information gets lost if you just type the letters up and reprint them.

And these feelings never show in the first place in writing that is typed , deleted and rewritten until it is perfect. To be sure, the end result of your novel or screenplay has to be as perfect as you can get it. But I see a new merit in writing the first draft by hand, or at least bits of it. Crossed-out bits will show me where I struggled and remind me how I felt at the time of writing. And that can help my rewriting and revising.

So perhaps I will put actual pen to actual paper more often in the future.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “To Write Longhand, Or Not To Write Longhand

  1. Seeing someone’s longhand notes is wonderful. There was an exhibition at the British Library on writing last year with bits of manuscripts and poems by famous people like Dickens. Obviously if they’d been around today they might well be using a computer! Still, I find it comforting to see the work of great writers hand written with all the crossings out. I still mainly write longhand and never thought I’d graduate to first drafts on computer….but I have. Even so, I don’t do it often for poetry (which I mainly write) and for the few stories I write, the notes, like yours, are scratched out on paper first. Very interesting post.

  2. I write direct on to the computer for fiction but with essays I have to write longhand. It never turns out quite right if I type them direct. And I do love looking at hand-written notes by writers long since past. Have you seen the Book of Kells? I is a work of art as well as a wonderful manuscript.

    • Funny, essays are something I would not attempt by hand – well, I’d scribble an outline but then definitely move on the the keyboard. And yes, I saw the Book of Kells a few years ago – absolutely precious! 🙂

  3. I do most of my writing on the computer or iPad, but when I need a break or want to work outside I take out my notebook and write whole scenes or chapters longhand. There are tons of scribbles, doodles, and little notes to add things here or there. I think it will be fun to look back years later and marvel at my random and sometimes brilliant, sometimes incongruent, and sometimes just plain awful words and ideas.

    And I like Eva Demski’s interpretation: he wasn’t worth the time it would take to make a clean copy.

  4. Hi Vera, lovely post. I’m definitely a fan of longhand writing. Not all the time, but here’s the thing – I think it definitely keeps you moving forwards. I always have writers in my writing workshops write longhand, and although some grumble at first, they all eventually get my point. You just can’t go over and over a paragraph to improve it – you’ll only end up with sodden paper, so you have to go onwards. You just write; spelling mistakes, bad grammar ‘n all – and then I use the process of typing up this longhand writing as a kindof first round edit. I clean it up as I type. And once you reach the end of a spiral or moleskine or whatever notebook… you have this lovely memento that you can flip through and see your progress. How often do you ‘flip through’ different Word documents filed in different folders on your hard drive?! Cheers and thanks, Matthew.

    • Hi Matthew, glad you liked this. :^) I also much prefer flipping through pages (and I am a stationary aficinado), and my drafting happens mostly on real paper. I just haven’t quite got the hang of writing screenplays by hand – that could be quite useful!

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