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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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