Writing by hand helps me to express exactly what I want to express.
I’m lucky to be blessed with terrible handwriting. Not so long ago I made a conscious effort to improve it by trying to slow down my hand and attempting to “pronounce” each letter more gracefully. It was the sort of handwriting I usually reserve for birthday cards and love notes.
It wasn’t long, however, before I started to slacken off again, returning to my barely-legible scribble that I alone can understand. If someone ever came across my notebooks by chance, they might think I write in some sort of secret code. It isn’t code, it’s just my chaotic handwriting.
There was another problem with my cleaned-up, pretend-nice handwriting too, which was that it wasn’t my own. I didn’t recognise the environment. And for me, that’s the great benefit of drafting work in a notebook using pen and paper. (Actually, I use pencil and paper, those refillable pencils with the retractable leads and a little eraser on the end.)
The benefit is that you develop of small universe of notes, arrows and punctuation marks that adds richness to your writing, and ultimately helps you to control your thought process as it comes alive in the written word.
The uniqueness of a person’s handwriting creates a type of secret environment. It becomes like a private cipher; others simply can’t access it.
But there is more to it than just illegibility.
When I write, I do so mainly in notebooks, each of which gets replaced once the pages are full. I have cupboards choked with old notebooks, ragged books I’m unable to throw away because they have both sentimental and practical value.
I like to flick through these notebooks every so often on the hunt for an idea or new inspiration, taking pleasure in reading the half-forgotten voice speaking from the pages.
Every notebook is different: some are lined, some are plain, some a hardback, others soft. The handwritten nature of the words become like pictures, accentuated by crossings-out and inserted words. These visual depictions have a different kind of effect on one’s memory and imagination.
They spark new connections and prompt memories because they are unique to my creative process.
In this way, the pages of a notebook can become like streets in a town, a whole environment which you can walk through, take short-cuts and get creatively lost in.
The power of marginalia
One of the most important aspects of pen and paper writing is the marginalia. Marginalia is all that stuff that builds up in the corners, margins and between-the-lines of a hand-written page.
It provides a messy history of annotations and crossings-through, of arrows, asterisks, doodles and comments. For me, it also includes pages torn out and pages stuck back in, page corners folded over, bookmarks, newspaper clippings, and any other amendments I might make to the physical page as my thoughts unfold.
Even coffee stains and chocolate crumbs have a useful place in my marginalia, giving me a clue (sometimes years later) as to the circumstances of when and where the words were written.
The most useful marginalia for me is the simple question mark, which I readily place above any word or beside any paragraph that I’m not entirely sure of. So when I come to re-read the text or type it up, I’m always alerted to the possibility — previously conceived — that this part could be improved. I’ve never found a corresponding tool in a word processor that quite has the subtly or dexterity of my own “?” appropriately inserted around a handwritten text.
The wider pleasure of marginalia is that it offers a sort of narrative or meta-account of the formation of a piece. This can be especially useful when transposing the text from paper to digital, since these are the parts that get taken away. It is like chipping the stone from around a sculpture, so revealing the artwork inside. The marginalia is the reminder of what was there before: the scaffolding that gave rise to the artwork beneath.
The writing improves when I transpose from paper to digital
I’m probably giving the impression of being sentimental over pen and paper writing. In fact, one of my favourite stages of writing is when I take the words from the handwritten page and type them up on my computer.
All at once, they lose their subjective character and take on a more permanent, objective quality. The marginalia is dissolved in the process, the crossings-out dismissed, the “?” pondered over and answered. It’s like the writing takes on a new skin.
This is the “clean-up” stage, one of the most productive stages in the editing process. Moving from one writing environment to another helps to give the words a new freshness as they appear in the word-processor, so I’m able to assess them with a more detached eye.
I often re-flow pieces when I type them up too, thinking more about structure, how to lead a reader through from beginning to end, to avoid the “dead-zones” that might lose a reader’s attention, and to resolve the piece on a broadly conclusive note.
I hope then to have a finished piece that expresses exactly what I wanted to express — as far as my abilities as a writer make possible. And pen and paper are invaluable tools in this process.