On Handwriting A Novel

As you know, I’ve recently finished the first draft of my novel My Dear Sophy. You might not know, however, that I handwrote the whole thing. That’s right. I used my hand, a pen, and some notebooks to scratch out my little book. Here’s what my tools looked like (hand included):

The tools of the trade!

Now, when I mention that I handwrote the first draft, the general reactions go this way:

Me: I just finished the first draft of my novel!
Other: Cool! When can I read it?
Me: As soon as I type it up and edit it!
Other: Wait, you have to type it up?
Me: Yep. I handwrote it.
Other: What?! You must be crazy.

Well, friends, I cannot dispute that I am crazy, but that is not the reason that I handwrote my novel. It was a very deliberate choice to do it this way, and the process had its pros and cons.

First, the things working against handwriting a novel:

People think you’re crazy. Honestly. This will not just be your friends thinking it’s a little bit cool and a little bit insane that you’re dedicated to handwriting a novel. This will not just be people that you know saying, “You’re crazy!” in a joking way. No, this will also be strangers around you on the train or bus or in a public place when you are hunched over your notebook and scribbling furiously in it. I got more than one look from people on the train that clearly said, “If you’re some kind of crazy serial killer scribbling your manifesto, please don’t kill me and my family.” There is really nothing to say except to keep on keeping on. I just kept writing. And I’m sure those people kept on thinking I was a little bit crazy.

Tired hands. This is the one I get most of all. “Doesn’t your hand get tired?” And the answer is, yes, my hand certainly got tired, especially if I was writing in a weird position (see my train story above). When my hand got kind of tired, I simply rested it while I dreamed up the next section. Then, when my hand and my next section were both ready, we got back to it! Having to stop and rest sometimes actually worked into the material fabric of my story in some pretty cool ways.

Handwritten text does not just jump into digital format. I so very much wish it did. I really, really do. In many ways, transcribing my manuscript into digital format is harder than writing it in the first place. I got used to the story being independent of the computer that now to be tied to one seems like a chore. A necessary chore, but still. And, to follow up with the hands hurting thing, my wrists and fingers hurt most after sitting at the computer for an hour trying to type up my novel.

But all of those negative things never will outweigh the things I loved about handwriting my novel:

A deliberate act. A lot of text that I type into a computer is throw away stuff, low stakes writing in tweets or texts or emails that is quickly produced and quickly flies away. I’ve done other writing projects on the computer. My hands can fly over the keys as fast as my mind can think up the words. I can press delete whenever I want to. I can move and cut whole blocks of text without thinking. With handwriting, the words I put on the page felt precious somehow. I wanted to think more carefully about the words I wrote, knowing they would be there permanently. And I cannot handwrite as fast as my brain works, so I had to think of a sentence and write it down. Changes are all crossouts and arrows. Many of my pages look like this:

Edits galore!

No accidental deletions. Computers, as we all know, can be temperamental. They like to back up files we don’t want to save and delete ones we do. But all those worries about saving every few lines were non-existent. For better or worse, all my words were automatically saved — as long as I didn’t lose my notebook!

Few distractions. Writing time really became writing time. Not checking social media time. Not catching up on emails time. Not laughing at the latest meme time. All those distractions that come with being at or near a computer or phone were put aside for the time that I was writing. This is the first time I’ve been able to concentrate to fully on what’s in front of me. And I really think that it benefitted my scenes. Instead of stopping halfway through to text someone, I focused on what was in front of me. I’m not knocking people who like to tweet and text while writing! For me, though, these things take me out of what I’m working on and make it hard for me to jump back in.

Completely portable and less intrusive than a computer. When I only needed my notebook and paper, I suddenly had the ability to sit anywhere. Or to recline anywhere. I spent most of my writing time laying on my stomach on my bed. It is much harder to do that with a laptop. It was also a whole lot easier to take my notebook with my wherever I went. No need to worry about power outlets or sun glare.

Famous authors do it. Check out Neil Gaiman and Martin Amis, two very successful writers who believe in handwriting something for many of the reasons I’ve listed above. Martin Amis has this to say in some advice he offers to writers:

Write in long-hand: when you scratch out a word, it still exists there on the page. On the computer, when you delete a word it disappears forever. This is important because usually your first instinct is the right one.


What Would Jane Do?
My story is set in 1799. It is an Austenesque novel. On top of all the reasons above, I felt that I would be most connected to the time period and the story if I undertook to handwrite it in the same way I want to believe Jane Austen wrote her works. Of course, Jane didn’t have computers. But I wonder what she would have made of them if she did?

So what about you? What do you think of handwriting a book?

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6 thoughts on “On Handwriting A Novel

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  1. Inspired in part by you — and by several other awesome friends who have written novels — I started one a while back. (It’s not finished; I have about 45000 words.) I find handwriting tedious but worthwhile, mostly for the lack of distraction factor. And while I’m trying not to edit until I have a complete draft, I do like typing what I’ve written at the end of the day and getting to do a little insta-revision. While I’m not handwriting the entire thing, I appreciate having a number of tools in my box, so to speak.

  2. That’s very cool, Katie. I know that not all writing can come as quickly as My Dear Sophy did for me. I feel entirely lucky and blessed that it did. Please keep writing, even if you only do a few lines a day! 🙂 (And I hope you know that I would love to read it when it’s ready!) I had the same editing impulse, which resulted in some of my paragraphs ending with brackets in which I wrote [write something brilliant here] because I couldn’t think of anything. But I kind of loved the freedom I allowed myself to do something like that, knowing it didn’t have to be that great the first time around.

    And I completely agree about having many tools at your disposal. I almost wish I had typed up pages as I wrote them. But that is the benefit of hindsight.

  3. I honestly haven’t really taken that much time to just write– excepting my blog. But when I do work on what I hope will one day be my novel I hand-write too. As you’ve mentioned there’s less distraction and I find it soothing too, minus the occasional hand cramp. 😉

  4. If I ever wrote a novel I would probably hand write most of it as well. It is similar to holding a real book in your hand rather than an e-reader. It just feels different – in a good way. Plus like you said, computers can accidentally delete things. It has happened to me before.

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