Friday, February 11, 2011

Thoughts on Writing Longhand vs. on Computer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I grew up writing reports for school in longhand. When I really wanted to make a report fancy, I used a typewriter.

Computers in high school and college were rare. The odd Apple IIE was in the county library or the school’s lab. The computers bombed a lot and the printers were unreliable. I stuck with my Brother typewriter that had the capability of remembering a line of text. I could look at the line and correct it on the tiny screen before it printed out.

When I was an intern at a London magazine in college, I was given the assignment to report on spring fashion. The editor wanted it later that afternoon. There was no internet then (no internet that was accessible to regular people, at least), so I looked out the window at what people were wearing and wrote it into the story. I jotted it down in longhand on paper, then typed it up.

In fact, that’s how I wrote everything—on paper before copying it over on the typewriter.

When I started novel writing, I naturally gravitated to paper. I found it very disorganized, though—I wrote out of order sometimes and there were scenes that needed to be in other parts of the story. And frequently I knew I was writing stuff that was helping me know a character better, but it was material that was going to get axed before the last draft. I used lots of highlighters and actual scissors to help me organize my scenes.

It didn’t take me long to realize that to write faster and reach the deadlines that were starting to mount up, I needed to switch over to a computer. Besides, I’d frequently lose the different pieces of paper that my story was on.

I learned how to be creative on the computer. But I kept revising on paper. I’d print out my manuscript (which is a lot of paper, if you think about 270 or so pages, single-sided) and then I’d take the manuscript with me everywhere. I’d pull it out of my huge pocketbook and edit it while waiting for school to let out, etc.

I do think that sometimes reading on paper can help find errors that reading on a screen can’t. But still—it was a really slow process. I’d have to turn pages on the manuscript, find the change on the page, find the spot on the computer, make the change…and then make sure I’d marked that I’d made the change or else I’d forget where I left off. It was also expensive and a waste of resources to print out that much paper…and I’d keep printing new versions of the manuscript to reflect changes. I switched to revising on the computer.

My struggle and eventual switch to mainly-electronic writing made me especially interested in a post on A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing. It involved a study (VANWAES, L., & SCHELLENS, P. (2003). Writing profiles: the effect of the writing mode on pausing and revision patterns of experienced writers Journal of Pragmatics,) on typing vs. longhand. You can read the study yourself, but I’ll quote a few of the findings (directly from Livia Blackburne’s blog:

1. The computer writers took half as much time to write the first draft than pen and paper writers. 2. The computer writers wrote texts that were approximately 20% longer. 3. The computer writers had a more fragmented writing process than the pen and paper writers. 4. Computer writers made 80% of the revisions in their first draft, as compared to pen and paper writers, who made only 50% of revisions in the first draft.

The authors observed that pen and paper writing seemed a more systematic and planned out process. This makes sense because it's harder to make a change on pencil and paper. With computer writing, you can just start writing and make changes as you go along.

This was similar to what I’d found with my own writing. It might have been nicer to write on paper (in many ways, I find it more enjoyable), but it sure is a whole lot quicker to write on the computer.

My writing friend, Hart Johnson, ran an informal survey on her blog a while back. She was curious about the ages and backgrounds of writers who wrote longhand, vs. those who wrote on the computer. She found that the writer’s age was a factor (anyone who grew up on a computer was obviously going to find writing on a computer more natural) but also what else the writer did on a computer—if their day job was really uncreative, they might associate the computer with the non-creative day job and write longhand instead.

Do you write longhand? On computer? Or both?