I Handwrote My First Novel & I Would Totally Recommend It

It’s been nearly a year and a half since I finished the first draft of my first novel My Dear Sophy. The whole process was amazing (the revising and editing afterward, not so much) from first jotting down notes to the detailed planning to throwing all of that planning out the window in the heat of writing the draft. It was probably the most fun creative thing I’ve ever done. Must have been because I have kept on writing since then!

Much of that fun I had so much of was due to something very important: I handwrote the whole thing. That’s right. I used my hand, a pen, and some notebooks to scratch out my first little book. Here’s what my tools looked like (hand included):

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

Reader: I really liked your book! (This is the reader in my head, and in my head my work is universally loved.)
Me: Thanks! Did you know that I handwrote it?
Other: What? That’s crazy!

Well, friends, I cannot dispute that I am crazy, but that is not the reason that I handwrote my novel. I made 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. (I can’t claim that they were wrong about that…)

Tired hands. This is the question 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 and lead to unexpected beats of quiet for the characters to reflect, just as I was reflecting on the story.

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 to be tied to one again seemed 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. Here’s why I would recommend handwriting things, even if what you want to write is as long as a novel!

It’s a deliberate act. A lot of text that I type into a computer is throwaway 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 looked like this:

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 so fully on what’s in front of me. And I really think that it benefited 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 was 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. There’s a kind of romance to following in your idol’s footsteps that never grows old.

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

(The original version of this post appeared on my blog at kimberlytruesdale.com)

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13 thoughts on “I Handwrote My First Novel & I Would Totally Recommend It

  1. I wrote my first five manuscripts–including the one that turned into my debut–longhand. I wrote part of the second book that way, too. My current WIP not so much, because longhand doesn’t lend itself to writing sprints so much.

    I do like working in longhand, though, because you’re forced to think a little more slowly. I also tell myself when writing on paper that this is my ugly draft and it can be as ugly as it wants to be. If I find myself repeating the same word every few lines, I underline it and keep going. Awkward phrasing? Same thing. When it comes time to type my work into Word, I can fix these things–assuming I can read my handwriting by then. It’s considerably messier than yours.

    • Yes, the slowing down part of handwriting is what I’ve come to realize is the best part of it! Though I’ve since written my manuscripts on the computer, I still do most of the planning and write whole paragraphs or chapters in a notebook. In fact, I might do that today!

  2. I love working in long hand. It makes my brain slow down and I find that I write better that way when I’m still trying to figure things out. If it’s something I know exactly, then typing is faster, but there’s a certain comfort in it. And even in the age of wifi, there’s a peaceful joy that comes from a brand new Composition Notebook, all pristine in its glory, and a fresh pen. *happy sigh*

    Also yes, the words can jump to the pen to the computer….

    http://www.livescribe.com/en-us/

  3. I haven’t hand-written an entire novel, but I always write some sections of my creative writing projects long-hand — either because it’s a better choice logistically (it’s easier to write around my kids without the computer) or because of the relationship between form and content. I wrote a Civil War romance, for example, and the first drafts of the many letters the characters exchange were all written in long-hand. It helped give those sections an authenticity typing doesn’t possess.

  4. When I was in undergrad, I didn’t have a typewrite and PC’s hadn’t been invented, so I wrote all my papers by hand. Long ones, because I was a political science major. We got our first PC when I was in grad school. Thank God, because my papers were much longer. Sometime during law school, I began not to be able to read my handwriting. I can’t even imagine writing a book by hand. Congratulations! It’s quite an accomplishment!

  5. Lovely. I remember starting to lecture and seeing the handwritten notes some twenty years old from a prof who would later become an icon of American literature and thinking,…Geessh. I need to get me a journal. Thanks for this.

  6. I am in awe and totally impressed that you hand wrote your book, Kim!!! But when it comes to a writer’s process, I’m of the mind “There’s no right or wrong way to do it. As long as it goes words on the page, it’s the right way.”

    I think you make a lot of great points. I hand wrote lecture notes all through college and law school. I think writing notes and reviewing them helped me focus and retain the information better.

    And I totally sympathize-I hand wrote all my exams too. After a 3-4 hour exam session-OUCH!!!

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