Pros & Cons of Writing By Hand

A friend recently asked me if I would be writing my MFA novel by hand. The question comes from numerous discussions we've had about the pros and cons of this practice--which I'll get into below--and it's one I considered with a great deal of thought. I'll share my decision after discussing with you the practice itself.

Pros of Writing by Hand
I can actually write pretty fast by hand if I want to, but I find that while drafting, speed isn't necessarily my friend. I know that may seem strange coming from someone who has often participated in both National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and its spinoff counterpart, JuNoWriMo. Both challenges have their benefits, but over time, for me, the benefit had less to do with producing quality work and more to do with meeting other writers.

That's not to say you can't produce quality work writing a full novel's draft in 30 days. The bestseller lists would prove wrong that claim, and I myself have been pleased with my progress during those challenges from time to time. However, as I've grown as a writer, I find that my best writing tends to come from writing my first draft by hand.

There's something about the connection to words written by hand. The brain makes a stronger commitment to them, so each word is more important. Now, I wouldn't bother drafting a blog post by hand. The pros wouldn't outweigh the cons. However, I write my best prose when I am physically committing ink to page.

The simplicity of writing by hand is important to me, too. I can pick up a pen and notebook and write anywhere without worrying about WiFi, battery power, or screen glare. That's not to say I don't love my iPad, or that I won't have it with me everywhere I go as I pursue my MFA. And that's not to say I won't still be using Scrivener for working on my novel. My research and notes are all located there, and once I'm ready to edit my work, that's where I'll go. But for getting ideas down fast when inspiration strikes, there's nothing like a pen and paper.

This next pro is, I feel, specific to historical fiction. I personally feel more connected to my characters when I'm writing in actual ink. No one had iPads, computers, or even typewriters in the time of my story. There have been times when I have produced my best prose writing with a quill on parchment paper by the light of a candle. (While a fun experiment, I don't think I would want to keep that up--it's an incredible strain on the hand and eyes.)

Finally, if you've ever lost your work, you know the heart-wrenching, gut-twisting feeling of knowing that whatever you write to replace it won't be as good. When I do write digitally, I work in the cloud...but that's not completely infallible. I've lost work there too, though it's more rare. A notebook with my words in ink will not be erased. I suppose I could lose it but I tend to be pretty careful about my notebooks.

To recap, here are reasons why drafting by hand is fantastic:
  • It allows me to connect more with my prose.
  • It's simple and portable.
  • It allows me to get into the head of my character(s).
  • No need to worry about backing up.

Cons of Writing by Hand
Nothing is perfect, and that goes for writing by hand as well. The biggest con is that it's slow. It's so much slower than writing digitally--at least for me. When I write with a keyboard, I can average 90 to 100 words per minute--or faster--with almost perfect accuracy. That means the thoughts get onto the screen almost as fast as I can formulate them. On paper, I'm a much slower writer, and sometimes feel frustrated that I can't record my thoughts fast enough.

Writing by hand is more tiring. I can pump out ten thousand or more words each day if I'm typing. If I'm writing, I'm lucky if I can get about two thousand words a day. That same slow pace is a good thing as far as creating more descriptive prose, but it can be frustrating to watch progress through a story crawl.

Sometimes, my handwriting becomes less than legible. If I've been writing for a long time, or ideas are flowing too fast, my writing becomes more difficult to read. Not to brag, but I usually have beautiful penmanship. A brainstorm can cancel that out so that typing up my work and editing it can be painful as I try to decipher my own hieroglyphics. 

Overall, the cons of writing by hand are:
  • It's much slower for me than typing.
  • It's more tiring, which means I produce less on a given day.
  • Handwriting can sometimes be tough to read later on.
My Decision
I've decided that I will in fact write my novel by hand for my MFA program--at least the first draft. As I understand it, I will have five weeks to produce, among other work, 30 pages of polished fiction. This cycle will repeat throughout the two years of my MFA every five weeks. I think if I follow the schedule below, I can allow myself the time to write by hand.

  • Week One: Draft. If I write 6 pages (2,100 words) a day, I can pen 42 pages of rough draft work. After all, there are no weekends in grad school.
  • Week Two: Type/Edit round one. This is a hidden benefit of writing by hand--when I type up my work, I inevitably end up editing it at least a little.
  • Week Three: Macro edit. This is where I will make any massive changes for big-picture considerations such as plot and characterizations.
  • Week Four: Micro edit. Micro editing involves ensuring that the prose is as beautiful and as I can make it. During this week, I will hone down my work to the 30-page mark. 
  • Week Five: Proofread. Proofreading is separate from micro-editing, and involves not only checking for grammatical errors, but also ensuring that the prose delivers as much power as it needs to.

If I typed my work from drafting onward, I could probably give myself a week off in between each cycle. However, if my MA program is any indication, I felt less tired when I didn't take breaks between classes. By continuing on, I didn't have the chance to realize how exhausted I was. I hope the same will prove true for my MFA program.

I also plan to start drafting before my first residency begins. That way, I will be ahead of schedule. Working ahead is always a good idea in graduate school, in case something unexpected should arise. I've already laid out my MFA schedule. Of course, other assignments will need completing, and I'll have TA and tutoring duties, as well as other employment, but grad school is, if nothing else, a balancing act. I didn't fall once during my MA program because of careful planning. I owe it to my program, my novel, and myself to produce my best writing. If that means making sacrifices so that I have the time to draft my story by hand, then so be it. 


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