Back to the Old School

The Power of Handwritten First Drafts

Some of My Notebooks, Each Full of Draft Material

Inspiration. In a flash it hits you. You rush to your laptop, throw it open, and start plugging away at your word processor. This is the idea you’ve been waiting for! It’s so raw and so poignant.

Half a page down, you start reading back the last sentence. It doesn’t sound the way you had imagined. In fact, looking up the page, this wasn’t your idea at all. The images aren’t strong enough and now you’re in full editing mode. Within minutes, the lightning has passed and you’re slogging through a construction site.

How many times has this happened to you as a writer?

Having to write and edit at the same time is a destructive process. You nip your natural voice in the bud and it’s hard to recover. The fact is that on the computer it’s just too easy to go back and edit. The backspace button is a pinkie finger away, beckoning you to make perfect.

When inspiration hits it’s time to write, not edit. The solution is to go back to the old school. Typewriters don’t have a “backspace” and they’re hipster as hell. They let the ideas flow right from the brain to the fingertips to the page where they’ll stay, whether they’re perfect or not.

Typewriters weren’t for me. I thought it would be the solution but I type too fast. The mechanical keys would get mixed up and I’d have it jammed within a couple words.

So I went back to the OLD, old school: Pen and paper.

The first step is to get material you’re comfortable writing on. Sure, you can get a swanky leather-bound pad, but if you’re more of a blank-page-off-the-printer kind of writer then it’s not worth the investment. I’m a Mead Five Star notebook writer myself. Sure I have flashbacks from high school math class, but the pages are nice and big and the plastic cover protects from wear and tear. I bring my notebook everywhere so it’s got to be able to withstand a beating.

Next, you’re going to need a pen. I recommend something fast. You want a tool that responds as quick as the ideas come. Personally, I love the black, .5mm, Uni-Ball Vision Elite series. This pen flies and doesn’t bleed if you leave your notebook out in the rain (tried and tested). The downside is these pens are expensive. Too expensive for a broke-ass writer. So I’m currently trying out the Uni-Ball Onyx Micro ($6.49 for a 12 pack). It’s fine but more grippy and uneven than the VE. I’m not trying to sell pens here. Go with what’s comfortable and don’t be afraid to try something new.

Once you have the tools, you’re going to need a style. Once again, I believe speed is key to flow. I found cursive was the quickest means of production and have stuck with that for years. There aren’t as many natural starts and stops so your wrist moves smoothly across the page. It’s barely legible, but only I have to read it.

Finally: practice, practice, practice. It’s hard not to still edit. You’ll still have the ability to cross words out, but do it discreetly. A single line through a mistake will signal it’s not what you meant to say and you’ll still be able to go back and read the words if necessary. Remember it’s just a draft and don’t sweat the small stuff. The time for editing and the backspace will come. Until then, just get the ideas down. Maintain momentum. Inevitably, if you haven’t written anything by hand since grade school, your hand is going to cramp. It all takes time and small adjustments to your form and materials will help with that.

Perhaps the best thing about writing drafts with pen and paper is the physical product. It feels good to have something tangible when you’re done. I’m on notebook #7 since I started hand drafting back in 2015 and the nearly illegible musings and notes are far closer to my heart than the hard drive full of Word docs on my computer. It’s just a tool, but if you find yourself getting bogged down in the process, don’t be afraid to go a little old school.

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