The Pros and Cons of Writing Fiction on Paper First

1182878_woman_writing_in_the_agendaLast week I was without my computer for a number of days in a row, so I had to take my writing back to the old school style: pen and paper. Specifically, I used an awesome, binded blank book a friend gave me years ago that I was saving for something special.

I do think I might write my new Herezoth novel in that book.

My computer-less period led to the idea for this post: the pros and cons of writing fiction on paper first, before transcribing it into Word or some other word processing program.

When I wrote my first Herezoth novel, “The Crimson League,” I did a lot of writing on pen and paper over my lunch break at a summer university office job. At night I would transcribe what I wrote onto the computer. So I’m not unfamiliar or untested in this style of writing.

I now have a full-time job and get an hour’s break for lunch. That’s a full hour I don’t want to lose just eating and hanging around until I have to clock back in. I’ve been thinking, and I believe it makes sense for me to go back to writing a first draft on pen and paper over lunch.

Why? There are a number of reasons I liked this method in the past.

PROS

  • I GET AN AUTOMATIC, BUILT-IN FIRST “BABY-EDIT.” My first drafts are riddled with extraneous nonsense, always: phrases I don’t need, repetitive sentences, and clunky wording. When I go to transfer my handwritten pages to the computer, I often can clean things up to a degree with minimal effort/extra time: for instance, making passive voice active and cutting unneeded dialogue tags. (Sure, there’s the simple time of transcription to account for, and I’ll touch on that later. But rewording a sentence intuitively as I type it doesn’t add much time to that unavoidable block I’m already giving up.)
  • I GET MORE WRITTEN IN AN HOUR’S TIME. Meaning, I don’t stop to edit or to overthink things as I write because having a page–a physical page–in front of me makes me much more conscious of how much I have written than a scrolling computer screen does. That may not be the case for everyone, of course. But it’s true for me, so writing on paper physically has that advantage for me individually.
  • IT JUST FEELS MORE “CREATIVE”. Again, this is a personal thing, and no one would be wrong to disagree, but I feel that the act of creating art should be physical. After all, shouldn’t the result of “creating” be “something created”? Something you can touch, something more than a digital file? Artists have pre-sketches, and their canvases at every stage are physically right there. We writers don’t have to function that way, but there’s something comforting about having those physical pages with my writing on them, even when that writing is a crummy first draft. It’s physical proof of the creative process for when I feel like I accomplished nothing.
  • SOMETIMES IT FEELS MORE GENUINE. I am, or was, a professional scholar of Spanish lit, with a focus on the early modern period. (Basically, if you ever want to talk Don Quixote, I AM GAME.) This means I enjoy reading older stuff: the classics. Stuff that was written on pen and paper, or at the most technologically advanced, a typewriter. For centuries, pen and paper was the only option people had. It’s kind of silly, but I feel more connected with the world’s great literary tradition writing on pen and paper. Not that I’m deluded into thinking a second Cervantes or something…. I know I’m far from that. But my personal roots, my personal experiences with literature, are very established in older fiction. And I feel more confident when I keep that connection as strong as I can.
  • I CAN WRITE PRETTY MUCH EVERYWHERE IN A NOTEBOOK. You can’t bring a laptop everywhere, but a notebook fits easily into a purse or briefcase :-)

Of course, there are some drawbacks to this method as well.

CONS

  • TRANSCRIBING TAKES TIME AND CAN BE AN ANNOYANCE. Still, when I factor in how I can write anywhere in my blank book, and how I write faster in that book, I don’t mind transcribing so much. And when I really don’t feel like transcribing, who’s to stop me from grabbing my book and continuing the story instead of typing old scenes out?
  • THAT “BABY-EDIT” DURING TRANSCRIPTION CAN TURN INTO A PROBLEM. The key is keeping the baby-edit to a baby-edit. Rewording something that’s clunky is one thing, and a quick, often intuitive fix. Rethinking plot development or character motivation as a result of revisiting old scenes during transcription…. that can become a real motivation-breaker and time-suck. Remember, any time you revisit old scenes in a work in progress, that becomes a possibility.

All in all, I’d say I’ve had success in the past writing in blank books that awesome people have given me as gifts. (Seriously, I have tons of them, and I’ve never bought one for myself!)

Also, the last novel I wrote, one I’m abandoning completely as a “failure” right now, I rushed and composed entirely on my computer. So shaking up my process and doing things differently is helping me avoid a “failing” mindset. If things take longer than last time, but results are better, I am totally okay with that.

So, have you ever written a novel on pen and paper? Or do you go straight to the computer? Do you combine methods or go back and forth, like I’ve done? What do you love about the way you write?

RELATED POSTS:

Why Every Authors Should Edit On Pen and Paper

The Downsides of Pen on Paper Editing

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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58 responses to “The Pros and Cons of Writing Fiction on Paper First

  1. I love writing with pen and paper. I used to do it all the time as well and recently went back to it. For me it’s also the process of crafting something that I enjoy and I like the free baby edit you get when transcribing. It’s funny, I just wrote a post on this as well…maybe it’s coming back into fashion? :)

  2. Reblogged this on Chris Musgrave – Writer in Training and commented:
    Pen and paper drafting has always been my first choice.

  3. I love the magic pen to paper feels. For most of my eBooks, I write pen to paper first. I also do this because my first novel, Entice Me, had to be rewritten from scratch when my computer lost the only version!!

    I agree with the pros and cons above. I do find I write more and it is satisfying to see the story evolve. I also can quickly look back at finer details if I have forgotten. Great post.

  4. I always write my first draft by hand. For me, the extra baby-edit as you call it is crucial and I feel much freer. It makes me feel like a child again, just writing for the fun of it. Plus it gives you a great reason to have those beautiful notepads around that otherwise would be sitting empty! I do have the odd day where I write at my laptop, but the ease of a pen and paper will always win out for me.

    • oh my gosh, YES, it does feel so much more like writing for fun and less like writing for “work.” It really does help me connect with my inner child as well. That’s how i started writing as a kid…. in a notebook. Writing should never feel like “work,” haha! :-)

  5. I used to write my books on paper because I thought that was the best way to get a real ‘page amount’ out of them. Now, I only do my character bios and outlines with pen and paper. I type faster than I write and when I get a good click going with a pen, I cramp my fingers up. That ‘baby edit’ is a great idea though.

    I have noticed that you see things differently when they’re not on a computer screen. So, I make my first edit on a print out instead of on the screen. This also gives me a ‘baby edit’ when I type stuff in. Though, I will admit that a piece of paper doesn’t crash or get a virus. :D

    • OOH Great point about editing on paper. I totally agree that at some point, SOME edit needs to be made on pen and paper. For sure, no ifs ands our buts. I usually do that edit toward the end, not at the start. But at some point, it is crucial to edit a novel as it appears printed. Our brains just see different things looking a paper versus a computer screen!

  6. I did when I first started writing, and I liked the baby edit thing, as you said once i transferred to the computer i did a lot of correcting lately I have went straight to computer using scrivener for my drafts. I am considering going back to paper first also.

    • I have heard lots of good things about Scrivener! Never used it, though. It’s something I need to look into!

      • I find Novel Factory to be a very versatile tool for writing. It doesn’t have some of the features of Scrivener, but the guided walk-through is very useful. This feature basically walks you through the process of creating a novel from first ideas, through to submission, and uses a three-act template.
        You can create your own templates within that three-act structure, which allows you to define key-points in your plot ahead of time, or to use well known outline formats. It can be a little quirky in terminology, but I found it worth the time to learn, and adapt to my own production methods.
        It also allows you to tick off various phases of book production, keep an absolute ton of notes, and keeps information on characters, locations, and plot notes in very easy to use formats. Even better, because of the way it’s designed, you can print export almost any of that information at any time, and copy characters, locations, etc to other book projects with little effort.

  7. I wrote my first novel on six spiral notebooks. I wrote very early in the morning and by candlelight. There was something magical about that time. Composing during those early hours when the house is quiet and the sun hasn’t begun to rise. However, I made a dire mistake. I did not transcribe to computer daily or even weekly. I did not transcribe until the entire novel was complete. And let me tell you, then it’s a chore and a half to input into the computer. But it also had its advantages. I rearranged chapters, scenes, anything that didn’t feel quite right. Now for me, I wouldn’t do it again. I still write very early, by candlelight, and by the glow of the computer screen in a dark, silent house. Then I nap. :) And continue writing all day. When I flip open the computer, it’s like a trigger for me. My mind instantly blocks everything out and I’m “in the zone.” I don’t think I could get that with paper again. But good luck to you! It sounds like the perfect solution for you.

    • I love how opening the computer is that trigger to write! That’s amazing!!! :-P And WOW writing by candlelight certainly does feel like magic!

      • As magical as it sounds, I tried writing by candle-light a few times, and found it very stressful on the eyes. It severely limited the length of time I could write without breaks.
        When I’m on the laptop, I can often write for two to three hours at a stretch (as long as someone keeps me supplied with drinks).

  8. Author Jessica E. Subject

    I usually write in a notebook first for convenience purposes. I started when I had babies around, and the habit stuck as they got older. I’m not always on the computer, but I can write without having to turn it on. And when I have a notebook, I’m not distracted by the urge to check my email and social media. Your other points are great and very true. :)

    • OOOOH Yes i forgot about the social media distraction. BIG problem for me too!!! Writing on paper does put a stop to that!

      • Writing on the computer is an exercise in discipline at times. I found a very simple solution…
        I turned off the wi-fi on my laptop almost as soon as I had it out of the packaging. I keep my laptop connected to my router by cables. Cables can be unplugged.
        Internet distraction? What internet distraction? Has anyone seen my cables? No? Oh well, back to writing then…

  9. I have hypermobility syndrome which affects my hands, so for me, writing gets painful very quickly. At first it made me feel like I couldn’t be a “proper” writer because I’m not forever scribbling things down in a notebook. Now I just accept that everyone has a different process. :)

    • Oh, most definitely!!!! No process is superior in anyway to another. We’re all just trying to figure out how to write in a way that works for us individually. :-) There is nothing wrong with drafting on the computer. In fact, I’ve written full novels that way myself even though I do like pen and paper too!

  10. I go back and forth on how to write– often doing the bulk of my writing on the computer simply because I’m a fast typist. But I’ve always done scenes or character outlines or bits of dialogue in notebooks and have found that when I’m feeling stuck or unmotivated, handwriting something is the best cure. I’ve been revising my MS recently and last night I spent a couple of hours working through a whole rewrite of a major scene on pen and paper. Besides the fact that my hands were covered in ink by the end, it was a helpful and productive night! Thanks for the post.

    • I love how you have, over time, figured out what times and in what situations work best for you on paper versus the computer. I tend to be a rapid typist too, thanks to my Dad who bought my sisters and I “Mavis Beacon” as kids :-) So that helps with transcribing my written work a lot.

  11. When one can’t read one’s own handwriting, the decision is fairly easy.

  12. I also still tend to write in my notebooks and I like it quite a lot, especially when you can dig up old scenes you wrote years ago and suddenly become quite useful.
    In term of editing I often write poems down by hand, and usually they become way better as the ones I wrote directly on the PC.

  13. While I love writing with pen and paper, I do find that I’m far more productive at my keyboard. Having trained as a touch typist helps me keep the flow of words going almost as fast as I can think. I do have a habit though of going back to pen and paper for editing, because it slows me down, and I am forced to actually think of the story structure, phrasing, and pacing.
    I tend to keep my pen and paper sessions for brainstorming, troubleshooting my plots, and important notes that I want to be able to reference at little to no notice. Most of these notes are either diagrams (like story arc outlines, or relationship diagrams), or index cards full of timelines, character information, or notes on key points in the plot.

    • Everything you say here makes a lot of sense. I LOVE my pen and paper edits!!! They are so wonderful…. Like you say, I’m forced to take it slow and really think the big picture over.

  14. I’ve just started doing character studies in a nice notebook. I also use a fountain pen, and it makes me think differently about the characters. Maybe it’s because I have to slow down. I could never write a whole story this way though. Typing it up would kill me.

  15. Yes, I’ve posted about this myself. I used to write so much on notebooks, but now I’ve changed to writing straight on computer. I definitely agree with most of your points – there shouldn’t be, but there’s so much more creativity in writing on paper first.

    I wrote my sequel on paper when I spent two weeks in Uganda over CampWriMo last year, and, yes, I did probably get more written than I would have normally, but I haven’t yet finished typing it all up.

  16. Found your post from Elizabeth Spann Craig’s post on Google+. Great stuff, and I agree with everything, both pro and con. Had occasion about ten years ago to spend a lot of time visiting in a hospital room, and without a decent laptop, so I ended up writing 4-5 chapters in a steno book, then transcribing them later. I really think those chapters were much tighter than the rest of that back-of-the-drawer novel.

    I’m using a steno book now at work to jot down notes about plots, brief outlines that strike, and even character sketches (one good thing about a Day Job in a hotel!), and I may just head down that path when I start my next one.

  17. By the way, when I was writing on a Windows PC, I used yWriter a lot. Great outlining and editing capabilities, and it’s free. See http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html

  18. I try not to limit my creative process in any way. I’ve been known to write on envelops, napkins, scrap pieces of paper and have used a number of different computers. Some times my first draft begins on a computer but mostly on paper. I’m very tactile so I’m drawn to ink on paper. But it does have it’s draw backs–losing scrap pieces of paper, for one. But for me, what ever works rules.

  19. I tend to prefer the more classic ways of writing. Something about a blank computer screen can feel really cold and intimidating. I like to mess around with writing things on loose paper or especially in pretty journals. From time to time I’ll go really old school and break out my feather pens and a pot of ink. Writing that way forces me to slow down and think things through as I go and makes it a more relaxing experience. I also sometimes use an old typewriter. Writing on the computer, I have a tendency to make too many edits and corrections as I go, just because I can, which breaks up the flow when I could easily make those changes later. Writing by hand or with a typewriter there is no backspace…sometimes that’s a good thing.

  20. I am just starting on this adventure, and soaking in as much useful advice as I can. An issue I have is that, having worked in IT for more than a quarter of a century, writing somehow feels unnatural to me.
    I suppose it’s lack of practice, but unless I go back to my primary school methods – writing slowly, and really concentrating on forming the letters well – I have difficulty deciphering what I have written.
    I haven’t yet settled on a working practice, but perhaps I should give pen and paper a try, if only because it is less affected by power cuts!

    • It really is just a process of figuring out how you individual best write and most prefer to go about the process :-) Every method has its advantages and drawbacks. Don’t overlook the value of trying different methods for short periods and figuring out what feels right for you.

  21. I’ve always written my stuff on paper before transcribing to word/computer. Even poetry, I have to write it on paper first and then I can start typing it up! :)

  22. The difference between what I write by pen and paper, and what I type is massive! I stick to pen and paper now, as it’s so much better for my writing, even if I do get hand cramp :D

  23. I do a combo of both. Sometimes, I need a break from the computer and I will sit outside and write or hunker down in my bedroom. Sometimes, I even close my eyes when I use my notebook and visualize the scene. My penmanship isn’t always that great, but it really helps me get in the moment.

    I also love the nostalgic feeling of it. I can go back and look at my old notebooks, with little notes scribbled here and there, random ideas jotted down and even doodles and drawings.

  24. One reason I like to work at the computer is that I can look up reference photos at a moments notice. This is particularly useful in those instance that I’m having a hard time visualizing a scene, character, or location.
    I’ve had times when writing a scene has taken a longer period of time than I anticipated. I’ll use a reference photo, because I want to remain consistent in the vision.

  25. Pingback: Writing Longhand | Elizabeth Spann Craig

  26. Number four gave me a cold chill! I hate these types of typo – I cringe when I see them, especially on completed work! Nothing makes you feel more idiotic!

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