Is the Pen (or pencil) still mightier than the keyboard?

April 26, 2013
By Mary Hutchings Reed



We’ve been writing together for a year now, and, if you did the page-a-day thing, you’ve got a manuscript ready for editing.
I’m guessing, though, that a page a day — while a worthy goal — is too ambitious for a first-time novelist who is also practicing law, full or part time. There is so much to learn, not only about the mechanics of writing a novel, but also about your own creative process.
For sure, it can be slow-going in the beginning, but writing is a craft never completely mastered, and a personal process which is ever-evolving.
After 15 years of writing, my own personal process has changed in the last few months — and it’s a surprising and welcome change. I’ve come full circle to a new answer to one of the oldest questions around — pencil or pen?
Or, put in more modern terms, by hand or computer?
It’s always been a computer for me. I’ve managed to churn out more than 3,000 pages of creative writing — 10 novels, 18 short stories, three plays and one memoir — all by sitting down at my computer and typing, more or less every day.
At a writing session with a fellow lawyer and writer recently, she scribbled in her notebook in pencil (the thought of which made my hand cramp) while I struggled at the keyboard.
She was writing her first novel; I was working on a rewrite of my 10th, and was trying to respond to the (helpful, at least in retrospect) criticisms I’d suffered at our shared workshop the previous weekend — my scene was too distant, too lacking in emotional detail, not well-placed in a visible setting.
Not too good, in other words, but perhaps worth saving. I was trying to write new scenes, to find memories and other experiences that influenced my characters and to discover deeper meanings and insights.
My friend’s words seemed to be flowing, so I took out an old college-ruled spiral notebook and started writing (in ballpoint pen —while I like the sound of pencil scratching on paper, it’s so much easier at my age to read blue ink) and followed her example.
To my delight, as I began to write, I found the emotion and detail I needed, as if the emotions I felt for my characters found their way out in the physical act of writing rather than typing.
I slowed down.
Details I would’ve rushed over suddenly had a place.
Scenes opened up.
Slowing down meant that I spent more time in one setting and in one moment. I could, in my imagination, “see” more details, get a better feel for the sounds and smells and sights of the scene. And they always say that it’s the details that lead to insights into character.
It occurred to me that my pre-law journalism training had taught me to write at a typewriter, and when I typed, my writing had a tendency to revert to the journalistic — telling rather than showing, efficient rather than dramatic, fast-paced rather than lingering.
Coincidentally, over the past month, the Fiction Writers Guild discussion group on LinkedIn has been overflowing with answers to a posted question: Does anyone still use paper and pencil?
“Yes!” came the overwhelming reply, and not just, as may have been expected, from the poets. Novelists and story writers claim that in pencil their thoughts flow better (the “flow of oil on canvas” one person wrote); the process slows down, gets more personal, can be done anywhere.
Some, more practical, claim that by handwriting they avoid premature deletion, failing to save, corrupted data, warring versions in errant folders, low batteries and other terrifying “failure” messages from their computers.
I’m just saying that as you become more familiar with the craft and techniques of novel writing that we’ve been discussing over the past year, you will also discover your own comfort zone, your own preferences and your own creative processes.
And in time, like me, you’ll discover the benefits of venturing out of your comfort zone and avoiding the rut of your own routine.
P.S. While writing this column, I experienced no hand cramping and sustained fewer chips to my manicure!

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2 Responses
  1. Carma

    Hand vs. computer–on the surface it seems a matter of personal preference (and hand cramping predilection)–but you have dug beneath the surface, using (presumably) your blue pen.

  2. These days, I’ve taken to doing most, if not all, of my writing by hand, in pencil, and I’m enamored by the idea of a handwritten hardcopy of everything that eventually makes it up on the blog. I’m not a purist, by any means, which is fine because that’s not the point. The point is in taking the time to do this thing. SITW is about carving out a niche in my life where I consciously take the time to sit still and listen, to reflect, to write, and to share. It only seems sensible that pencils would be implicated in all of this.