Low-tech Writing Strategies


Recently I blogged about my favorite high-tech writing tool, Scrivener. Today, though, a bit about the benefits of going low-tech–at least some of the time.

It’s not just me, either. Award-winning author Neal Stephenson describes how writing with an old-fashioned fountain pen fits in his writing process:

JM: You write with a fountain pen.

NS: Yes.

JM: Have you always done that?

NS: No…I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it. Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.

The idea that slow is better may come as a surprise–but the time to think is a big boon, especially for folks who tend to write best through a careful first draft. Another thing here: how it feels to be writing. I share Stephenson’s sense that there’s something more satisfying physically in long-hand composition. (For me, another benefit is the reduced temptation to distract myself from my task via the Internet.)

My writing process is a hybrid one. Although I tend to write “the real novel” with a word processor, much of my pre-writing happens long hand. I work extensively in two notebooks. The first is a medium-sized moleskin for jotting ideas, taking notes, copying quotes. The second is a larger-format notebook dedicated to a single novel project. I work in it from both sides, one side for research and background information, the other for character development, exploratory sketches, and preliminary scenes.

Stephenson’s process has a few more elements worth reading about. Here he discusses the different pens he uses and why:

NS: … I’ve got this one here, which is a Waterman, that my wife gave me in, probably, 1988. So that’s a twenty-year-old pen. It’s got a fine nib, and I don’t normally use it for first drafts. I use this for editing. I’ve got a couple of fat-nib pens that I tend to use for the first draft. One is an extremely high-tech Jorg Hysek pen that’s made out of carbon fiber and advanced metals; it looks like a cruise missile. I wouldn’t buy such a thing, but someone gave it to me, and it’s my favorite for first draft stuff. Then I’ve got another Waterman, a Rotring, and a couple of others. I tend to do first draft in a thick nib. And I have different color of ink in each pen. Then I go back the next day with this Waterman, and do the editing pass, so I can see the contrasting colors and line widths, and kind of assemble a history in my own mind of how this page came into being.

Of course, you don’t need to go buy any fancy-pants pens, but you might find that changing colors at different stages of composition helps you organize your process. I’m thinking of giving it a try.

Read the whole interview with Stephenson·here.


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