Fun with etymology: the word “manuscript” means, literally, “handwriting”. Manual script. Go back far enough, and the idea of a typewritten manuscript becomes an oxymoron.
Of course, it’s not as though we were otherwise spoiled for options back when manuscript implied handwritten. It’s impossible to imagine a word as basic and useful as “manuscript” clinging useless to its roots in a day and age when the act of writing can not only bypass the need for a pen and ink but even paper.
Somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that I don’t like writing by hand. It’s something I only did by necesity, in the dim and long ago ages that preceded this modern age of wonders, of computers that fit in laps and purses, or hands and pockets. For me, the practical end goal for any physical act of writing for me is to get it into a computer, where it can be edited, published, shared. Writing it all out by hand first must by necessity add a step to the process, slowing things down.
Why add to the overhead, if you don’t have to?
Increasingly, over the past decade or so, I’ve never had to.
So I haven’t.
Recently, I was a passing party to a conversation about classroom decorum and learning styles. The topic was teachers who punish students for “not paying attention” if they observe them doing something like doodling or surfing the web or reading or playing a casual game or fidgeting or working on something for another class during a lecture.
Many people made the testimonial that they had performed best when they had teachers who didn’t notice or didn’t care that they were playing Solitaire or scribbling in the margins of their notebook or working on math homework during another class.
I chimed in to say that I had done most of my best writing in high school and college during unrelated lecture classes, where I could sit there with an open notebook and appear for all the world to be taking copious notes. I never actually took any notes on any class, but I never forgot a thing I heard while I was filling another notebook up with my personal observations about superheroes and sorcery.
I did all or most of my writing that way, once upon a time. Even after school ceased to be a part of my life, I still carried my notebooks and I still threshed a lot of things out in them. I had less access to computers, fewer opportunities to hammer words directly from my brain into keyboards, less time to do it in.
I’ve never been nostalgic for that experience. As I said, it seemed like unnecessary overhead. But this conversation got me to think about how ever since I stopped writing by hand, I’ve been trying to find ways to change my electronic writing experience in ways that make it more similar to doing things the old-fashioned way. I don’t mean the whole stylus-scribbling-on-a-screen route. I mean making the electronic writing experience more portable, more casual, more tactile, and above all, more deliberate in the way that writing by hand is.
Physical keyboards that fit in my pocket. Smaller ones, that force me to slow my scroll. ILYS.com to keep me focused letter by letter, word by word. Internet nannies to keep my attention from drifting. I’ve never thought of these as being more like writing by hand, but they are.
So I started to wonder if the once necessary evil of having to transcribe my thoughts twice might not have been more necessary and less evil than I imagined it to be.
This is not a “kids these days” rant. This is not a paean to pen and paper over the soullessness of screens. Computers let me do what I do. I can’t write manuscript to society (or more particular, a school’s) specifiications, and the more I try to bring my output up to a level that’s legible to anyone who doesn’t already know what it says, the more exhausted I become and the worse results I get. Learning to type changed my life in ways that are all but indistinguishable from saving it.
Typing is second nature to me. When I sit down and put my fingers on a physical keyboard, even a tiny one like the kind that used to be common for smartphones, I feel an almost spirit-level connection to the machine. It’s like I think words and they appear. I can pour my thoughts out through my fingers and send them off into the world.
It’s like a kind of magic. The best kind of magic, in that it works.
But typing at the speed of thought is not always an advantage. When the story is fully-formed in my head, when the words are right there bulging up behind my eyes straining to get out, sure. Point me at a keyboard and standback. You’re about to see something.
But it doesn’t help me when I don’t know what the story is. There’s an upper bound on how much speed matters when I’m trying to pluck the words out of the aether, and the slower the words feel like coming, the more all of that extra speed just hangs around my uselessly, cluttering up the psychic space where the work is supposed to get done.
The truth is, the best writing I ever manage on a computer is all transcription. It might be transcribing something that I put together in my head and I can see as clear as day, or it might be something I put down on paper, but if I don’t have the words already in front of me in some form, the computer adds nothing to the process. All the productivity and inspiration gimmicks I’ve tried are just trying to make up for that.
Currently, I am engaged in an experiment.
I sat down here maybe half an hour ago with a brand new notebook and a fat gel pen and I wrote the words, “Somewhere along the line I convinced myself that I don’t like writing by hand.” I’ve had these words in my head for a few days now, and they were the only ones I started with.
Here I am, six college-ruled pages later, and my pen hasn’t stopped moving in thirty minutes.
I’ve poured this whole essay out onto the page in order, except for the etymological digression that now forms the introduction. That came to me at the top of the second page, so I wrote it, blocked it off, and then continued.
The experience of writing in this way is familiar, but completely different from the one I’ve gotten used to. When I write on a computer, I have to carefully manage my environment and my emotional state. Any little thing can throw me off, and anything that throws me off even a little can upset the delicate balance on which it has seemed my creativity depends. To write at a computer, I need solitude and privacy and emotional security.
Here, as I write this, I am in a crowded coffee shop. I brought headphones, but I’m not using them. Intruding on my consciousness are not just all of the background sounds of a busy cafe, but the details of the three nearest conversations. Two are mothers going over reading assignments with their small children, and the other one is political. None of them are particularly irksome (I’m a bit charmed to note that one of the children is only reading books that were part of Sad Puppies Review Books, but then, the classics are classics for a reason), but I know if I was trying to write a blog post on an electronic device (to say nothing of a story) I would have to plug my headphones in and screen out all the noise.
Given my formative experiences as a writer, though, it should be no surprise that these distractions don’t actually distract me when I’m writing by hand. I used to write superhero stories and RPG mechanics while listening to history lectures. I used to code game stuff while answering a customer service line.
Still, it’s nice to have it confirmed. That was the point of coming here in the first place. I had a hypothesis and I am testing it.
Some things about this experiment made me nervous, mind you. It bothers me not being able to quantify my progress in terms other than notebook pages. How many words is that? How many real pages (by which I mean, 250 word intervals) will it fill? I suppose that if I keep this up I’ll get a better sense of that sort of thing.
For now, I just have to be satisfied with the knowledge that I am writing, that the words are flowing fast and free. This part of the experiment was a success. You will know the second part succeeded if you are reading these words, because that means I found it equally easy to transcribe this text into my blog and post it.
My recollection is that this was not only a fairly quick chore, but an easy one. Not only am I a lightning-fast typist, not only am I able to type accurately without glancing at the keys or the screen, but I am an exceptional transcriptionist of my own thoughts. Once I have written a thing, looking at the source is more like getting an occasional refresher than anything else. I have resented the task of typing up a manuscript I scripted manually only because it seemed annoyingly redundant, not because of any actual annoyance.
If this impression holds true, then I might have turned a real corner in my approach to the writing process. I might have found the practical break I’ve been looking for.
If you do read this on my blog, file this one under “personal breakthrough” rather than “writerly advice”, folks. My general advice is and will always be to do what works for you, but never stop trying new things in case something works better. Try this for yourself if you want, but don’t feel like it’s a necessary part of doing things right. I mastered typing at a young enough age that I’m “fluent” in it, but I still came of age before there was quite the ubiquity of consumer electronics there is today. I suspect if I’d had a phone in my hand instead of a notebook on my desk during those long hours, things would have turned out differently
On the subject of trying something new: even if the second part fails, or is not an unqualified slog, and by the time I reach these words I am sick to death of the whole thing, it’s still good to be trying something. It’s still good to have another trick arrow in my quiver for when I get stuck.
Succeed or fail, this is an experiment. Whether a hypothesis holds true or not, the only real failure state for the experimenter is being afraid to try.
As I type this, I am once again writing out of my head. I have run out of words on the paper. I see now that in the hour I spent writing in the coffee shop, I wrote ~1,800 words. That’s really good. When I’m writing, I consider 500 words every half hour to be my target and 1,000 words in a half hour to be an exceptional streak. It took me 40 minutes to copy this, so counting this as 100 minutes’ total of writing work, I’m still on-target for my goal of 1,000 words an hour.
It did take me a whole day more than I intended to type this up, as when I got home yesterday I didn’t really have a suitable set-up for propping up a notebook where I can comfortably read it. What I’m doing right now isn’t a long-term solution (it is literally just propped up), but it works.
After writing the body of this blog post in the coffee shop, I spent a half hour writing bits of a story I started a while back but which I have had a hard time figuring out a way to continue, to make sure this method works as well for fiction as it does for meandering personal essays. It did. Then, last night, while watching a TV show I’m interested but not hugely invested in, I also sat and wrote a bit of flash fiction. I can’t multitask like that when I’m writing on a computer, can’t even have a movie or TV show on “for background noise” (though I admittedly have never seen the appeal of that in general). With pen and paper, though, I could follow the story on the screen and the one in my head. It’s possible I followed both of them better, because my mind wasn’t constantly wandering to other things.
So I think this is going to mark a change in my writing process. The associated gadgetry with this one is cheaper, at least. I spent $1 a piece on three notebooks, and another $1 on the pen. (It was a nice-ish one, on clearance).