To Write or To Type: That Is The Question

I recently stumbled across a thought-provoking essay entitled “The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand” by Daniel Chandler.

He proposes that there are at least two different “types” of writers–Planners and Discoverers–and that these contrasting personalities might prefer different modes of expression (i.e. writing by hand vs. by word processer). In his words, “Planners tend to think of writing primarily as a means of recording or communicating ideas which they already have clear in their minds; Discoverers tend to experience writing primarily as a way of ‘discovering’ what they want to say.” He acknowledges that every writer is a bit of both–writing would be practically impossible without some planning beforehand (you must at least have the kernel of an idea to begin), and, on the flipside, it would be rare for an author to craft a story without discovering anything new along the way.

But if you had to choose, which do you identify with most strongly?

I, myself, am a Planner–I retell a story to myself over and over in my mind before I set the first words on the page. I believe this brings authenticity to my stories–they are not written until they are real–but I do not undervalue the sparks of discovery that the writing process inevitably ignites; sometimes the best moments in my stories occur when my characters take charge and do what they want, with complete indifference for my tidy outline.

The essay goes on to explore how these two orientations might differ in terms of  values, self-revision, editing, and language precision, as well as the role that writing tools (pens vs. pencils vs. word processers) play in this process. Here’s an excerpt:

“Different tools vary in the support they offer for revision, and their use tempers the experience. Writing by hand is not limited to the pen: the pencil is in some ways a quite different medium. Henry Petrosky (1989) suggests that the pencil is ‘the ephemeral medium of thinkers, planners, drafters and engineers, the medium to be erased, revised, smudged, obliterated, lost – or inked over,’ contrasting it with ink, which ‘signifies finality.’ It is a medium supportive of design. This may begin to explain why some literary writers prefer to begin in pencil. Hemingway wrote initial drafts in pencil: ‘You have to work over what you write. If you use a pencil… it keeps it fluid longer so that you can improve it easier’ (Strickland, 1989). Many writers, of course, experience a similar fluidity with the word processor. The word processor extends the malleability of the written word. Paper ‘sets’ text, but text on disc and screen is ‘wet’ and workable. Some writers enjoy this sense of fluidity. However, some report that the ease with which they can edit encourages them to be ‘sloppier’ or less critical than they feel they are with the pen or the typewriter (where words must be pre-considered). Some feel that the word processor encourages them to do too much editing, and leads to a loss of spontaneity. And as we shall see, some simply find screen-based text too ephemeral.” (Chandler)

I don’t have the time or space to summarize the entire essay (and it’s better to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, anyway–read the full text here: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/phenom.html), but, based on what you’ve just read, I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder: Do you write by hand, or by word processer? Could your choice of tool affect your creativity? What are the pros and cons of each mode of expression?

It’s been a LONG time since I’ve written by hand–I like to edit as I go, and I find that typing is a much quicker way to get my words on the page–but Chandler’s intriguing essay makes me wonder just what I might have to gain from reconnecting with the physical act of writing…

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mick White
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 12:51:02

    I write by hand–I make more forward progress writing in a cheap notebook–on a computer, I tend to go over the same sentence again and again. Typing the handwritten words into the computer then becomes my first revision…I wrote my novel at a time when I was working as a cab driver, in my notebooks while waiting for fares….And there is also a cool sensuousness that is achieved as the pen drags across the page….

    Love your blog–we’re appear to be interested in many of the same topics…..

    Reply

  2. psychofwriting
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 16:35:10

    Thanks, Mick! I, too, tend to go over one sentence again and again when I type, and I’m much less likely to do that when I write by hand. In that sense, writing by hand is a better option if I just want to get the words/idea out quickly and then worry about revisions later.

    Writing also has a nice “back to basics” feel to it–you can leave technology behind and craft your story with nothing but a pen/pencil and paper, the same tools that millions of writers have used for decades…

    Reply

  3. Gbenga Awomodu
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 19:23:04

    Thanks for sharing this relevant piece… I’m much of a planner myself, but the discoverer soon takes over… I write by hand in small journals that I move around with and this is advantageous because it helps preserve spontaneous expressions; but I am also cool with typing straight on to my laptop (I prefer this when I am working on long pieces of writing). On the overall, I think writing with the pen helps me to easily outline crude ideas that can be better refined later on using a word processor… It all depends on the situation at hand.

    Reply

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