Why I Write by Hand

Claire Handscombe


“You write by hand?” People would ask me, after I told them that I’d just filled a couple of notebooks with the first draft of my second novel.

“Concentrate,” I wanted to tell them. “That’s not the important part of the story. The important part of the story is that I just wrote a first draft in a month! A month! 50,000 words in thirty days. It’s for this thing called NaNoWriMo, see, and…”

“Yeah, but still,” they’d say. “By hand? Who writes by hand these days?”

It’s a no-brainer for me. My first drafts are always written that way. Maybe it’s because I’ve always loved stationery, the blank notebook waiting to be filled with neat handwriting which inevitably becomes less neat as I progress through the pages. It says, the way it used to at the start of a school year, this is the beginning of an adventure.

Or maybe it’s because I found my voice, one spring day, sitting on the grass in St James’ Park in London, writing the beginning of my first novel by hand. Before that, I had the bones of my story, but I knew I didn’t yet sound like me. And so I feel — and it’s completely irrational — as though my voice is somehow tied up with pens and paper.

Lest you think that writing by hand is only for the sentimental and nostalgic, let me assure you that there are practical reasons too.

Switching into creative mode

I am in love with my iPad. But when I sit down with a pen and a notebook it signals to my body and to my mind that I am going to be creative now, that it’s time to shut out the other distractions which clamour for my attention.

Limiting distractions

That means no Facebook, no Twitter, no email, no blogging. If you are able to sit in front of a computer and not switch constantly between those things, I applaud you. I am not. So a notebook and a pen work best for me.

Not being at the mercy of a computer’s whims

It’s not only the internet, of course — which, theoretically speaking, I could switch off. Computers, I’m sure you have noticed, have a mind of their own. While you have your back turned, making a cup of tea, you might find that it’s decided to restart itself for one of those periodic “updates” that it claims are essential. Did you save your work? Of course you did. But me? I can’t always trust myself to.

Oh, and I like to drink coffee when I’m writing, too. It’s only happened once, but I have been known to kill a computer by spilling an entire cup of tea onto it. I have no intention for this to happen again: to lose not only my writing, but everything else on there, would be devastating.

I don’t want to be worrying about any of those things. I don’t want a Skype alert to pop up, remind me that I really do owe such-and-such an email, and yank me from the fictive dream. I want to be dreaming, imagining, brainstorming, enjoying the company of my characters. I want to stay in the world of my story.

Writing on the move

There were particular reasons for doing NaNoWriMo this way for me that first time, too. I wrote the first part of the book while I was travelling. I didn’t need to worry about whether any batteries were charged. I didn’t need to put my notebook away when the flight attendants asked us to switch off electronic devices. A notebook takes up less space on the tray table; I didn’t irritate the person next to me by sticking out my elbows, or with the click click clicking of my keyboard.

A notebook also takes up less space in my bag, and weighs considerably less than a netbook or even an iPad. And it’s also much less likely to be stolen. When you are doing NaNoWriMo, you need to steal snatches of time to scribble a few hundred words wherever and whenever you can. This means having your notebook on you, with you, at all times (which we all do anyway, don’t we?). Even if you are spending most of the day sightseeing, as I was, you pop into Starbucks, bring out your notebook, and draft the next scene. If you’re planning on joining others in a café for a write-in, there’s no need to pop back home or to the hotel first to pick up the computer. It saves time — and time is a valuable commodity in the crazy month of November. It’s no mean feat to fit in 1,667 words a day, every day for thirty days, however you write.

A tiny down side… but it’s still worth it

“Ah,” you say, thinking you spot a flaw in my plan, “but how did you know you were on track to finish on time? How did you count the words?” By hand. Yes, it was tedious. There’s no denying that. But you know what? It was worth it.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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