Wicked Wednesday: Pen or Keyboard? Paper or Screen?

Edith, North of Boston

We’re talking analog versus digital today. How do you work when you write? Fountain penWould you rather take a finely crafted pen to a tablet of smooth paper, or do the words flow best when you’re typing away on a keyboard? If you combine the methods – no, NOT scribbling on the screen with your pen – when does paper and pen let the creativity flow better than a computer, and vice typewriterversa? Or do you, as with a friend of mine in California, collect analog (that is, “old-fashioned”) typewriters and type your manuscript on one of them? (And yes, that IS the Sisters in Crime New England chapter logo…)

Jessie: I do both. For each new novel I set out to write I grab a black Rhodia or Moleskine notebook and a trusty gel pen, preferably purple. I then begin asking myself questions in the notebook and answering them in a variety of ways. I often leave spaces in case something occurs to me later that I wish to add. Often, as I write the answers, one becomes clearly the right answer, so I circle it. I go one in this fashion until I have enough information to begin the story. For me that is probably about a third to a half of the book. At that point I begin setting up notecards in Scrivener on my computer. Whenever I get stuck I head back to my notebook and look at what I was thinking earlier. If that doesn’t solve the problem I ask myself more questions. I go back and forth between the first draft is complete.

Edith: I primarily write my books and stories on a computer. I might be on my big laptop in my home office, I might be on my little netbook on an airplane, or I used to might, um, I could have even been found jotting a quick scene at my day-job computer, when I had a day job. I’m now using Scrivener and love it but used Word until this summer. But I can certainly take advantage of a slow period on vacation at my in-laws, say, and pull out a piece of paper at the kitchen table. Scribble on whatever’s handy at a doctor appointment. Write on on a deposit slip while waiting in line for tickets. The other way I have to use paper is to read my work. I need to print it out, take it to the dining table, and apply my red (or purple, Jessie!) pen. You see things very differently on screen and on paper.

circaBarb: Like Jessie, I’m a mixed media woman. Everyone who knows me, knows my constant companion is a Levenger Circa notebook (junior size) in which I keep my calendar, to-do lists and chronological notes–from groceries to writer’s group feedback, to Level Best business to day job notes back when I had one. When I start a book (or even a short story–since they take me months–not to write but to go through all the drafts), I set up a Levenger Circa letter-sized notebook and that’s where the brainstorming happens. A smooth-flowing gel pen is a must.

I used to write out scene cards and write first drafts longhand, but now that all happens in Scrivener. But if I’m really stuck, I’ll go back to longhand. I took a class at Kripalu with Laraine Herring who said after she finishes a first draft, and really knows what the book is about, she goes back and does the second draft in longhand. I’ve never taken the time to do this, but I think, if I did, I would write a better and certainly a more literary book. For me, there is still a difference in the writing I do based on the technology I use. But I’m also hugely grateful for the modern tools we have and I couldn’t imagine the days before cut and paste.

scrivenerfdcoverSherry: I stubbornly stuck to pen and paper for a long time thinking it was more creative. I felt like there was a mystical link from brain to pen. But writing then typing was too time consuming. The first three chapters of Tagged for Death poured out of me onto the computer. Like Barb, when I get stuck I often go back to pen and paper and usually move out of my office to another spot like the front porch, weather permitting. I have some scene notes on paper. Thanks to SincNE and the Gwen Hernandez Scrivener class I plan to start using that program soon.

Liz: I’m a laptop girl. It’s much easier for me to sit and bang out a draft on my computer (using Scrivener, of course), and I especially love the notecards in the software. It saves me from locating index cards, scribbling a few notes on them, and then losing them and trying to remember the notes. This way, everything is right in front of me.

I do go to paper when I’m editing, often to write out my timeline and see where the gaps are. That’s been helpful in getting the last details down, or closing the last few holes in the story. Like Edith, I also print and edit at least twice in the process. I get to a point where nothing makes sense anymore when I’m staring at the screen, and when I see it in black and white I can unravel whatever mess I’m in. I write a few notes in the draft, but then I’m back at the computer usually within minutes to capture everything – and I find that process often jogs my creativity and helps me solve the problem faster.

Julie: Part of me wishes I wrote on paper. It is so much more mobile. But I write on computers, and edit on paper. Scrivener has both made the process better and a little more complicated, but I have realized that I need to bring my laptop with me, and just keep working whenever I can.

I also either print preview or physically lay out the pages to see how the manuscript looks. Do the chapters “look” even? Does the pacing feel right? Where are the plot points? For some reason, this is very visual to me, and really helpful when looking at the manuscript.

Readers: How do you create, whether it’s stories, poems, letters, or artwork of the non-verbal kind? Are you attached to paper or a digital medium? And what do you prefer to read on?

22 Thoughts

  1. I do digital. Speakus digitalis. I speak to my computer, and up it goes on the screen. What I say is what you see. The speech to text program that comes built into each Mac is intuitive. It requires no training and is excellent. It suits the way I write. I have an idea. I write it down. The next day I read it, and as I go through I add things and take things away. I push and pull it in different directions. New stuff grows this way every day. Now my book is sorting itself into chapters. I enjoy writing. I’m not an outline person or cards person. That may come later, but for now I’m writing the way I wrote my academic papers. I do the research. I come up with a plot thought. I write. I’ll let you know how it works out when I’m done with this. It might suck.

    1. So glad to hear that speech to text works for you, Reine. Long long ago I was employee #16 at Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, one of the early speech recognition pioneers. Word-by-word dictation didn’t work quite as well in 1983. ;^)

      1. Thanks, Edith. Kurzweil makes great devices. I started speech to text, because typing with chewing gum stuck on the ends of a pair of chopsticks was getting tedious. Oh sure it could get out a dissertation. Here and there a thesis. Whip out the essays and lab reports as needed. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. But could it write a book? Well yes it could. If I live to be 150. Give up sex, sailing, firemen’s musters and lobster cookouts…

    2. I wish I could do that! I’m a rotten typist and I’ve experimented with programs like Dragon but I can’t seem to get the words to come out of my mouth. It’s like they get stuck in my throat and they will only come out my hands. It almost feels like I don’t even know the story at all until I move my fingers. I think that is why I begin by writing questions to myself. I envy your ability to speak it!

      1. Jesse, I spent many hundreds of dollars on different versions of Dragon and could not learn the commands or train the program. One of my sons, a computer programmer, pointed out that my computer had a built-in speech to text program, as do all Macs. I tried it. It wrote down every word I said. All I had to do was remember to say the punctuation. But even that is not necessary. I just keep writing. I got the hang of that doing NaNoWriMo. It is important to keep watch. Sometimes what I think I say is not what my iMac Dictation hears.

        As for the problem you mentioned, I had a similar experience. I started practicing using speech to text by reading something I had written. After I was comfortable with that, I started adding sentences and words here and there—rewriting. That did it. My hands always thought they were doing the work. It was so difficult why wouldn’t they? They forgot that the ideas came from my mind and soul. Nobody knows where they are located. They are happy now for the recognition and no longer fight with my hands.
        Written with the help of my service dog Kendall
        And iMac Dictation

      1. Hi Patti, You’ll find it in Systems Preferences in the Apple icon drop-down menu.

        Here’s the map:

        1. Apple Icon Menu
        2. System Preferences
        3. Dictation & Speech
        4. Click Dictation—On

        If that doesn’t work check to see that you have Internal Microphone Selected. You can use an external if you prefer. In that case you have to make sure you have entered the external mike(s), so it will be recognized. When my Harman Kardon SoundSticks gave up their last Leonard Cohen after 22 years, I found that the internal speaker worked better for speech to text—for me. I suggest not leaving the odd looking round mike thingy on your desktop, rather just let the small mike icon pop up when you cue it (double-tap on fn key lower left on mac keyboard).

        If this doesn’t work, and you’re still interested you can email me or friend me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/reinehc where I can post pics.

  2. I started typing when I was three (well, there’s a picture of me at a typewriter,, and I’m wearing a dress–serious stuff!), probably to imitate my father, who had atrocious handwriting and typed everything. But I type so much faster than I write manually, so now it’s just more efficient. The only exception is when I hand-write notes to myself about where I think the plot is going, and what holes I have to fill–that’s done in pencil, on a college-lined white pad. I do keep a running spreadsheet as I go, so I can look at pacing, and to keep days straight. I still prefer to read on paper (my own edits, and other people’s books), although I use an e-reader now and then.

  3. I still write 90% of my short stories longhand. I often write a basic first draft in one sitting, and it helps me from over-writing because I know, at some point, my hand will start to hurt. A lot of that is mental. I’ve convinced myself it’s my process. For creative nonfiction, I need my laptop because I write in layers: the creative part with placeholders inserted (“info about prison libraries here”). I got back in and fill in the parts I need to research.
    I read everything on screen, so I am accustomed to it, but for my long WIP, I am sticking to a physical storyboard and note cards. I think that is mental too: I want a break from the screen.
    I do think there is more intimacy when you write longhand. That’s probably why I do short stories that way.

  4. I write digitally, but that is probably because I’ve been at a keyboard for about 40 years and it’s faster and more legible than hand written. It also is less painful for me; writing by hand these days cramps my hands. I even edit digitally more often than not. I save hard copy readthrough for the very last editing run.

    I’ll get ideas and jot them on a notepad. I keep a half-sized pad with my Kindle so if I’m reading and get an idea, I can jot it down. I convert a completed work to Kindle format so i can see how it flows and have it feel like a purchased book. I did this for another writer’s ms I’m critiquing and I forgot I was critiquing! It was so well done that I began wondering when i had purchased it.

    My memory works very well for me in retaining an idea i get and can’t write down, but I’ve gone to meetings with brief notes written on the directions (from when I’m stopped at a red light) and I’ve been knows to come back from lonnng meetings with a whole separate sheet of ideas for projects (work) as well as stories.

    1. Ah yes, writing fiction during long meetings! I have done the same. And jotted things down at a stop light. Interesting method to read your own draft on the Kindle. I’ll try that, Claire.

  5. I write on the pc in my office (I don’t own a laptop) and revise by hand with a red felt tip pen on a printout, on the screen porch on a day like today. Since I wrote my first few published books ( and a whole bunch of unsold ones) on a manual typewriter, for me this is technologically advanced! I keep thinking I should try Scrivener, but you know what they say: if it ain’t broke…


  6. Wow, great to see so many Scrivener users here! Thanks for the mention, Sherry. 🙂 It’s interesting to see everyone’s process, and helpful to know that there’s no single right way to do it except what works for you.

    I write in Scrivener (no surprise, right?), but when I need to brainstorm, I like to do it on paper. Or better yet, a white board. There’s something about knowing how easily it can be erased that I like, and I think the physical movement recharges my brain cells. I really want a giant, two-sided one on wheels for my office. I’ve been dropping hints to my husband, but it hasn’t appeared yet. 😉

  7. Oh, too much typing on keyboards in my life…please, give me a cool fountain pen & creamy white stationery & I’m in heaven. I still send handwritten letters to an Aunt & my second adopted Mom. My aunt still writes back (very quickly too). Emma can’t write back but her daughter reads my letters to her. I worked in a library in the 19080s & 1990s and had a Kurzweil machine available for the university’s students. It was very futurist to me.
    I’ll never give my fountain pen and paper (cold dead fingers pried from it…borrowed from Charlton Heston).

  8. Prefer reading print books but have made a gradual begrudging move to digital for books especially those that are only paperback. I have a Kindle keyboard module which is great for traveling & very long battery life before charge needed, but more & more I’m tending to read on iPad (iBooks) which allows me to see the beautiful and creative book covers. Remembering the illustrated covers helps my memory list of what I’ve read already. As my eyesight continues to age, I anticipate more digital unless I can get the Large Print or audiobook editions of mystery authors that I read!

  9. I type and write longhand, depends on my mood and what I have to do. As a journalist I have typing hard-wired in my brain, but when I want to free write it works better by hand. Somewhere away from my desk, can be anywhere – that’s the journalist in me again, any time any place anywhere! A mug of coffee is helpful though. SD

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