Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Computer vs. The Yellow Pad

Agatha Christie had her notebooks — somewhere in the realm of 73 handwritten volumes filled with character ideas, random plot points and storylines. Elmore Leonard is rumored to order a year’s supply of canary yellow pads at a time. But I had never considered writing a first draft in longhand until I broke my right hand last November in a car accident.

I used to be a diehard computer fiend who regarded the laborious process of writing longhand with scorn. But, with the deadline for my new book looming this coming April, I knew I couldn’t wait until I was able to type properly again to make a start. Fortunately, I am left-handed. (By the way, this post has taken me quite some time to write because my right thumb and forefinger refuse to move across the keyboard).

On January 1 (a new year resolution) I dug out my old Waterman fountain pen and, armed with a few yellow pads and a large bowl of M & M’s, I got cracking.

1. When I write straight onto the computer I’m more likely to spend hours rewriting, self-editing, overwriting, censoring, copying and pasting paragraphs until they are perfect. I waste time.

2. I type much faster than I write so that when I am typing, it's easier for my typing to catch up to my thoughts and then I stop and repeat all of point 1.

3. When I write with a pen (and it must be a fountain pen) and pad (it must be yellow), I can never write as fast as the thoughts come. Maybe it’s a trick of the mind but since the thoughts just keep coming I find myself in the “flow.”

4. Another bonus is that if I'm uncertain about something, I can scribble a couple of alternate versions in the margin and just keep on going. This means that when I can finally type it up, I will be able to decide on the best version, maybe return to an original idea that I’d forgotten about. With typing you can change words in seconds but you can't recover your first ideas.

5. I like the freedom of being able to scribble symbols, use post-its and draw connections in the margins. Typing is linear and for me, seems to constrain my thinking.

And of course, there is the satisfaction of picking up a pile of yellow pages of scrawl, clipped inserts and post-its that equals a very, very rough first draft.

Roy Peter Clark in his excellent book Help! For Writers maintains that, “Yellow paper announces to the critic, internal or external…. Step back!

On the computer screen even preliminary drafts can be deceptive with that finished, professional look. Sure, it looks neat and tidy but it’s great at disguising all kinds of muddles. Today I am looking at my grim 126 yellow pages of terrible handwriting (but 126!!!). I know exactly what they are — messy pages in need of serious work.

But I have something to work with and that makes me feel as if I am making real progress.

12 comments:

Aline Templeton said...

Im a dinosaur - I still satrt off longhand, until I get into the flow, and then put it up on the screen to play about with. When I find myself getting stuck, I still revert - I can 'hear' what my characters are saying more clearly without the clicking keys!
Do hope your poor hand improves soon.

Rick Blechta said...

Welcome back, Hannah! Great post.

Hannah Dennison said...

It's so great to be back Rick. Aline ... I feel as if I have reinvented the wheel.

Rick Blechta said...

I'm glad to hear you're using a fountain pen. I love using mine. For some reason it seems to make a difference to the way I think: more deliberately and thoughtfully. Weird, I know, but there it is.

Hannah Dennison said...

I LOVE my fountain pen and yes, I know exactly what you mean. I even write more neatly!

LD Masterson said...

Unfortunately, I've gotten to the point where I write like I type. I keep trying to edit as I go - which leads to lots of scratching out and drawing lines and arrows until I can't read what I'm trying to write and end up starting over.

Hope your hand heals soon.

Donis Casey said...

Welcome back! I compose both on yellow pads and on the computer AND on computer pages I have printed out. I'll tell you, writing on the computer does not save any trees as far as I'm concerned.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Welcome back, Hannah! And thanks for the fascinating analysis of what I have felt all along. I write my first draft long hand. It can be yellow pads, white pads, stapled together computer paper, or whatever - napkins, I suppose - but I agree. I get into the flow much better. I think it's partly the speed of writing; it allows me to think ahead at the same speed as I record. I also think it's conditioning. For almost half a century the creative muse visited best when I curled up with pen and paper, not at a machine. It also helps that the tools are eminently portable to the best place in the house.

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Michael said...

Very well put. Sounds very similar to the way it feels to me to write on a typewriter, and is why I prefer to write that way, or else with a pencil. Writing with a pencil, or with a typewriter, I feel a lot more like I'm creating something of permanence and consequence. And I feel more physically connected to the words.

aliya seen said...

I can 'hear' what my characters are saying more clearly without the clicking keys!
Do hope your poor hand improves soon. thesis typing services