The PC or The Pen: Which is Best?

Do you prefer the pen? (or quill?!)

I do most of my writing straight onto the PC. (With the exception of my ‘Morning Pages’ which I do by hand but which, I must admit, have gone by the by just lately..! Note to self: start them again!)

But many writers prefer to write their first drafts using a good old-fashioned paper and pen.

Writing by hand slows down the process and allows for thinking.

Writing guru Julia Cameron compares hand-writing verus typing straight onto the PC, as the difference between driving at 60mph and 80mph. At the slower speed, you notice yourself and your surroundings more. She believes that ‘we get a truer connection – to ourselves and our deepest thoughts – when we actually put pen to page.’

But for others, writing by hand is too messy and laborious. A handwritten page will never look quite as professional – or as ‘finished’ – as a neat page of Times New Roman 12 point.

But which is best?

It may of course, depend on what you’re writing and whether you can touch type.

Linda Lewis makes the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. If she’s working on a short story, then she writes by hand first and then types it up (as a first edit) but for non fiction, she goes straight to her PC.

“I find that writing fiction requires more fluidity. Non fiction is more structured. I know what I want to say and just say it. Stories are different. Organic, if you like. I often start with one thing and end up somewhere else entirely.”

Or do you prefer a screen, to a page?

Novelist Samantha Tonge, on the other hand, swears by the PC and her touch typing skills. She used to hand write but when she changed she felt ‘it was a relief to be able to edit, without crossing through, and not have to type up at the end of the day.’

Samantha also admits that, like many of us, since she learned to touch type her writing has degenerated anyway and it’s just so much quicker to type.

Of course, many argue that it’s easy to lose work on a computer. There’s always the risk of power cuts, corrupted files, forgetting to back up files or even – as happened to novelist Louis de Bernieres – having your laptop stolen. (His contained four chapters of a new novel and he didn’t have copies. He said, at the time, “I never make disk copies of my work because I am not a computer boffin. I prefer just to do print-outs on paper after I have finished each chapter. But I had not been doing that because I had been writing in the summerhouse and the printer was indoors.” The thieves stole his laptop from the summer house…).

But equally, notebooks can be lost or stolen too and you’re even less likely to have a copy of those.

Certainly, though, one advantage of hand-writing, is that it’s ‘portable’. Most of us can manage to tuck a notebook and pen into a bag or pocket, ready to be whipped out whenever we have a spare moment or a flash of inspiration.

It’s not quite so easy to do that with a laptop and indeed, if you’ve ‘trained’ yourself only to write when you’re sitting in front of your PC, you could be missing out on lots of writing opportunities.

Director Quentin Tarantino never uses a keyboard: he writes all his own screenplays by hand. “It’s a ceremony. I go to a stationery store and buy a notebook — and I don’t buy 10. I just buy one and then fill it up.”

Of course, for many writers, the actual process of writing is a deeply pleasurable one, linked to choosing just the right pen or pencil and the perfect notebook (lined, or plain? A4 or A5?).

Writing by hand is certainly a great excuse to indulge a love for stationery.

But there are other options. Barbara Cartland famously dictated her hundreds of romance novels to a secretary, as she inclined on the sofa!

Not many of us could afford such luxury – or, if we’re honest, have the ability to verbalise our thoughts instantaneously – but if you like the idea of ‘speaking’ your writing, you can buy speech recognition programmes for your PC that will type up your words as you dictate them (has anyone ever tried one of those?).

If you’re still typing with two fingers, why not set yourself the challenge of learning to touch type and speed up your accuracy and typing skills? It’s not difficult (I managed it!) – it just takes a little practice – and there are plenty of free on-line courses on the internet eg: Typing Club here.

But beware of the overriding danger of typing up the first draft of anything: it looks finished. You’re likely to be more reluctant to start tweaking a piece of work when it looks so polished, whereas, a rough draft on paper, complete with crossings-out, scribbles and notes in the margin, looks like a first draft and you won’t be so resistant to changing it.

So, PC or pen? Which is best? At some point, your work will almost certainly need to be typed up, so the temptation to go straight to the screen is always there.

But don’t neglect writing by hand. You may find it liberating. And it’s a reminder to all of us, that writing is, after all, a craft.

Based on an article first published in Writing magazine, 2013.

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13 Responses to The PC or The Pen: Which is Best?

  1. Wendy Clarke says:

    My stories are written as one draft straight on to the computer then a quick read through for mistakes. I only use a pen for notes (even then I can’t read my writing!)

  2. Beverley says:

    Handwriting first, then typing, which as you pointed out, achieves the first edit.

  3. juliathorley says:

    I mentioned at our Weaving Words group just this afternoon those gatherings are one of the few occasions when I literally put pen to paper, apart from the occasional scribbled note to self when the muse strikes while I’m out and about. Certainly for my non-fiction features etc I always use by PC. I can’t use a laptop because I’m a touch typist and the keys are too close together.

  4. simonwhaley says:

    Like Linda, I often write first draft fiction in longhand, but type first draft non-fiction straight onto my computer. Mind you, I’ve also been doing Morning Pages again recently and found my handwriting improving a little!

  5. Kate Hogan says:

    Everything is straight onto the computer for me these days. I like to see my words looking tidy, and also because I can shift sections of writing around to see how they work best – too hard to do that when handwriting. I’m wondering if left handers prefer to use longhand as it may activate their right hemisphere, which is supposed to be (for most people) the creative side of the brain. Good wishes KH

  6. pennywrite says:

    I learned to touch-type a long time ago via a blank keyboard with a screen. Not sure how it worked, but it only took two weeks to get the basics! So, invaluable. I write (and edit and re-edit…) stories, on computer, but poems for some reason must *always* begin as handwritten efforts.

  7. Jaci says:

    I love this. Thank you! I’ve wondered if I was crazy still handwriting stuff. But I’ve just received affirmation from your words. Sometimes I’ll go straight to the pc, as I think it’s so much easier to cut, copy, paste, edit. But there is something beautiful about writing a story by hand; there is a different body-and-mind connection when there is a pen involved. Like painting on a canvas.

    • Jaci, that’s so kind of you to take the trouble to tell me you found this useful! That’s given me a real boost! I love the image of writing being like ‘painting on a canvas’!

  8. worldsrooom says:

    I think that starting a piece of writing the old fashioned way with a pen has a lot going for it as i think it is more spontaneous way of working, especially if you have restricted typing skills as I have. It is that much easier to cross things out and write things into the margin when ideas are at the undeveloped stage and it is certainly quicker for me to write this way, although theoretically word processing should be faster.
    Typing out a first draft from a hand-written script has the advantage that it is easier to have a good look at what has been done so far and I often do alter what I have written by hand quite a lot at this stage. It’s easier to move chunks of text around on the screen too, without having to mess around with scissors and tape etc as well as correcting spelling and grammatical errors at the same time. The spell-check helps a lot here although it obviously doesn’t tell you whether what has been written is sensible or logically presented, still less whether the content is very inspired. As always you have to rely on the grey lump inside your head for that and comments by people whose judgement you trust!

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