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For Writers — When I'm Stuck— part 2

The Power of Handwriting.

A lot of people find it surprising that I often write by hand. The thing is, typing doesn’t come naturally to me — oh, I can type pretty fast, though not with conventional typing techniques. I never learned typing at school —  I attended an academic high school where things like cooking and typing and woodwork and sewing weren’t taught. A mistake, I think, as all of those things are useful for life, not just for work. But computers weren’t a standard household object back then, and typing was thought to be a skill only needed by girls who wanted to be secretaries. (!)

So my typing is fast, but not accurate, and as I’m a good speller, it bugs me when I make a typo and I have to go back and fix it as soon as I spot it, which stops the flow.

So I will often pick up a pen and write by hand. I call it my “scribble” but the truth is, when I write by hand whatever scene I’m working on or struggling with comes to me much easier than sitting and staring at a computer screen.

Partly it’s because I tell myself that when I’m writing by hand, it’s very much a rough draft, and doesn’t matter, whereas on the computer my subconscious expects me to make it perfect — and there’s nothing like perfectionism to block a writer. So I tell myself that when I go to type up this scene, I’ll edit as I go.

But the truth is, the writing flows much better when I write by hand. So when I’m stuck, I’ll take myself off to my local library — no computer and my phone is turned off— and I make myself write at least three A4 pages before I can leave. 

I will also hand-write whole scenes or dialogue exchanges that come to me in the early morning or late at night as I’m drifting off to sleep. Usually these are scenes that I’m not up to in the story yet, and I don’t like to type them up because by the time I get to that point things might have changed and the scene won’t work then. But often they do, so it’s very much worth doing, because if I don’t write it down, I’ll probably forget it.

That semi-dream state between waking or sleeping can be most productive. Some of these have sparked whole books, and even a series. With my first book, Gallant Waif, the ballroom scene that comes close to the end of the book was the one that first came to me. It’s scribbled in a notebook somewhere. As is the scene where Gideon meets Prudence in The Perfect Rake, and the scene in The Autumn Bride where Abby meets Lady Beatrice. There are others, but I won’t bore you with an endless list.

There is Science Behind Handwriting
I’m not the only one who writes by hand. Quite a few famous writers are known to write by hand some or all of the time. There is science behind this — it’s not just an old-fashioned quirk of a lousy typist.

Writing by hand unleashes creativity not easily accessed in any other way. Brain activity studies have shown that neural activity in the brain of people writing by hand has a kind of meditative effect on them. Mindful writing rests the brain, potentially sparking creativity, and can activate large regions of the brain responsible for thinking, language, healing and working memory.

It certainly works for me. So, when I’m stuck, I start out by asking myself (in writing) questions about the scene just finished, or the character’s state of mind, of sometimes how I’m feeling about where I am. I answer the questions (also in writing.)

Quite often an answer about what a character’s thinking or worrying about will suddenly morph into a snippet of dialogue, and sometimes that will just flow out and before I know it I have a while scene. I said above that I will edit it when I type it up, but in fact, a lot of the time, especially if it just flowed out onto the page, it’s fine as it is. Those scenes I mentioned above are almost unchanged from their scribble version.

So if you get stuck, try taking yourself away from the computer, pick up a pen and try handwriting. You probably won’t always write deathless prose — sometimes it takes a while to get moving — but it might just surprise you.
Previous post about what to do when you’re stuck.

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3 years ago

I always have a notebook by the side of the bed. Some of my best things come to me at 3am which lately seems to be my normal wake up time, rather than the 4am that is usual. I have a sticky spot I’ve come to a standstill with that I think I should pull out my big notebook and a pen for…

Kathleen Jennings
Kathleen Jennings
3 years ago

For some reason when I pick up a pen it’s often easier to draw the story — but that still gets it moving!