The Pen is Mightier (or at least works better for me)

I took a math class where the professor required students to write the equation in one ink color, do work in a different color, write the answer in a third, and then circle it in a fourth. It took a long time to do assignments this way and was generally irritating. The prof’s reasoning was based on a study that said forcing students to switch writing implements helped us learn better. I wouldn’t take a class from that professor again because of the aggravation, but I did best in that class of any math class I ever took. The act of switching pens allowed me to shift my brain over to a more mechanical step-by-step process. I could imagine myself as a computer taking the instructions from the equation and applying processes to get the answer.

When I write fiction, I write notes and first drafts longhand on paper with a fountain pen. I don’t use four colors to write with, but I do write in non-standard colors and write different stories or different POV (point of view) characters in different colored inks to help my brain switch gears. In my current project I label one POV character’s scenes in red and one in yellow in Scrivener so I’ve split the difference and draft in a pretty orange color. Picking a color I don’t see when I’m doing other kinds of work really helps put my brain into the right mode and allows me to focus.

I don’t revise as I write in pen. On the computer I can backspace 10 times faster than I can type. Writing in pen is the only way I can give myself permission to write badly. I cross stuff out, sometimes write the same few lines 3-5 ways, but every word I write is still there on the paper at the end of the day. Seeing my true word output goes a long way toward a sense of accomplishment. I measure my first drafts in an estimated word count based on 100 words per pocket notebook page. My actual word count is 110-120 per page, so I purposefully under-estimate because that 10-20% is what I lose in the first typing. I am a terrible over-writer. My edits cut words overall even if I add sections. A recent short story drafted in at around 10k. The first typed version was around 8k and the second pass dropped it under the target of 6k.

I have a tendency to stare off into space when I’m writing. If I do that on the computer, my ingrained tendency from data entry work is to tab over to something else to regain my focus, which I do, but not on the thing I was working on. Working on paper removes that possibility. Sometimes even when I’m typing up work I have to put Freedom on so I can’t get too distracted. If I need to look something up, I write myself a note to do it when I type it up. If I can’t continue without looking something up I’ve probably done something terribly wrong in the story.

My equipment for writing is totally analog. I can work anywhere, anytime. I don’t need a power outlet, wifi, or even a table or desk. I often drive to a pretty ocean vista and write for an hour or two.

There’s a distinctly tactile feel to writing on paper (especially with a nice pen). I can literally feel the words take shape. I am a very spacial and tactile person. I love sculpting with clay, but can’t get my brain to grok the same techniques in a digital sculpting program. I utterly fail at any sort of flying game that gives me an x, y, and z axis to control… cause I can’t feel the movement and get turned upside down and backwards within seconds. I need that tactile feel of ink flowing onto paper. It’s just how I’m wired.

This is what works for me. I’ve experimented and flailed around with lots of different things.

Sure, some of this is just because I love buying pens and different colored ink– but it works for me. Every so often I’ll get it in my head that I’m going to start drafting on the computer because I type 80-120 words per minute. I type MUCH faster than I can write. Every time I try it… I’m ten days into things, struggling with every word, and have little to show for my efforts.

My battle cry when writing is: “We’ll fix it in post!” I used work in video production, and it’s something you say when there’s a snafu but for whatever reason you’re not going to re-shoot it. It’s a more professional way to urge people forward to the next task. If you want to finish a project, you have to move forward to then end– then you can fix it. It is A LOT easier to cut the path you want in a mess of words that aren’t quite right than it is to lay them like tile. Unlike four hours of footage no one had a mic plugged into the camera, you really CAN fix everything in post in writing. For me, writing in pen is the way I keep kicking my own ass forward.

One thought on “The Pen is Mightier (or at least works better for me)

  1. I am also a draft in pen sort of girl. Drafting at the computer seems like I’m writing for work, and that’s the last thing I need if I’m trying hard to be creative. Thanks for reminding me that the change of perspective may be what it takes to get things going!

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