The Handwritten Draft

2016-06-26 handwritten_post

With so many digital tools at our disposal these days, handwriting often seems so far behind us. Of course many of the individuals whose work I read online are more likely to keep the faith than others, however when the words generally end up as pixels, perhaps it can be hard to justify transferring them from one to the other.

Some time ago I posted a picture on Twitter containing a page of handwritten words with a caption noting the (blog) post was now complete. In response, one commenter stated there was no way they had the time to perform such an undertaking. Another was surprised the proportion of posts I wrote this way was not higher (which I believe I estimated at around 30% at the time).

At the time I considered this for a little while and then didn’t really pay much attention to the thought — until more recently, when I realised the number is now reversed, with around 70-80% of posts you read here written longhand in their draft form1. A complete reversal of that proportion is a significant change, and for such a change to occur without a conscious plan to do so, suggests there are factors at play which perhaps warrant a little more thought.

My typical digital writing workflow

Looking back to the first couple of years of writing here, it is not hard to remember how things went. Ideas were kept in Evernote (often appended to the one note via a Drafts app extension); stimulus and/or reference material gathered online was largely stored in Pocket; and occasional post outlines created as mind maps using MindNode.

Sure, some handwritten notes were made in various pocket notebooks or slightly larger variants, however things were largely digital, and as I think back on it, the proportion was perhaps even higher than the estimated 70% of my original estimation. Even those handwritten ideas soon became text in Drafts or Evernote.

So the digital basis for a post was created, and all that remained was perhaps for some from of outlining and a first draft to follow. As I mentioned above, planning (on the rare times it occurred) was generally undertaken as a mind map, followed by writing — initially in Byword, and since 2014’s NaNoWriMo: Ulysses.

This process seemed to work for a good while, and I was happy enough for it to continue.

Why the change?

Well, in many respects, the following from Steven Pressfield which I linked to in last week’s Wiser Web Wednesday rings true:

For years I dove in on Page One, put my head down and started hammering keys. That’s not always a bad idea. Sometimes it works. But what usually happened for me was I’d get halfway through before it hit me that I was totally lost. Or I’d finish completely only to realize that I basically had to tear the whole house down and start over.

I’ve alluded above to the “rare times” post outlines occurred for good reason. If we take, say, 70% as a reasonable estimate again — that is about the proportion of posts which were written by sitting in front of the keyboard and writing. No real plan or outline other than a few random notes perhaps. That is not to say these posts were necessarily of high quality having been written this way, simply to say I may not have necessarily completed them all with a different approach.

As time has passed, I’ve found this an increasingly difficult way of getting words down on these pages at an acceptable quality and rate. On the surface I am not entirely sure why that is, however suspect (and hope) my writing has at least improved to some degree since commencing this blogging endeavour in the first half of 2013. Like many (I assume) — I don’t tend to go back and read many of my previous posts, however there is probably immeasurable value in doing so. If we then assume I would like my writing here to continue improving, a little more structure was needed.

Part of that structure began with increasing my use of those mind maps, and more recently, outlining in Workflowy. Perhaps there is something in the outlining versus mind mapping debate as far as which suits my style of planning best, however that is a post for another day.

Additionally, a gradual increase in the use of pen and paper to jot down some thoughts, turn them into an outline, and expand into the first draft seemed to improve the process immensely — and certainly did not go unnoticed. In considering how this change had come to be, and whether I should throw more effort into handwriting these posts, I received an article from a friend on this very topic — by author William Boyd, writing in The Guardian:

One great advantage of a longhand draft is that, in transferring it to the computer, every single word is written at least twice. Then the computer draft can be endlessly revised.

When you write in longhand you’re unconsciously aware of aspects of your prose – such as sentence length, cadence, rhythm, repetition, prolixity – that I find keyboard writing doesn’t alert you to in the same way. Also you can see all the litter of the progress you’ve made that day – the scorings-out; the arrows; the insertions; the bubbles; the second, third, fourth choices. The page reflects the mental effort that the screen doesn’t. It’s a toiling, messy business writing a novel.

Now of course I am not talking of novels here, and am always loathe to make comparisons with those who are actually writers (even though I’ve now done it twice in this post already), however the above quotes state quite succinctly what I believe to be occurring here — particularly the thought on every word being written twice, and the possible advantage to that type of approach.

So, in changing how I approach my writing here, where have I now ended up?

My writing process now: analogue first, digital later

For all of the words you’ll read in this post, here is where things are decidedly uncomplicated — probably a very telling point in itself I believe.

There is a pen. There is paper. They have a simple job in getting words on a page, and typically perform it admirably without interruption, syncing, charging or crashing. Save for a few ink refills, once I’m up and away, I’m well…up and away.

That said, I always think it is a little disingenuous to compare pen and paper directly to the digital tools at our disposal these days. After all, there is a heck of a lot those digital tools can do — and do extremely well, that our humble analogue favourites cannot. Once those words are transferred into the digital realm, they are available to me everywhere; are searchable; editable; and eventually exported and published.

As I mentioned earlier, a post starts as an idea, is expanded into an outline (which may equally occur in digital form), then written as a longhand first draft – all very simple.

Sure, those original source containers remain, in places such as Pocket, Safari, Notes, or even web-captured PDF’s, however you’ll find a good many more on scraps of paper or in pocket notebooks as well. Put an outline in Workflowy into the mix, displayed on my iPad beside me, and the handwritten words simply flow.

For those who perhaps may be interested in the specific tools, let’s just say it is a team effort — with many of the fountain pens, inks and notebooks I own all playing their part. You may have previously read about some of them — or may indeed do so in the future.

Of course, some of you reading this will have no doubt been writing this way for a long, long time — particularly pen bloggers and the handwritten review, to which none of this is particularly ground breaking — a fact I readily acknowledge.

Advantages of writing in longhand

Now, I’m sure we’ve all seen various articles around the web reporting on the benefits of taking notes by hand as far as retention and learning, however that is not what I’m talking about here.

In slowly transitioning to writing a larger proportion of posts this way, you would be correct in thinking there must be some underlying benefit. For me, the benefits are two-fold: more enjoyable writing, and more effective writing.

As far as more enjoyable writing is concerned, there would hardly be a pen lover amongst us that would not enjoy using their favourite pens and inks on a more consistent and frequent basis. Fountain pens are drained, more inks are sampled and notebooks filled. Contrasting inks are used for editing and revision. It is not so hard to see the benefits here.

I’m a little suspicious that somewhere in the recesses of my mind I seek to continue this cycle of more pens, more inks and more notebooks — though I am hoping for perhaps a more noble conclusion about this improved writing process.

How about more effective work?

Explaining the benefits I see in this aspect of my writing is perhaps a slightly more difficult proposition to those heavily invested in digital workflows for such a thing. The fact I have written many more drafts this way which remain unpublished is a victory in itself — for the more I write, the more I’ll eventually publish. As I’ve written about before, unpublished posts remain so often due to topic rather than process or quality, though of course not publishing garbage is also an ongoing aim.

So just how is writing in longhand more effective for me? Quite simply in the flow words onto the page. I’m a bit of a tweaker really, and when writing digitally at a keyboard, tend to stop, think and edit a little as I go, which on a first draft, ends up taking an eternity, given the amount of editing and rewriting which occurs. When drafting in longhand, I stop, think, and then continue writing — saving the editing and revisions for a few inserted notes, highlights or strikethroughs later, followed by an automatic editing stage as the handwritten words are transcribed digitally the first time.

I find I am far more effective at actually getting from start to finish, and by the time the first digital draft appears in Ulysses, it has been reviewed and has been rewritten as it is transcribed.

A final read through and revision is (usually) all that is then required before publishing. Conversely, with all the stop start editing, a post beginning its life in digital form may see a two-fold increase in the number of edits and revisions made prior to posting, for I believe no great improvement in content or quality. Even the “just jump in start writing” approach was in the past more effective than the constant “write and tweak” which tends to occur the longer I have a post in my Ulysses drafts folder.

Put simply — drafting in longhand sees more writing and less endless tweaking. A win for me by any measure.

Pitfalls of this approach

With any approach to something like writing, things will never be perfect, and yes — of course there are some disadvantages to writing this way.

One such disadvantage I’ve found is in covering some of the same ground twice. At times I don’t always have the same notebook with me, and in picking up where I left off (or at least thinking I am), I’ll occasionally rewrite a section.

Why I do that is anyone’s guess, and you could validly argue why on earth wouldn’t I remember where I was up to — and to be honest I cannot really answer that. Of course this is simply a process fault which could be easily rectified by ensuring I do have a specific notebook dedicated to this process which is always available when I need it. The reason that perhaps won’t happen is that I’m often trying out different notebooks and enjoy a little variety what I am using. In any event, yes it may be wasted time in some respects, however on the plus side I do get to then choose from the better draft, and I’d also refer you to the more enjoyable writing paragraph above.

To a lesser extent, even when I do use the same notebook, given these drafts often occur in fits and starts over a number of days, most sections of the posts have other material interspersed on pages between them, so there is a little flipping backwards and forwards at times through the actual notebook. Not a big deal, and assisted by reasonably consistent indexing and notations of page numbers.

Finally, and probably most obvious to many who write digitally — time. Yes, this approach would of course take far longer than an exclusively digital form of writing, with syncing across multiple devices and ease of editing, rearranging and rewriting those words. If that is how you write, you’ll hear no argument from me, and I’m certainly not advocating throwing away your keyboard.

Things have simply changed a little in how I approach my writing, and I am finding it far more enjoyable these days, so thought I’d share a little about the changes, and my thoughts around these processes.

Signing off

There is nothing like sitting down and outlining, drafting and revising a post such as this one, to point yourself in the direction of possible improvements in some of these processes — and this one is no different.

It looks as though I may need another notebook or two, some more ink, and maybe even another pen. Such a shame. If my new-found longhand writing process requires a few more tools and a broader experience in using them — I’m all for it.

While you may not end up reading them all, I can guarantee there will be plenty of writing going on, and for that I couldn’t be happier.


  1. Of course here I exclude the Wiser Web Wednesday link posts, which are generally put together via the iOS share sheet extension and sent straight to Ulysses ↩︎

Wiser Web Wednesday

Wiser Web Wednesday – a weekly link to posts of interest from around the web:

Gourmet Pens
Azizah takes a look at the Rhodia Ice No 16 Notepad. I have linked to a review of one of these previously, however this one is worth having a look at for the gorgeous colourful test writing alone. I was also pleased to read I am not the only one disappointed by “messy tears”:
Review: Rhodia Ice No. 16 Notepad A5

Nock Co.
Nock Co. is fast becoming another one of those sites where you go specifically for one or two items, and checkout with a full cart. Are you kidding me? Now we have TWSBI pens and Organics Studio inks to throw in as we wander the store. Great value too, however the groan you heard was the collective stationery budget around the world stretching a little thinner:
Nock Co. On-line Store

Mac Sparky
Following along nicely from last weeks link to Les Posen’s Presentation Magic, now up for sale on the iBooks Store, is David Sparks latest Field Guide, which will help you create exceptional presentations. It’s also made specifically for the iBooks format. You can read a little more about it on David’s blog:
The Presentations Field Guide is now shipping

The Pen Addict
As I do not own one myself, it was only fitting I read about Brad purchasing his third! No bitterness folks. All jokes aside, I have always been wary of acquiring one of these untried, as I do have concerns the clip position may annoy me a little. This is a great looking pen though, and the title contains two my favourite descriptors, gun-metal and matte:
Pilot Vanishing Point Gun Metal Black Matte Fountain Pen Review

Serious Eats
Another article by Nick Cho for Serious Eats, this time on the science and technique of making French Press coffee. A coarser grind and longer brew time of 6–8 minutes probably a little different to what most are used to:
Coffee Science: How to Make the Best French Press Coffee at Home

Matt Gemmell
What better way to put down some thoughts on the lost art of handwriting than a letter. No, really… a letter.
Handwriting

Pentulant
A review of the Kaweco AL Sport, in a fantastic grey body. Why, it’s almost gun-metal:
Pen Review: Kaweco AL Sport

Kickstarter
If you are anything like me, consideration of various pen and paper related Kickstarter projects is a fairly regular occurrence. This one is a beauty, which I have backed to the tune of two each of both the No 1 and No 2 notebooks. The customisation feature is a winner, and though still deciding on the cover, inside it will be dot grid on Tomoe River paper:
Stateside Co. Notebooks

Improving Penmanship: Self-torture or worth the effort?

A few thoughts on penmanship.

The above title originally included the term personality traits, however given I lack a background in psychology, would likely have been a little misleading. Demonstrating certain obsessive traits in relation to pen and paper is a pattern of behaviour many in the pen world are all too familiar with. What follows is perhaps a commentary on human frailty as much as it is on well-formed handwriting. Personally, it is also part of an evolving process, which I may return to in future posts, these being my initial thoughts on the subject. This post is not ten steps to improve your penmanship.

Which brings us to the (dark?) art of penmanship. An interest in pen and paper, along with the large number of sites reviewing such items, exposes one to many styles, types and qualities of the handwritten word – clearly desirable if we are seeking an accurate portrayal of those products being reviewed. A double-edged sword no doubt, which can lead to awe, excitement and envy all at once.

So, what exactly is penmanship, and why does it matter to me?

Defining Penmanship

Here we can simply turn to any dictionary, or in this case Wikipedia, and find something along the lines of:

Penmanship is the technique of writing with the hand using a writing instrument. The various generic and formal historical styles of writing are called “hands” whilst an individual’s style of penmanship is referred to as “handwriting”.

Although no more accurate than any dictionary you may consult, the Wikipedia link above contains a photographic sample of “classic American business cursive handwriting known as Spencerian script from 1884”. Therein lies the problem – or magic depending on your view. Have a look at this sample Spencerian script – it looks fantastic, albeit is not something you will find much in business communication these days.

Irrespective of whether you like this particular style of classic cursive handwriting or not, the point is not the specific style itself, rather, what I believe to be the two characteristics making it attractive to the eye. Uniformity and consistency. Generally, even if a page of handwriting is less than perfect upon closer analysis, to my eye at least, if the letters and words are consistently formed and line after line demonstrates uniformity, what you see is an attractive page of writing. Whether it is legible or not may be another matter.

Motor Control

Interestingly enough, that same Wikipedia page talks about motor control (co-ordination), which is something I do have a background in, having studied this extensively in both my University degrees. Firstly, handwriting is an acquired skill. There are various internal components (posture, grip, speed etc) and external components (pen and paper type, surface etc) that need to be controlled or at least addressed to produce a certain output on the page.

Further, as learning proceeds and a specific style becomes embedded from continued repetition, certain components of the skill require less conscious thought. These become automated, allowing concentration to be diverted to aspects that make a significant difference to the resulting skill output (a key difference for example between how professionals and amateurs in most sports process tasks related to skill performance). Finally, as handwriting is a skill, it can be broken down into various components and re-learned. That is, handwriting is not an innate behaviour, and if we address some key components, the art of producing a stylish handwritten page is achievable – with a certain amount of effort.

Why does penmanship matter to me?

Let’s be clear in what I am saying here, my penmanship matters to me. I do not judge yours, nor I am I saying I believe you owe it to yourself to write better by hand. I will commend lovely script on a page to myself or others, however will not hold anyone to task over a page of chicken scrawl, as I am more than capable of producing exactly that myself.

Why does it matter to me then? As any reader of this site knows – quite simply I love pens. Does this love of pens necessarily require me to have great handwriting? Not really (thankfully), but I sure like it when that is what I see. As my collection of fountain pens (and inks) slowly grows, I feel not making at least some attempt to write well does not do such fine instruments justice. Perhaps a flaw in my thinking or an unnecessary standard, however one I believe in.

I also take pride in what I do, which is where things can become a little obsessive. I will never set the blogging world on fire, nor do Master Penmen or calligraphers have anything to fear, however I put a great deal of effort into what I write – both digitally and by hand. It therefore pleases me when I produce something I believe to be of reasonable quality, commensurate with my ability, that is attractive to read and look at. Even more so if what I have produced closely resembles my initial intention.

It therefore disappoints me when my handwriting misses the mark, whether through a need for speed (often ill-perceived), or simply carelessness, which sometimes I accept, however is mostly cause for a little rumination. The worst kind? When all the stars align, I have the perfect pen, an enticing blank page, all the time in the world, that quote from The Cramped in my head:

The page is blank. Own it.

…and it just. Goes. Wrong.

Finishes writing. Sits back and…wait. What happened there? This is where we enter the world of self-doubt, second guessing and well, a little self-torture. I may tear out the page and try again. A different pen, different paper. Take a break and re-write it later. Often enough, the first version was the best one anyway.

A final word – for now

Far from being a tale of woe, my point here is simply this – for something that does matter to me, with concerted effort I still believe I have the capacity to make significant improvements should I choose to. “Choosing to” is by no means a guarantee of success, as only through a mindful approach to handwriting, sustained focus, a clear aim and much repetition, am I likely to see positive results on a consistent basis.

So, in the end, is making an attempt to improve my penmanship really worth it? Philosophically, my answer is a resounding yes. The reality may be less resounding, however is yes nonetheless.

Pens Down – InCoWriMo Reflections

photo

No doubt many are saying “well that’s InCoWriMo done for another year”. Not I, given it is the first year I have participated. For those unfamiliar with this February activity, from the organisers:

InCoWriMo challenges you to hand-write and mail/deliver one letter, card, note or postcard every day during the month of February.

Although my decision to commit to the InCoWriMo (International Correspondence Writing Month) challenge was decidedly last-minute, I’m very pleased I did. There is a lot to be said for the written word, even more so for the hand written word. The extra thought, planning and overall contemplation relating to words committed to the page by hand, seem to make them somehow different than those tapped out in an email, tweet or blog post. There is no select all and delete if the first couple of sentences are wrong (yes, I did restart more than one letter), nor is there backspace for the misspelt or improperly formed letters or words. Having set myself the challenge of no strike-out out corrections, I managed to keep this to only two for the entire month, far better than I expected.

Beyond the enjoyment of writing to those who were on my list, of course the main attraction was putting pen to paper numerous times (well 56 to be precise – see an explanation of this below) over the course of the month. Who knows, perhaps with more notice I may have stocked up on a few new pens, rather than merely new inks.[1]

I can’t help but think in my ideal world, a letter held in the hand of the recipient would somehow mean more than a hastily sent email (likely with typo’s), sitting in a cluttered inbox along with spam, bills and random newsletters, likely to be missed or accidentally deleted. The act of turning the envelope over to check the identity of the sender, tearing it open (perhaps with an exquisite silver letter opener), unfolding the Rhodia[2] paper and smiling at the ink colour and contents on the page. Hopefully an appreciation of the time taken by the sender to think about, and physically craft what is now in the hands of the reader.

The recipients themselves? Hopefully each enjoyed the surprise in their mailbox, and also the words inside those envelopes. Words of thanks, appreciation, love, encouragement, support and idle chatter. Letters went out to friends, family, pen company CEO’s (courtesy of the contact details on the InCoWriMo homepage), a couple of my favourite pen podcasters, fellow bloggers, and Eric Schneider of InCoWriMo, who will receive letter number 28. My initial joke to family members advising they may receive more than one letter because I would run out of friends did indeed eventuate, however lets just say I wanted to write them another one (yes, let’s go with that).

Apart from that spoken of above, by far the most rewarding aspect was my commitment to also write a letter a day to my lovely wife, bringing my tally for the month to 56 letters in all (pleased it wasn’t a leap year). A feat I am very proud to have completed. Obviously I will not go into any details here, though writing to someone you are very close to on a daily basis is quite an enriching experience, and one I highly recommend if you have ever considered anything similar. Daily for a month a little much? My suggestion would be to sit down and write just one letter, and be amazed at what comes to mind – just try it.

So, in summary, the whole InCoWriMo experience was an extremely positive and rewarding experience for me. Will I be doing it again? Absolutely. Will I be embarking on it’s “sister event” NaNoWriMo come November? That, I am not sure of. Do I have a fifty thousand word novel in me? Don’t we all think we do? The question is whether anything worthwhile will come out over the course of the month. Perhaps I should simply put together thirty 1700 word letters with a somewhat cohesive plot!

Contemplating InCoWriMo next year? Do it. You certainly won’t be sorry you did.


  1. For those interested, J. Herbin Indien Orange, Montblanc Irish Green, and Montblanc Burgundy Red.  ↩
  2. Rhodia No 16 Dot Pad  ↩