One thing I’ve found to be almost universally true of writers is that we all have terrible handwriting. My theory is that because our heads get rushed with creative ideas, our minds flashing by creating whole worlds from the seed of a single thought, our hands struggle to keep up the pace. As a result, we form a sort of scribble that we can get down fast enough to capture our ideas which is also legible enough to enable us to translate what we’ve put down. I honestly have no concerns about people reading my notes, no self-consciousness about what they might find, because there’s almost no chance they’ll be able to read them. It’s like a cross between cursive and hieroglyphics, the only things missing are a few illustrations of the Eye of Ra and a cat or two (if I were to add these pictures in, it would, if anything, make more sense). It’s even worse when I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that I just have to get down – I don’t want to wake the kids, so I scribble notes in the dark. In the morning I see these sloping sentences, wilting down the page. It’s generally enough for me to remember what I was on about, but that’s about all it’s good for.
But despite this, despite the fact that my handwriting resembles that of a cliche movie psychopath, I write almost everything by hand as a first draft. My approach is that I write first on inspiration – I play an idea over and over in my head till I start to imagine it in full sentences and it’s almost too much for me to not write it out. Then I get a pen and start putting it down – I find the connection between thought and handwriting more natural than typing it out straight away. This is mostly for fiction work and longer form non-fiction, for many shorter pieces (like this one) I can put down a few notes when they come to me then just type it when I get the chance. But for more involved stuff, it will almost all be done by hand first. I would say 85% of my first novel is scrawled across three or four Spirax notebooks that are now somewhere in my study. Every element of the book started in handwritten form.
The next phase of writing is the logical, where I make sense of the writing, clarify the paragraphs and structures, etc. I find that having a hand written version to start with is conducive to this practice, as you have to re-write every single letter. You can’t pick and choose, you have to go over each part as least once, giving you a more analytical overview of the work. As I go, I’ll add in bits where they fit, I’ll read sentences out loud if they don’t feel right. I’ll re-construct parts entirely if I ever feel myself drifting from the story – that’s the best indicator that what you’ve done isn’t working. The story should hold your attention, even if you’re the one who wrote it. While you’re very familiar with the content, if you feel yourself drifting at all, thinking about the shopping, a TV show, anything other than the piece as you read, it’s worth going back and re-working the section you faded from to ensure it keeps the reader hooked. If you’re drifting, most likely your readers are gonna’ drift too. And again, having a handwritten start point helps highlight things like this because you have to read it all in order to enter it in. It effectively forces you into doing a full second draft before you can do anything else.
I then try to leave my work for as long as possible to get objective distance from it, clear my head of it so I can re-read it more as a reader than a writer. Even when I read novels I always think of ways I would change sentence structures and paragraphs, so editing comes pretty natural for me, particularly with the perspective of leave from the work. And by that stage it’s moved into a full-typed form – I might write hand-written notes down as I think of them, but my reliance on the pen is gone by that third draft stage – and definitely, no one would have read anything I’ve written till after that third draft stage. Even if I think I’ve put down something great, I always resist sending anything out till I’ve had that distance from it – I ALWAYS find things I want to change once I have some perspective.
Over the years I’ve seen experts lament the erosion of handwriting. There’s an idea that handwriting will one day cease to exist, that kids these days barely have any use for it now – just as younger generations are baffled by old school telephones, one day they’ll be scratching their heads as they look at pens end pencils. To some degree I think it’s a valid concern, but more likely, reliance on hand writing will reduce, not cease. I still love the flow of writing from my head and through the pen, I still enjoy the feel of paper, of seeing words indented into the page. Obviously I don’t know, but I don’t get the feeling that hand writing is totally falling away. I sincerely hope it isn’t, as, for me, it’s crucial to the writing process. I can only imagine it will be of benefit to many other writers in future, and if they’re not learning it, maybe they’ll never discover it, and we’ll miss out on great works as a result.