Why I’m a Better Writer with the Pen and Paper Approach
One of the very best way to connect with your own words
I’m lucky to be blessed with terrible handwriting. Not so long ago I made a conscious effort to improve it by slowing down my writing hand and attempting to “pronounce” each letter more gracefully — the sort of handwriting I usually reserve only for birthday cards and love notes.
It wasn’t long however before I started to slacken off again, returning to my usual semi-legible scribble that I alone can understand. I just didn’t have the stamina to keep up that handsome calligraphy.
There was another problem with my cleaned-up, pretend-nice handwriting too, which was that it wasn’t my own.
The “environment” of your own handwriting
The uniqueness of a person’s handwriting creates a type of secret environment. If your handwriting is as dismal as mine, you will understand what I mean. It becomes like a secret code; others simply can’t access it.
But there is more to it than just illegibility.
When I write, I do so mainly in notebooks, each of which get replaced once the pages are full. I have cupboards choked with old notebooks, which I’m unable to throw them away because they have both sentimental and practical value to me.
I like to flick through these notebooks every so often on the hunt for an idea or new inspiration, taking pleasure in hearing the half-forgotten voice speaking from the pages.
Every notebook is different: some are lined, some are plain, some a hardback, others soft. The handwritten nature of the words become like pictures, accentuated by crossings-out and inserted words. These visual depictions have a different kind of effect on one’s memory and imagination. Notebooks become like streets in a town, a whole environment which you can walk through, take short-cuts and get creatively lost in.
The power of marginalia
Some of the most important parts of pen and paper writing are the marginalia. Marginalia are all that stuff that builds up in the corners, margins and between-the-lines of a page of writing.
They provide a messy history of annotations and crossings-through, of arrows, asterisks, doodles and comments. For me, they also include pages torn out and pages stuck back in, page corners folded over, bookmarks, newspaper clippings, and any other amendments I might make to the physical page.
Even coffee stains and chocolate crumbs have a useful place in my marginalia, giving me a clue (sometimes years later) as to the circumstances of the words being written.
The most useful marginalia for me is the simple question mark, which I readily place above any word or beside any paragraph that I’m not entirely sure of. So when I come to re-read the text or type it up, I’m always alerted to the possibility — previously conceived — that this part could be improved. I’ve never found a corresponding tool in a word processor that quite has the subtly or dexterity of my own “?” appropriately inserted around a handwritten text.
The wider pleasure of marginalia is that they offer a sort of narrative or meta-account of the formation of a piece. This can be especially useful when transposing the text from paper to digital, since these are the parts that get taken away. It is like chipping the stone from around a sculpture, so revealing the artwork inside. The marginalia are the reminders of what was there before.
Transposing from paper to digital
I’m probably giving the impression of being sentimental over pen and paper writing. In fact, one of my favourite stages of writing is taking the words from the handwritten page and typing them up.
All at once, they lose their former subjective character and take on a more permanent, objective quality. The marginalia is removed, the crossings-out are dismissed. It’s like the writing takes on a new skin.
This is the “clean-up” stage. I find it is also the best stage to revise and edit. I often re-flow pieces when I type them up, thinking more about structure, how to lead a reader through from beginning to end, to avoid the “dead-zones” that might lose a reader’s attention, and to resolve the piece on a broadly conclusive note.
I hope then to have a finished piece that expresses exactly what I wanted to express — as far as my abilities as a writer make possible.
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