Monday, January 18, 2016

Longhand Writing in a Digital World

My writing tools.
The Pencil kept sliding down the iPad;
I had to position it high and shoot fast.
Longhand or keyboard? I won’t call this the eternal writers’ debate, since even into the early twentieth century, writers sent handwritten manuscripts to their publishers.[1] Don’t try that now. Even tin the era when publishers would still read a manuscript in yours or someone else’s handwriting,[2] some still sent their manuscripts to be typed (Oscar Wilde, for one). It doesn’t matter how beautiful your handwriting is, no publishers wants to see 5,000 or especially 80,000 words of it. I, for one, doubt my ability to turn out 5,000 words in fair hand, while I know I can type my handwritten draft quickly and easily. I like to draft my fiction longhand.

I need to issue a series of caveats here: I am not a professionally published writer; if everyone who has my stories were to show up at my house for an impromptu cocktail party, I could cope.[3] When I’m writing for my blog, I do not typically draft things out in longhand, but instead compose while typing in a word processing application. For this blog post, I took the atypical step of writing a draft out by hand at first. It would have been faster to just do my typical thing, but it would miss the point.[4]


I am not the only writer who likes the fluidity of longhand; I find that typing causes me to focus more on “getting things right” (and avoiding typos), which impedes the writing process. Those typos can also turn the document into hash, leaving me to wonder later, “just what was the word I wanted there?” That never happens with a pen in hand, though I should here note that when I compose in longhand, I do not have a pen in hand, as it would ruin the screen on my tablet. The downside of writing in longhand is that you end up with a pile of paper, of which you’ve realized party though transcription that you have switched pages 5 and 6, page 8 is nowhere to be found, the cat has knocked over your typing stand for the fifteenth time, and someone needs to invent a kind of paper that doesn’t flop over while you’re trying to type it up. There is both good and bad to longhand.

I have found the technological fix which gives me all the benefits of longhand and spares me its shortcomings. It allows me to get some writing (or even revising) done in situations where typing just doesn’t seem tenable.[5] Yes, I still have to transcribe, but that’s part of the revision process. That I write longhand on my iPad invariable causes people to do a double-take. “How do you write longhand on your iPad?” Let me explain.

My hardware for this includes an iPad, a MacBook Pro, and a Pencil (the stylus made by 53). The software is Notability (both OS X and iOS), Scrivener (OS X; there’s a Window’s version, but I don’t use it), and for blogging, Byword (OS X and iOS; I use the desktop version more, notably for its ability to export to HTML).[6] Because this is a blog post, I went from Notability to Byword. If I were writing a story, I would from Notability to Scrivener. There are probably other completely suitable combinations of hardware and software; these are the ones I use.

I start on my iPad with Notability. Like any of the iOS note-taking apps,[7] it has a handwriting mode. I’ve got another note taking app with more sophisticated drawing skills and the promise of handwriting recognition, but I find that unless I write excruciatingly slowly and painstakingly, handwriting recognition turns it into a mess, with no hope of going back. I’m much better off typing, as I can revise as I transcribe.[8] Notability gives me advantages over pen and pen and paper, in that the totally shitty sentence can be completely erased with the eraser tool, or just struck out if I wish to leave its corpse there as a grim reminder to sentences yet to come. Notability also gives me sixteen colors in which I can write (or draw), although I’m clearly not doing any writing at all in white on white.[9] If I’m editing in Notability prior to transcribing, I’ll use one of those other colors, just so I can see the difference in the text. There’s also always another page to the pad; you never run out.

If this were larger, you'd see that the Byword doc
hasn't been saved. I'm a bad boy.
Eventually, I have finished a draft.[10] This is when I move from the iPad to the Mac. I’m a good typist; people have paid me money to type. The iPad (though I love it) is a slow and frustrating place for typing. I find that extended typing with the on-screen keyboard leaves my knuckles sore (since when typing I automatically use the force to depress a key). I do have a Logitech bluetooth keyboard,[11] but while it’s good for light typing, is wider than the on-screen keyboard, and has keys that move, it’s still inferior to a full-sized keyboard. Plus, I have no way on my iPad to read what I wrote out by hand while typing it.[12] My Mac has a full-sized keyboard.[13] All that to say, once the draft is done, I open the Notability file on my Mac. Don’t worry, iOS fans, we’ll be back.

I noted earlier that I use, for this step, either Scrivener or Byword. These are just the tools I use, and any desktop application into which you can type is equally fine: Word, Pages, Nisus Writer, Google Docs[14]—whatever. For revision, its important that it can export to an Adobe PDF, although I think that comprises every single word processing application that runs on OS X.[15]

This is the easy part. By personal preference, I put my word processing document on the left side of the screen and my handwritten text to the right. Use whatever feels comfortable to you. Then I type. No, I’m not simply transcribing.[16] Some years ago, I worked in a proposal and presentations group, and I had to frequently work with technical professionals. One woman, with whom I was working, noted that her degree was in physics, and wondered what mine was in. “I have a BA in English.”

“Imagine that,” she said, “having a degree in your own language.”

I said nothing to this, although I was unique in the department, since everyone else had degrees in communications, but I had a much deeper understanding of medieval poetry than they did. Then she noticed what I was doing.

“Hey, you’re revising that while you’re typing it!”

“Yes, you can do that sort of thing if you have a degree in your own language.”

Yes, you will likely revise as you type, but let us not pretend that this is the end of revision,[17] although it is for this blog post. I finish my typing, export to PDF, and import the PDF into Notability on my Mac. I don’t just compose my first draft on the iPad, I go back there and do my document markup there too. I’m not doing this today, because this is a blog post and it doesn’t get that degree of attention. No way. If it were a story, I would mark up the PDF in Notability on the iPad, move it back to the Mac, and use my markup as the basis for the next round of revisions. And the repeat.

That’s how I write, with the caveat again that I am still a writer without a single professional publication.[18] Then again, I know that many writers like longhand, but do recognize its shortcomings. I have also seen the suggestion that finding out various ways of working may offer someone the tool he or she needs to move things along. A writer I know recently said that he considers statements on “the way to write” akin to pronouncements on “the way to masturbate.” If this is just another way that you can grip it, so be it.

For me, I’ve found that I’ve brought together some elements that work for me, that writing feel less like a typing job, and also frees me from dealing with stacks of paper. It’s neat. It’s portable. It may work for you too. Whether it does or does not, good luck with your writing!

[p.s. I agonized over the title for this, and I’m sure I haven’t got it right yet.]


  1. I originally wrote “were handing in,” but realized that it would clash with “handwriting,” and so I revised it to “sending” and then “sent.”
     ↩
  2. James Joyce often would dictate to friends when he was suffering from eye problems.
     ↩
  3. A large proportion of those who have read my fiction have been to house already. Oh dear. I’m trying to remedy that and expand my readership beyond comfortable cocktail party size.
     ↩
  4. Maybe this blog post will be better as a result. It’s certainly getting more revision.
     ↩
  5. A couch seat on an airplane, for example. I’m not a big person; I’m short for an adult male, and I am a normal weight for my height. I find those seats cramped. They must be torture for people of average size.
     ↩
  6. Disclaimer: I do not have any professional connection, nor have I been compensated or provided with hardware or software by any of these companies. Links are provided by for the convenience of my readers.
     ↩
  7. I have others. Notability won out over by having an OS X app too.
     ↩
  8. This text is not what I wrote by hand.
     ↩
  9. Typically, I work in three colors: black, dark blue, or dark green. I writing this blog post, I adopted the convention of body text in black, eventual notes in green. Sometimes when writing, I just feel like having a pen of a certain color.
     ↩
  10. A happy time, though a little premature for Champagne. It’s just a draft.
     ↩
  11. Ditto that earlier disclaimer.
     ↩
  12. iOS 9 did bring split screen to iPads, but only the newer ones, not mine.
     ↩
  13. External. Yeah, it’s a laptop, but it spends most of it time closed and hooked up to an external monitor and keyboard.
     ↩
  14. Ditto the ditto and I don’t feel like doing any more weblink.
     ↩
  15. Note to Windows users: I don’t know if there’s a note-taking app for iOS that has a Windows desktop version. Likewise, I am innocent of any knowledge whether applications exist to do similar with a Microsoft Surface. Your humble blogger is an unabashed Apple fanboy.
     ↩
  16. We covered that, right?
     ↩
  17. Though maybe it is for you. It never is for me.
     ↩
  18. A caveat to the caveat: I haven’t exactly given anyone a chance. For a while, I was working on a novel, hoping that it would become the first of many published works. I put it aside to work on some short stories, primarily for an MFA application. I am currently working two more stores, and I have to get back to the novel. I did recently say to a friend, a published writer who has seen my stories, that I needed to start sending them out, though the market for literary fiction (that’s what I’m trying to write) is small. “Then get it out before it gets any smaller,” he said.  ↩

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