Sometimes Longhand is Best

We all start writing by printing. Later we are taught cursive, or longhand. When we’re in grade school, that’s what we do, even if we have computers at home. That may change, if laptops or pads become common in the early grades. Writing by hand is still a valuable skill, for those times when we have no computer, tablet, or even phone handy. (Writing twenty pages of a story on a smart phone might be a bit tedious.) And when I started writing stories, when I was about eight or nine, for myself as well as for my schoolwork, longhand was what there was.

When I was about eight or so, I found an old royal portable typewriter in our back closet and tried to use it, but finding the letter I wanted to type took forever. Unless it was the same letter twice, in which case it took half as long. It took me a couple hours to type out a 100 word story. Not to create it, just to type it. It wasn’t worth the effort. I took a typing class in junior high (grades 7-9, not middle school grades 7-8) and passed, but typing was not to be my career, as it could have been for a number of the other students. It was just a tool.

Even today I can write longhand almost automatically. (I do have to think about it if I want to be able read it after a day or so…) So when I began to write seriously, in 1972, I did it in longhand. I could think about the words and the story, and not about the mechanics of getting my thoughts on paper. Then, of course, I had to transcribe. But whether it was first draft in longhand, or retyping after editing the typescript, it was the same. I hate typing.

One time at a convention, SciCon I believe it was, I was hosting a small party, just soft drinks and chips, and for some reason Jack Vance came in. He told us about how he went from longhand to a word processor. He had used yellow legal paper which he folded top to bottom, turned 90 degrees, and wrote across the lines, using fountain pens in red, green, blue, and black, paying attention to the patterns he made, not the words he wrote, which let the muse in his subconscious provide the story. Then his wife typed it up for him. He didn’t like word processors because he kept on editing himself, the way he did with a typewriter, and since it was easier, he did it a lot more. Someone suggested that he turn down the brightness on his monitor, so that he wouldn’t be distracted by the text and, as long as his fingers were on the right keys, he could just concentrate on his story. It worked.

He spent the rest of that evening, into early morning, in the bedroom, playing guitar and singing with Janny Wurtz, who had also come in for some reason. They had an audience.

I decided to try to compose by looking off to the right somewhere, into my imagination instead of at the screen. I too had a tendency to edit everything as I wrote it. And it worked pretty well. I was able to keep my mind focused on the story, and save the editing (and typos) for later.

But I still use longhand when I need to be careful about the text. Longhand is slower, but correcting with a pen is easier than with a computer keyboard and mouse. For me at least. I’m composing now on the computer, and I don’t have that direct link with my imagination, as I do when I use longhand, just my thoughts,.

It all depends on what I’m trying to do. I prefer longhand for rough sketches, computer for drafts. I prefer longhand for some forms of editing which require moving text, and lining out, and interlinear notes, and I prefer the computer for rewriting, revision, copyediting, and proofreading. Most of my work is done using a word processor, but longhand still has a place. And I get to use different colored pens.