The Pen: (Often) Mightier than Microsoft Word

Writing with pen and paper offers a different writing experience. When we write by hand, we do not have the allure of the Internet at our disposal.

The Pen: (Often) Mightier than Microsoft Word

When working with writing software—and you know I love Ulysses and don’t intend to leave it any time soon—the ability to pump words out at breakneck speed is lovely. I can sit at a computer keyboard and pound out words for hours on end, causing the word counts to soar higher and higher. Sometimes, this is what I need to do. I need to get the words down.

However, I’ve recently made some changes in how I’m writing and I’m really enjoying the results.

The Allure of Word Count

I’ve written about this before, but we often tend to get drawn into astronomic word counts. We might even be lured into believing that a piece is done (or should be done) because it is reaching a certain word count. Any writer worth his/her salt, however, will know that word counts do not dictate whether a piece is done.

For certain media, certain publications, of course, you need to hit a target word count. I understand that, but even then, the drafting of the piece should not be constrained to do those counts. A good short story may end up being 2,500–4,000 words in length, but this doesn’t mean that the original draft clocked in at that range.

We pay far too much attention to word count. This is especially true, at least for me, during the drafting stage. We don’t need to be thinking about word count while we draft. We need to be thinking about drafting. For a short story, my constant thought is this: What comes next? How does it link with what’s come before?

That’s it.

If the initial draft turns out to be 7,000 words, that’s just fine. If it turns out to be 12,000 words. Great! It doesn’t matter. Why?

  1. I will be editing this piece and it will arrive at a different word count.
  2. I may have misunderstood the type of fiction I was writing. I may have thought, for example, I was writing a short story, but really I wrote a novella. Cool! (I’ve never published a novella. Time to do so!)

Word count is alluring for many of us because it is a way of measuring progress. For the budding fiction writer, this can be important. We want to feel like we are making progress. Word count is an objective measure: I wrote 1,500 words today! Yes. Good. Excellent! But you have no idea what percentage of those words will make it into your final manuscript.

As I’ve argued before, we shouldn’t be worrying about word counts. Instead, we should be considering the time we spent in the manuscript, the time we spent writing.

The Writing Tool and Focus

Word count, however, is just one piece of the word-processing puzzle. Computers are fantastic devices; they offer us so much. Unfortunately, part of what they offer is distraction.

As I write this, I’ve got Ulysses open in full screen mode. By doing so, I cut out as many distractions as possible. I can’t see my browser window in the background. Nor can I see Tweetbot or Messages or Todoist or any of the other apps that I use daily. This is good. This is the way we should work.

The temptation, however, is there. As I’m writing, if I’ve forgotten the name of a road or if I need to know just a bit more about the Bolshevik Revolution, I can easily switch over to Safari or Chrome and get what I need.

But did I really need it?

Research tasks like that are best suited for pre-writing or for editing, not for drafting. When I’m drafting, I should be thinking of nothing else other than which word or phrase comes next in this sentence. What will propel my story forward?

Though we may devise methods and hacks for keeping ourselves from distraction, the computer is the ultimate distraction machine. Its temptations are too great! Its power and convenience too alluring!

Recently, I was listening to an old episode of Tim Ferris’s podcast. The episode, an interview with the great Neil Gaiman, was suggested to me by Natalie. She listened to Gaiman talk about writing, and she felt like she heard wisdom in his voice—not surprising, given his British baritone. But she also thought she heard echoes of the way that I used to talk about writing.

In the episode, Gaiman talks about how he opted to write with fountain pens when he started drafting Stardust (aff link, for sure). He thought the fountain pen might lend his writing an older rhythm, reminiscent of the long and languid 19th century prose that we all read in high school. More than twenty years later, Gaiman continues to use pen and paper as his primary writing tool.

Writing with pen and paper, writing by hand, offers a different writing experience. It causes our brains to fire in a different way. When we write by hand, we do not have the allure of the Internet at our disposal, we do not have incoming messages from friends, emails, social media, or the rabbit hole of Wikipedia to distract us.

I would argue that writing by hand allows for a different kind of focus. You scratch the words on the page with the little nib, and you move on. You can’t so easily delete a chunk of text and remake it. Nor should you! You don’t want to do that, yet. You’re drafting. Save the editing for the editing phase. For now, just tell the story as it comes.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska / Unsplash

The Place of Word Processors

Am I saying that we should ditch word processors? Of course not!

Different tasks have different tools. Eventually, I’m going to need to get my manuscript into an electronic format. The word processor allows me to edit in a way that I can’t do with pen and paper. It’s necessary for that.

(Moreover, I imagine very few publishers accept handwritten submissions!)

As a drafting tool, the word processor still has its place too. Blog posts, for example, seem suited to word processors. Often, as I’m writing a post, I need to reach out and get a piece of information, grab a link and drop it in, find a picture. I can’t do that when I’m drafting by pen and paper.

All of this to say: the word processor is not dead.

I just think we may want to think a bit more carefully about the tools we choose for different tasks. As a fiction writer, when I’m working on a piece of fiction, I like the idea of writing by hand. It forces me to focus on the story, to focus on moving forward. I remind myself that I will edit things later. That’s fine.

Draft now.
Edit later.

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