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The Case For a Writer’s Notebook Copy

(These are the notebooks I’m currently using for my writing. The orange and blue ones at the ends are my favorites.)

“I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better.

Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.” – Susan Sontag


In a digital age, many of us have gotten used to doing all of our writing for the entirety of the writing process (from first ideas to final drafts and edits) on our computers. It’s fast, efficient, and conducive to doing lots of editing as you write. These are all good things, right?

Maybe. But maybe there’s still a place for writing by hand.

What if I told you that many successful writers — from Stephen King to Jhumpa Lahiri to Neil Gaiman to Joyce Carol Oates to J.K. Rowling — prefer to write at least their first outlines and first drafts by hand?

It’s not just because writing by hand frees you from digital distractions on your computer (checking your email, checking your Facebook feed, looking up a dinner recipe). You focus only on your writing.

Slower Is Better

Writing by hand is slower. Much slower, depending on your typing speed. For your early attempts at getting your thinking down, this slowness may actually be a huge plus. Many writers, including me, find that they feel more in tune with the creative side of their brains when they are sitting with just a notebook and a pen.

Brain studies show that when we write by hand we are more engaged with the text and we remember our thoughts better. (For more on this topic, read this and this and this.)

“When you write by hand, you write more thoughtfully. Such mindful writing rests the brain, unlocking potential creativity, says neuroscientist Claudia Aguirre. “Recent neuroscientific research has uncovered a distinct neural pathway that is only activated when we physically draw out our letters,” she writes. “And this pathway, etched deep with practice, is linked to our overall success in learning and memory.” — from “The Psychological Benefits of Writing By Hand”

I still write blog posts, emails, any sort of nonfiction writing, at my computer. But for more creative sorts of writing? My early attempts at a novel, brainstorming, journal writing… I do it by hand.

If I haven’t convinced you to try using a writer’s notebook for your writing in this workshop, that’s okay! (And you also may have physical limitations that make writing by hand difficult or impossible.) In that case, go right ahead and use your laptop for all of the exercises in this workshop. 

I’d still encourage you to use a physical notebook or journal as a place to record thoughts, memories, quotes, musings, slices of inspiration. If you’re interested in the specific type of notebook that I have from Design Works Ink, here’s their website. You can also find them at Amazon and Target. But really any notebook — from an ordinary one-subject drug store notebook to a fancy Moleskin like this —  will do.

I’d also recommend investing in a pen that you love. Find a pen that writes exactly the way you want it to. Use that pen as your special pen just for creative writing. I write way too fast, and my handwriting quickly becomes illegible if I use a fast pen like a fountain pen. I like to use pens that slow me down.

What do you think of writing by hand? Are you thinking about trying it for the prompts?