The Mighty Pen

January 11th, 2009 by james

I’m not much of one for New Year’s resolutions. The way I see it, they only set you up for disappointment and self-admonishment sometime in mid-February. But that said, there is a value to assessing where you are in life and setting some “aspirations” for the future.

For example, last year I started to keep a diary. At the time, I only wanted to try it out and see if I had anything worthwhile to say. I was reading my great-grandfather’s journal at the time – he managed to keep it going for 50 years – and I thought ‘Maybe I’ll at least be able to write down a few historic bits of news’.

Of course 2008 was full of excitement, with the US election, the rise and fall of oil prices (I’m an energy geek), and the economic meltdown. But now a year on, I find I’m still writing in my notebook at least once or twice a week, not to record the news but for the simple acting of writing with a pen.

That may sound a bit odd – not least considering that I’m writing this on a computer – but it’s worth thinking about how we actually record our thoughts. There’s been a lot said about information overload and I think how we go about writing has a lot to do with our ability to process information.

Consider the following two cases:

  • You’ve been asked to pull together a report on a subject you know nothing about. You open up Firefox, do a quick Google and soon you’ve got 10 tabs open. A quick skim of the content, some copy and pasting, a little editing and you’re done. Probably not coherent – but done.
  • Flashback to your high school days. You’re into the final thirty minutes of a three-hour history exam and your wrist is throbbing from trying to scrawl down as much as you could. But knowing that time is almost up and you can’t write any faster, you pause for a second and think about how to use the remaining time as effectively as possible.

Maybe not the best examples but hopefully they give you a feel for the pros and cons of different writing approaches. Writing with a pen and paper means that we sometimes think of ideas faster than we can record them but similarly, coping with a limited amount of paper and the slower pace helps to put a structure to things. Writing with a computer might be faster when we know what we want to say but it can be all too easy to just put the ideas down now and then try to rearrange them later.

The novelist Will Self discussed his own similar experience in a recent Guardian interview:

Self, who prefers to write his fiction on a typewriter, adds that his daily word count is lower than it used to be, “partly because I shifted to the Imperial Good Companion, which is a slower machine, about four or five years ago. Writing on a manual makes you slower in a good way, I think. You don’t revise as much, you just think more, because you know you’re going to have to retype the entire fucking thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it.”

(If you’re interested in more about how professional writers work, check out the Guardian’s Writers’ Rooms series.)

So it’s now been about a year since I’ve started writing with pen and paper on a daily basis. While it isn’t a panacea by any means, I can certainly recommend it in the following situations:

  • Writing the first draft of a paper (helps for the actual thinking/writing but it’s also convenient to draw arrows, reshuffle the pages, etc when editing)
  • Keeping a daily research journal
  • Drafting that important letter to your supervisor, immigration officer, etc…

I’d be curious to hear how your thoughts on how writing technology shapes the way we work. What do you think? Is 2009 the year that we put computers back in their place and pick up a pen?

(Oh, and one more benefit for these wallet-tightening times. If you’re a gadget-fiend, think of the money you will save lusting after and instead of software and gadgets.)

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9 Responses to “The Mighty Pen”

  1. Jim DaviesNo Gravatar Says:

    In the Will Self quote he seems to think that it’s bad to just put something on paper and to play with it. However, for most amateur writers anyway, this is one of the hardest things to do. People tend to be perfectionists with their writing, not willing to put anything down that’s not up to their standards. Using a pen or typewriter exacerbates this problem. Writing is a process that involves lots of revision, and people underestimate this. I encourage any aspiring writer to use a computer, especially on first drafts. Otherwise you are likely to not record good ideas, or worse, never get a first draft at all.

  2. jamesNo Gravatar Says:

    That’s a good point Jim. I’ve found free-writing to be really helpful in the ideas generation stage: with a computer, you can just throw everything down quickly and then parse it later. That’s not a job for pen and paper as you say.

    But in other cases, where the goal is to put structure into your writing, I think working with pen and paper can be helpful. I guess the trick is to find the tool that works best for you at each part of the writing process.

  3. Adrian BurdNo Gravatar Says:

    I almost always write with a fountain pen, usually one with a fine or extra fine nib. Doing so makes me think about what I am writing and I end up thinking more carefully about my ideas and thoughts.

    Mind you, I also collect vintage fountain pens, many of which are a delight to write with.

  4. BryanNo Gravatar Says:

    There’s something to be said about adding more thinking to your day.

    I’ve had a similar experience with writing my thoughts down in 2008. I was listening to an old school audio recording by personal development guru Earl Nightingale. One of his recommendations is that you sit down with a pad of paper and a pencil one hour per day. By doing this, you can move ahead from where you are, create new ideas, and gain some new perspective on what lies ahead.

    I haven’t yet gotten up to the one hour a day, but there’s just something about writing your thoughts down that makes you feel like you’re doing a good job.

    I hope you can keep the journaling up, it’s a great use of time!


  5. police speed trapsNo Gravatar Says:

    I have been trying to write more as well. At home I write with a fountain pen, but on the road I write with a roller ball. I love my waterman pens and lamys!!

    I always carry different types of notebooks and moleskins for different categories of thoughts.

    Great post. Keep writing.

  6. NLP BooksNo Gravatar Says:

    Wow Brian, an hour a day? That is quite a commitment. I think for me writing is about getting to the source of where my writing is coming from and making it more creative. For me, writing is about creativity, dreaming, and fine-tuning the dream.

  7. Dave SmithNo Gravatar Says:

    How can I protect myself against the mighty pen?

  8. TriciaNo Gravatar Says:

    Man, this is one hell of an intellectual post. You are born to write…

  9. PorecNo Gravatar Says:

    Personally, I struggle to write much more than a two-page letter in longhand. Writing a short story, much less a novel, would send me screaming from the room. I’d much rather type. My handwriting isn’t very good, and my hand just gets tired – I’ve always gripped too hard. Stylistically, I don’t think that the words that I type are much different than what I write down.

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