Typing vs. Handwriting, Writing Profiles

A perennial subject among the writers I know is whether it is better to write by hand or to type. This post in particular was prompted by my reading this post about some of the quantitative differences between writing longhand or by computer. There’s some interesting stuff in there, and in the paper it’s based on.

Personally, I do some mixture of both handwriting and typing: most of my notes are by hand, in my notebook. I’ll write individual scenes by hand as well, but I’m finding that (unless I’m seriously blocked) I prefer to type.

There are additional benefits to each. Marko Kloos advocates for handwriting better than I can in terms of just getting things done (Money quote: “The notebook is a one-trick pony, but it’s a fantastic trick: putting words down without distraction or endless on-screen corrective sentence noodling.”) but I find that it’s also useful for slowing me down and making me think. I’ve been writing out my most recent short story in a notebook I bought from Borders specifically for that purpose: prose on the right hand side in pen, notes on the left hand side in pencil. It has worked pretty well so far, and while I’m a little unhappy with some of what’s there, I can just make a note on the left and tango on.

There are benefits to typing, though, too. My writing process is often highly non-linear: I skip around a lot, adding a bit to one scene, then going on to another, then back-filling. I can think of only one story I’ve written that I wrote straight from beginning to end, and it was 700 words long. Even there, I knew what the ending was going to be, and it was only the short length that prevented me going and writing those sentences first. Part of this process has been the discovery of Scrivener — before then I either tried in vain to put the whole story in one long document, or I broke it up over multiple documents, then juggled those.

The other nice thing about typing something out is that it becomes easier to radically re-cast it so that I can instantly read my prose in a new light. I frequently write in Times New Roman, then proofread in Courier (though maybe I should switch to Comic Sans?)

The Van Waes and Schellens paper* from the blog post above covers the handwriting vs. typing subject with an interesting experiment, which is summarized admirably in that blog. But it also has a discussion of earlier notions of writing styles, including an earlier paper by Hayes and Flower** on the writing process from 1980. I’ve not yet read that one, but according to Van Waes and Schellens, they make a distinction between “Mozartian” and “Beethovian” writers; the former of whom plan out their work in detail, and the latter rush through their first draft and revise later — the more familiar terms these days are “planners” vs. “pantsers”, but I intend to adopt the prior terms as somehow more august. 😉

They also outline four writing profiles from Hayes and Flower in a way that I haven’t seen before, of people writing longhand. (I’m just going to quote Van Waes and Schellens here instead of rephrasing)

1. Depth first, in which the writer tries to produce a perfect first sentence, then a perfect second sentence, and so on. That is, the writer completes the work of planning, implementing and reviewing each sentence before starting to work on the next.

2. Postponed review, in which the writer writes down his/her thoughts as they occur and reviews them later.

3. Perfect first draft, in which the writer tries to generate a perfect first draft. Planning is very explicit and directed towards the text as a whole.

4. Breadth first, in which a draft is planned and then written out in full before any revision is contemplated.

Now, this is about student composition, I gather, so shorter works than most fiction. I find, on reflection, that my handwriting style tends to fit pretty squarely in #4: I plan the hell out of the story, maybe even sketching out a few sections, then sit down and write with little revision. This ignores my habit of eventually abandoning the handwritten word for the typed one (usually midway through) but even in typing I’m not far off from that.

The interesting thing about this (at least, to me) is that I know that I used to follow #2, at least to the extent of the chapter/scene level. I’d have a general sense of where I wanted things to go, and might make notes about neat ideas, but otherwise I’d tear on through and not even re-read until much later.

I can see fiction writers attempting #3, especially for flash fiction. But #1 is a puzzle to me — I don’t even know how that *could* work. It seems like a recipe for misery to even try writing that way. To my mind, the sentence is just not the unit of composition, and writing at the level of perfecting individual sentences as I go… I think that I would very quickly lose track of what I intended to write. Do any of you write this way? How do you make it work?

Van Waes and Schellens then discuss a more recent paper, by Schwartz***, who established nine basic profiles. These profiles, they note, overlap and need not be consistent across a work, but may vary from paragraph to paragraph. (Again, I’m quoting Van Waes and Schellens)

1. Language production and regeneration profiles, in which the writer either writes down more than is needed and then reduces it later (the ‘overwriter’); or economizes on the initial text and then adds more later (the ‘underwriter’).

2. Structural reformulation profiles, in which the writer rejects the text and starts again (the ‘restarter’); or rejects it, making only a few changes (the ‘recopier’); or pieces together old sections into a new structure (the ‘re-arranger’); or builds on the original structure (the ‘remodeler’).

3. Content reassessment profiles, in which the writer is concerned with the pro- priety of the text (the ‘censor’); or with its accuracy (the ‘refiner’); or with the correctness of its form (the ‘copy-editor’).

I can much more easily find myself in these profiles: by and large, I’m an overwriter when it comes to dialogue and an underwriter of description. I’m an avowed re-arranger; the other three profiles in that section just seem weird and wrong to me. As for the last, I’ve sat here thinking for a few minutes and I don’t really know which I am. I think that I tend to revise most with an eye to form: I mostly don’t give a damn about propriety (even for academic papers, it rarely even occurs to me) and accuracy, to my mind, is properly a function of the first draft.

Anyway, I’ve blathered on quite a bit. Let me turn it over to you folks who haven’t fallen asleep: are you handwriters or typists? Mozartists or Beethovians? Do you write perfect sentence-by-perfect sentence, then revise to censor? Or do you get it all down, then rewrite from scratch a few times?

* Luuk Van Waes, Peter Jan Schellens, 2003, Writing profiles: the effect of the writing mode on pausing and revision patterns of experienced writers.

** Hayes, John R., Flower, Linda, 1980. Identifying the organization of writing processes.

*** Schwartz, Mimi, 1983. Revision profiles: patterns and implications.

12 thoughts on “Typing vs. Handwriting, Writing Profiles

  1. I tend to write one slow longhand draft that needs little revising. On the first revision pass (when I punch it all into Scrivener), I smooth out the longhand draft, and on the second revision pass, I cut out the fluff. I seldom add to the longhand material at that stage, but frequently reduce it.

      1. Yes, I use the machine on occasion.

        Sometimes I’ll just grab the Alphasmart for convenience…say, if I have an idea while I’m sitting on the couch in the living room with the kids, where longhand isn’t feasible. Occasionally, I’ll write directly into Scrivener, too.

        Paper is for first drafts. If it needs anything extra, it gets padded on the computer. Part of the reason is the hassle of inserting material into handwritten pages.

        1. That’s right, I’d forgotten about the Alphasmart — you’ve sung its praises in the past, as I recall. I use that netbook of mine for similar purposes. (And it was signed by the VP instructors, so it positively exudes inspiration! 😉 The screen size bugs me, but on reflection it doesn’t actually show many fewer words than the handwritten page, given my handwriting.

  2. I used to not be able to write directly onto a computer screen, my mind would just go blank if I tried, but I got tired of the extra time it took to type stuff up, so I forced myself to get over that particular block. I’ve found that it makes things faster for another reason too, in that I no longer endlessly rewrite each sentence as I go along because I can’t easily circle words and draw arrows to show that I want to switch clauses around and stuff, so that sort of fine restructuring now gets left until I have at the very least, whole scenes to work with, which saves on a lot of frustration.

    I’m both and underwriter and an overwriter, depending mainly on what details of a scene I’m trying to write are in my head, if I have the bones of the action all figured out I just write down those bones and fill in extra details after-wards, but if I only have a hazy idea of what I want in a scene then sooner or later I just start it somewhere, anywhere and keep writing until I’ve written what needs to be written and then go back and cut out all the bits that didn’t need to be in there.

    I also think I use all the structure reform types, except maybe the recopying, I used to do that when I handwrote, because sometimes otherwise it became impossible to tell what I’d written among all the crossings out and extra words added in in the margins. An example of when I’ll restart a scene during editing is if I basically need to change everything in a scene except the basic outline, in that instance it just seems quicker to put the original draft on one side, bear that outline in mind and start over, the next draft might then involve me splicing together pieces of both versions together.

    I suspect however that the wide variety of styles I use might partially be because I’m still figuring out what works for me.

    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by!

      I still get the “mind goes blank” thing when I stare at a blank page or screen. With the new notebook, I actually found myself sitting and admiring the paper. (It’s nice paper, actually, lovely watermarks)

      And ditto on the “still figuring out what works for me”. I’ve met a lot of writers in the last few years, and none of them have the same process. I didn’t even touch on those folks who use dictation software (tried it once, hated it)! I figure that as long as I keep writing, it doesn’t matter that I don’t yet know how. Er, that came out wrong. But you know what I mean.

  3. I start with pen and notebook – it seems to help me to get my ideas organised. At some point I start to feel frustrated because I can’t write fast enough to keep up with my thoughts and then I switch to the computer.

    Having said that, I do this for non-fiction articles and short stories and specific scenes that I’m stuck on. I can’t imagine trying to write a novel longhand! Like you, I’m not linear and trying to piece it back together would be a nightmare.

    Also, I liked Bear’s comment (on her blog I think) to the effect that she doesn’t have a process, she has a process per book.

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