Pen and ink vs computer

Photo by cottonbro on

Is it harder to write now that it’s easier to write?

Hundreds of years ago, there was no digital editing, paper was expensive and to find a pen you had to butcher a peacock*.

*Or something. Turns out quill pens were made from goose, swan and turkey feathers.

19th century landowner, explorer and ‘first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister used to write her letters using every last inch of paper – it was pricey stuff.

In a ‘cross-written’ letter to her lover, Sibella Maclean, she turns the paper to write across what she’s already written.

In it she says, “I am an enigma even to myself and do excite my own curiosity.”

With thanks to the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

When writing materials were expensive, you would want to have a pretty good idea of what you wanted to say before committing quill to parchment.

Shakespeare, (who may have written King Lear during lockdown) never crossed a line, according to legend. But maybe he just had a massively inflated ego.

These days, you can just digitally vomit onto a word document, and there is no cost to you if the majority of it is garbage.

But is this a less satisfying way to write?

Some modern writers still swear by the pen and ink approach.

Neil Gaiman explained on The Tim Ferris Show that he usually writes his first drafts longhand, with notebook and fountain pen.

Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft.

Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life.

Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Neil Gaiman

Then he extracts the best lines to type up..

Then, I’ll sit down and type.

I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Neil Gaiman

Creativity is about gumption as much as it’s about talent.

And there’s a lot to be said, psychologically, for doing things this way.

A second draft sounds more satisfying if the method is to select the best lines from a notebook, rather than deleting great swathes of digital text.

There might be something to slowing down and writing ‘analogue’ before committing finger to keyboard.

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