Writing by hand

One of the highlights of my trip to the University of Virginia last week was a chance to spend some time alone with the autograph manuscript for William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The paper on which it’s written is unlined; Faulkner’s handwriting is miniscule and precise; he doesn’t dot his i‘s or cross his t‘s, which means that reading each sentence requires some interpolation. The most interesting thing about it for me as a writer was seeing the deletions and emendations—it was a good reminder that even a text as canonized as this was created by a mortal who had constant second thoughts.

Later in the trip I had drinks with a group of MFA students, one of whom asked me about my process: when I told him that I write the first draft of everything by hand, he pronounced me “old school as hell,” I think with approval. Most of my reasons for handwritten instead of electronic first drafts are entirely practical: granted, there’s an undeniable tactile pleasure that comes from the contact between pen and paper, but that’s a small part of why I prefer a notebook instead of a laptop during the first draft of a writing project.

One reason is that I like to keep a visible record of deletions and additions, and mostly because of its relative inconvenience, the Track Changes feature of Word doesn’t suffice for me. For the first draft, before I retype the whole thing, I like to have an easily accessible, at-a-glance record of all the blind alleys I traveled down: maybe there’s a passage I struck through that I should have developed further, or a turn of phrase that didn’t work in one place that I can later use elsewhere.

There are other lesser reasons, like the portability of a bound notebook and ease of access, and the fact that acid-free paper is a robust method of data storage. But the most important one is that it forces my second-draft revision, the one during which I type the handwritten text into Word, to be as rigorous as it can possibly be. Instead of printing out a manuscript, marking it up, and making a few revisions here and there, I have to reconsider every single word of every single sentence, and little tweaks in a sentence that I’d be less likely to think of when staring at a text on a screen can make the difference between writing that’s just okay and writing that’s good. It’s a long process, but it’s worth it in the end.

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