Writing tips: how to write: paper or computer?

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

Should you use a computer or pen and paper to write fiction?  How about if you are writing the first draft of your novel?  Practical tips on how to get started.  

I sit down at my desk in Vienna to continue writing my current novel, code-named The Boyfriend.  Outside, birds sing in the trees; all is well in the world.

When I start to write, do I reach for my computer?  Or for my pen and paper?

Many authors write first drafts direct on their computers, or always write on paper, without thinking too much about which works best.  Here are a few things you might want think about.

In 1986 my then-employer acquired its first computer.  I was thrilled by the idea that I could move words around on a screen, and only print them out when I was happy with them.  It seemed to make the creative process less daunting.  I started to write my first novel on that computer the same year – after work, of course.

In this pic I am writing the first draft of a blog direct on an iPad in Austria

In 1987 I bought my first home computer, an Amstrad PCW.  Later I bought PCs; then Macs.  But over the years, I stopped writing fiction on the screen.  I write all my short stories and novels in long-hand.

How do I do that?  And why?

How: I like to use a ring-bound A4 pad,on a desk large enough to have space around it for reference works, a laptop (for research), notes on characters, etc.  If possible, the paper of the pad should not be so porous or thin that ink, or pressure, applied to one side of a sheet makes it hard to write on the other side.

With the pad open and the ring-bound spine down the middle, I write on the right-hand side of the pad, single-spaced.  If I amend the text as I am writing, I use text balloons to insert new text on the left-hand side, which I have up to that point left blank.  I mark the balloons “A”, “B” etc in the order I insert them.

Usually I write the first draft in one colour. My favourite writing implement right now is an old Pelikan fountain pen I inherited from my father.  Its nib moves smoothly across the paper.  I write in green, using a bottle of Waterman ink I found when I moved into my flat.

I also do a first revise on paper.  When I sit down to write, I usually start by reviewing what I wrote last time.  I read it carefully, amending as I go along with a different colour pen, adding more balloons (“C”, “D” etc – sometimes I reach the end of the alphabet on a single page).  This is often where I add some of my best prose: sharpening the text, adding richness, jokes, colour – or a new scene.

Starting a stint of writing with some editing helps remind me where I am up to in the story, and puts me in the mood for creating new text when I reach the end of what I wrote the night (or day) before.

By contrast, if I sit down to write something new straight off, I find it harder to get started with new text.

So why do I do all this on paper?  Surely, you may argue, it would be quicker and easier to write a first draft, and then make amendments, on screen?

First of all, there is no right and wrong about this.  How you write is up to you.  But I find that starting off on paper has several advantages:

(i) writing a first draft of fiction takes time.  I aim to write for at least an hour; if time is available, for several hours.  Staring at a computer screen for that length of time is tiring; makes concentration hard; and is bad for my posture.  The same is true of the first edit;

(ii) I also find it quicker to write a first draft, and do the first edit, on paper.  I can type faster than I can write; but creative writing is not about speed.  When editing, I find it easier to move from one part of my manuscript to another on paper – including flipping between pages of my pad – than on screen.  It’s also helpful to be able to use the different colours to distinguish between what I wrote in my first draft, and my first edit;

(iii) eventually, I want to put the text onto the computer.  Great!  When I type up the text from my pad, I can do a second edit.  At this stage I am usually fairly happy with the text so can type it up quickly.  But sometimes the act of transcription reveals potential improvements.  Key point: the time spent transcribing from paper to computer is insignificant compared with the time spent writing the first draft, and doing a first edit, on paper.  So I haven’t lost any time.  By the time the text is on the computer it has already been polished twice;

(iv) on those glorious days when I can actually write for a whole day, flipping between writing and editing on paper, and typing up text I have written and edited, is a good way to break up the hours and stay fresh.

Advice to authors: try both methods and see what works best for you.  Scope out advice from other authors, like this recent piece by best-selling author Dan Brown in the Guardian.  Have fun.

And remember one of the best pieces of advice about writing, by Stephen Donaldson, a fantasy writer.  The best way to start writing, he said, is to make a start.  Not next month.  Not next week, or tomorrow.  Start now.  Go on.  Do it.

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2 Responses

  1. Meine im Vergleich zu Robert Pimm bescheidene Schreibtätigkeit erfolgft zuerst auf Papier, wird dann af einen uralten PC übertragen und dort mehrmals verbessert. Dazwischen gehe ich herum, weil mir dabei vieles einfällt.

  2. …and you never ever have to worry about ‘saving’ your work, or crashing computers, or ‘virus’ infections, or ransomware. I have a friend who lost most of his PHD because he had it on the computer but hadn’t done something crucial…the details escape me…maybe he hadn’t ‘backed it up’…it was back in floppy disc days. He threw a bottle of tippex in his rage, not realising that the lid was not on, ruining many precious reference books in the process. Stick to pen(cil) and paper for the first creative process, definitely. I like the visual effects too of thoughts that have evolved on a piece of paper…yours must be very decorative what with all the colours and the ‘balloons’.

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