The Longhand Writing Challenge

Back when I spent a lot of time on the (wonderful) Absolute Write forums, I loved it when someone would mention a writing program like Scrivener or StoryMill. Because comments like these would inevitably follow:

Writing Longhand

Credit: Abizern

“Pshh…Hemingway didn’t have Scrivener. He got along just fine.”

“All those extra features are so overwhelming! Give me good old Microsoft Word any day.”

“Word processor? Please. I write by hand.”

At which point I’d come in with something like:

“Pen and paper? Ha. I “penned” my first novel with stone and chisel.”

My passive aggressive point being that every writer has his or her own method, so let’s not judge someone for wanting to use a high-tech option. And yes, it was a bit defensive of me, because my love for Scrivener knows no bounds.

But I have a confession: I never write by hand. In fact, I think I can count on one hand the number of times I wrote by hand last year (and of course I mean wrote creatively, not signed documents and filled out forms).

And I want to try longhand.  Maybe not an entire novel, but just a little something every week. I think writing this way engages the brain a little differently – I’ve even heard some writers claim that their prose is more natural when they write by hand because they use smaller and/or simpler words (or maybe they’re just not constantly clicking open the thesaurus).

Of course, then you have writers like me, with handwriting so godawful it’s practically undecipherable. But what’s really stopping me from writing longhand? The following are the embarrassing but true reasons why:

  1. It physically hurts. That’s how out of practice I am. When I write solidly for longer than five minutes, my hand actually begins to cramp up. (And I’m a percussionist – you’d think some of those developed muscles would help me out a little bit.)
  2. I’m so lazy it’s ridiculous. Every time I glance at a notebook, my brain is all “come on, you’re just going to have to type it all into your laptop eventually anyway…just skip this step.”
  3. Seriously – if my handwriting were a font, it would be called “drunk chicken stepped in paint and did the conga.”

The funny thing is that if I could just get over number 2, I could probably fix numbers 1 and 3 with time and practice. So that’s what I’m going to do.

My personal challenge for 2013 is to write longhand. An entire book? Probably not – but I’m aiming for a scene per week or two. By the end of this year, I don’t want to glance over at the bottom of the bookshelf and see that sad little notebook I bought months ago with so many blank pages. I want notebooks – plural – filled with scribbles and scrawls and drunk chicken scratch. I want to find out for myself whether or not writing longhand changes my prose, or anything about the stories I tell. Heck – I just want to spend less time on my laptop in general.

None of this is to say I’ll give up Scrivener – never! It makes keeping track of separate drafts so ridiculously simple, and it’s very practical for keeping my books organized.

What about you – do you write by hand often? Do you want to? And for the love, if anyone has any tips on how I can improve my first grade teacher nightmare handwriting, I’m all ears.


Michelle Schusterman is an author, musician, screenwriter, and Vogon poet living in Queens. Her middle grade series, I HEART BAND, will be launching in January 2014 with Penguin/Grosset. You can find her on KidLit Network, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Michelle Schusterman
  1. Whenever I start a new story, I always start longhand with a good old fashioned pencil. I might write the first chapter, or maybe the first several chapters, before starting to transfer it over to my laptop. I’m not sure why I do it that way. I guess the idea of starting something as big as a novel is less intimidating on paper than on the computer. Glad to find out I’m not totally alone 🙂

  2. A most excellent challenge. I am trying the same this year and am even thinking an entire novel. That is how my daughter is writing hers right now–long hand first draft.

    As for Scrivener…I looooooove it too!

  3. Sure do like this post! My journal, and letters to friends and family, are written in longhand. For me, writing that way is soothing. Generally, too, I sketch basic ideas for a book or article in longhand first. Then, to the computer. By then, I don’t want to be soothed; I want to get on with it. At that point, I think better when at the keyboard.
    In elementary school we all had to learn the Palmer Method from the writing teacher who came to each classroom once a week and wrote beautifully on the blackboard. We painfully wrote each lesson in our Palmer book. In high school, speed replaced neatness. My writing became a sprawly mess. So, to neaten my writing I slowed down, carefully formed each letter of every word as I did my homework, tried to ignore my impatience, and my writing improved. So will yours.

  4. I write manuscript every day to get started. There are books with writing prompts or I just make comments and ideas in a journal. It does get the sleeping part of my brain going and often ends up in my WIP. As far as your handwriting goes, I too am a first grade teacher and love to practice. Spalding is taught at my school and has great handwriting tips. I also love my Smash book from K&Company. It is kind of the visual notebook equivalent of scrivener.

    Good Luck!

  5. Michelle,
    I really enjoyed this post. I carry around little notebooks and scribble ideas in them for my current WIP. However, I have forgotten to actually do some longhand writing in them. Thanks for the reminder as I agree that writing with pencil or pen to paper can activate a different part of the brain. The soul?

    • @Hillary Homzie, Thanks Hillary! And yes, let’s go with soul – I like that.

  6. With writing by hand, like everything else in the physical world, you get better with practice. It really does get easier with time. 🙂

    If you don’t like how your handwriting looks, experiment with different ways to form the letters – the ‘r’, ‘a’, ‘t’, ‘l’, ‘b’ and ‘f’ all have variations. Try not putting loops on the ‘g’, ‘p’, ‘y’, ‘j’, ‘l’ or ‘h’. Be distinctive with your capitals. You could also explore the fonts on your computer for other ideas.

    One thing you may need to remember: handwriting is a creative expression. Calligraphy is a stylized example, but regular handwriting is still individualistic. No two people’s script looks exactly the same. This was one reason why legal experts used to employ handwriting experts during a prosecution. Your writing is an extension of YOU, so allow your personality to shine!

    I’ve been writing longhand all my life. I almost have to have a pen in my hand to think. I’m currently editing my first novel, and it’s agony because I’m always swiveling back and forth from my keyboard to my writing area. My poor brain gets so dizzy it doesn’t know which end is up! lol

    • @Robin, Wow – great tips, Robin! I’ll definitely experiment. It’s funny, you just reminded me that when I was a kid, I’d write stories longhand, and I had this one looooong story told from two POVS…and I’d try to change my handwriting depending on the character. Maybe I should’ve kept that up. 😉

  7. * Your reasons for not picking up a pen made me laugh. However, there’s something about handwriting that makes the words flow easily. That brain to hand motion, I found, has lessened my worries about what to put down on a blank piece of paper.
    I practice my penmanship, every now and then, by writing a letter to a friend or relative. Sending them a part of myself, so to speak. Remember those multiple-lined handwriting tablets, for little kids, with dashes in the middle of each line? Might help you develop a neat scribe by trying to keep your letters even. Good luck with your efforts.

    • @Gerri Lanier, All joking aside, I might seriously need to try that, Gerri. Thanks!

  8. My magnum opus has been handwritten ever since I began it in September ’93 (after a false start in December ’91). Only a handful of sections are typed. Eventually it’s going to be one book in 12 volumes. Luckily, I was blessed with strength and dexterity in both my hands, so I never have to worry about wearing one hand out and being unable to use the other.

    • @Carrie-Anne, Whoaaa…THAT is impressive!!

  9. When I get stuck, I’ll grab a pen and paper and try it that way. It’s amazing the difference changing mediums can have in busting writer’s block.

    • Josin,
      I’m with you. At the start of this week, I was struggling with one (hopefully!) last major hurdle in my current manuscript. I needed a plot tweak and didn’t know which direction to go. Finally, I pulled out a pencil and a piece of paper and started brainstorming. Within 15 minutes I had the plot change I’d been trying unsuccessfully to figure out for weeks. I just needed to stop staring at my computer long enough to let ideas flow more freely (and sloppily).
      T. P. Jagger

      • @T. P. Jagger, Wow, great points from both of you! I can totally see how going from keys to pens can help bust through the block.

  10. Yep, I relate to #2. BUT all the same, lately I’m just “sick” of the computer and maybe curling up with a small notebook is the way to go afterall.

    I think maybe I need to start writing a page in my journal each day. That’s longhand and also a “push” to get me consistently writing again (because I am not doing good with that!).

    Nice post.

  11. I completely relate to your 1-3… my daughter (12) who was slow to come around to typing in 5th (when it was graded) but has since realized how fast she is to transcribe her thoughts. but she still insists on writing her poetry and story-sketch work by hand. This seems like a good balance for me to try, because I like the idea of your challenge.

    and I’ll be looking out for tips on better handwriting as well.

    • @L, Very cool about your daughter! I had to work really hard at typing as a kid, too. (And, truth be told, my handwriting was much better back then.)