Lately, I’ve been pondering what kind of writing could serve me “best.” How do I produce more content? Am I writing by hand, at a keyboard, or through a dictaphone? How do I write better texts (meaning more believable, emotional, structured)? Can I write more text and, at the same time, produce more?
I’ll conduct a little experiment, and I’d love to invite you to join me!
What role does handwriting play for the writer’s life?
The flexible writer usually has three variants of text production at his disposal. Handwriting (and I include calligraphy here just as illegible everyday scribble), keyboards, and dictating.
So, we’re already leaving out the numerous subtleties, like the debate “pen vs. pencil,” which aficionados can deal with for years.
We’re also summarizing all devices that include a keyboard. Now granted, that’s not very fair. After all, PCs offer a different writing experience (and potential for distraction) than typewriters, but for the moment we don’t care about that.
Equally, we’re putting dictating into a dictaphone or headset on one level with the secretary taking down words in shorthand. We’re also leaving out that this situation is to be seldom seen. Our only concern is the choice between handwriting, print, and the spoken word.
Dictation or handwriting – what fits your genre?
To capture which method is “better,” we’ll have to define when a text lives up to pre-defined standards.
- Is it more structured, more carefully worded?
- Does it contain fewer filler words or spelling errors?
- Does the style turn colloquial because of the chosen input method?
- And finally, we’ll have to answer whether the particular genre fits the medium.
Dictation may suggest itself to the reporter recording an interview, so transcribing said recording afterward through Dragon Dictate is only the next logical step.
Perhaps he or she prefers writing down essential information in his notebook for sentimental reasons.
But is this routine just as applicable to a medical essay, a poem, or a philosophical column?
Can you even write a dissertation, in which every second sentence requires a footnote, by dictating or handwriting it?
Well, of course, I know that it happened this way in the past. But the question remains whether we can still justify that additional time expenditure, or whether it might be enough to limit handwriting to parts of our work, say to our research and excerpts.
I can’t help myself. Even after experimenting with handwritten notes, dictation software, and an array of writing and notetaking apps, I still could not say that one way of writing has to stand above all others.
Famous writers’ routines
Yes, I know the “evidence.” I know that Stephen King wrote “Dreamcatcher” in his most beautiful cursive, as did J. K. Rowling with “The Tales of Beedle the Bard.”
I also know about all of the articles, in the Wall Street Journal, ones by the Huffington Post, or psychological journals, like this article on the health benefits of expressive writing. I know about the effects of handwriting on children’s development just as I’ve read about its use for my memory. I’ve soaked it all up like a sponge!
I know that the blinking cursor irritates Jerry Seinfeld and that this is why he prefers cheap, yellow legal pads. But – and it’s a big “but”…
We happen to live in a digital age. That means, in most cases, texts have to return to some digital format in the end. Even if we originally conceived them in cursive.
So someone has to transcribe, scan, or dictate them. What does that mean for those among us trying to live off of their writing? Those who care about their creativity as much as their health?
Let me get this straight. I don’t have an answer to these questions myself. But I am trying to work on my routines. And I’ll probably keep doing so in the future.
In the meantime, I want to record the status quo, partly for me, partly as an example for others. And I hope that I can learn something while exchanging thoughts like this with others.
So here is my current routine for producing content, in the broadest sense:
1st step: Collect ideas (handwritten or dictation app)
At least on this one, I am mostly “old school.” If I’m on the run or the ideas are flowing in the morning, I’ll collect them in my notebook, be it with a pen in my Leuchtturm or out and about with a pencil (currently, a Tombow MONO-100-3B) in one of my Fieldnotes booklets.
Occasionally, I might grab my smartphone to dictate an idea into Evernote, but that idea will be written down in those books later as well. It doesn’t always look pretty – even though I like to believe that I can write legibly if I want to. It’s convenient and easy.
And it also manifests as the most basic foundation of this system, the separation of ideation and editing! I cannot stress this enough.
Every single time when I had those “phases” where the writing seemed too hard, or ideas just seemed to be on vacation, leaving me home alone; I didn’t separate those two steps.
Never try to work on your given text while you’re fishing for new content! And never try to polish while you’re thinking of the next chapter or blog post. It will only harm you.
2nd step: Outline and wording
My rhetorics classes still inform me. In most cases, the classical dispositio and elocutio follow closely spaced. So in my case, outlining and ornating almost turn into one process.
Sometimes I jump back and forth between them. I never get that last final touch, the alliteration I’d die for, before everything is appropriately structured, however.
In the past, I used to divide those two processes more sharply. Who knows, perhaps switching between different input methods will change that.
At present, I could imagine that formulating and polishing in cursive might slow down the entire process. I would also expect that my way of formulating, especially regarding expletives, will change. We’ll see.
3rd step: Data export
Good old Cicero didn’t think of that one, I guess. No matter whether I had to bring my dissertation to the copy shop or I’m preparing a blog post for my CMS – I always have to transfer the text into another format than the original.
From Word to PDF, from Scrivener to HTML or Mobi. Obviously, this step again entails editing, from formatting italics and bullet points to checking hyperlinks.
4th step: Publishing or email
For me, at least, those are the two channels of distribution I know and use most often. Sometimes, I’ll paste a text into a Google Doc, but that’s the rare exception.
Sometimes, I’ll send it via email in the process of proofreading or to reach out to subscribers. In the first case, my job is done once I hit “Sent”; in the second one, I’ll have to add some features for email marketing or social media that don’t have anything to do with the actual writing.
So that means, at least 90 % of my text production happens at a keyboard. I might have captured the initial idea for a blog post like this one in words such as, “Dictation vs. keyboard vs. handwriting.” But that necessarily leads to sitting for long periods, to having Google and every dictionary on Earth available at a finger’s click, to writing faster than I think, or to subvocalizing my thoughts.
And even though I was “smart enough” to deactivate most notifications at my work machine, that does mean being interrupted by messages, emails, and news from time to time, as well.
Time for an experiment: #AnalogueApril
As I love experiments on my working routines, I want to set up a few rules for myself during this April. Due to the frequency in which I intend to write blog posts, this blog post will be published a couple of days before April. Here is my idea for the next couple of blog posts (and private writing projects that will see the light of day in the future).
Handwriting takes priority; calligraphy is not in demand
Of course, I’ll allow myself to edit spelling mistakes or to reformulate when typing my text into the mac; but I want to conserve as much of the original wording as possible, and I don’t want to compromise it with Google or keyword research.
I don’t care about especially decorative calligraphy for now. If you want to join me, you can handle that part however you see fit.
If necessary, digitalize and format afterward
After the first draft, I’ll type the text into Scrivener, since that’s where I collect most of my writing. I’ll also add a couple of paragraphs, hyperlinks, and bullet points for usability’s sake. After that, I’ll only export the document and throw it up onto the blog and all social channels.
Side effect: I’ll limit email & social to two visits a day
That’s a rule with which I can personally keep up. If you want or have to deviate from that, feel free to do so.
I have no idea how long my blog posts will be. I also don’t know whether they’ll be more technical or filled up with more media. But I’m curious whether something about my style and my “output” will change.
Care to join me or to share your experience with handwriting? Share them in the comments or on Twitter – #AnalogueApril! I’m looking forward to your personal experience with writing by hand for a month!