I recently finished typing up the handwritten first draft of the novel I’m writing. I chose to handwrite the novel in order to have a bit of company while I did it; I wrote at the kitchen table, listening to music through headphones while my partner and kids pottered around nearby. As I’m a reasonable typist I didn’t think that transcribing it onto the computer would take long.
I was dead wrong.
77 handwritten pages, about 19,000 words all told, it took me just as long to type it up as it did to write it. Even though it was a short draft, typing it up was still a pain in the arse. I did make some alterations and deletions as I went, but not many. Not enough to justify the weeks it took to get it done. So were there any benefits of handwriting at all? I’m not so sure.
Of course, up until the invention of the typewriter, all books were handwritten. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Voltaire’s Candide. Everything else. All handwritten. Tolstoy took five years to handwrite War and Peace by candlelight, and his wife Sonya transcribed the revisions seven times. She must have had hands like trussed crabs after that.
I wonder if my novel would be different if I’d typed it. Is there something about handwriting that gives a creative advantage? In 2006, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, completed a study that looked at the writing methods of children in years two to five. In short, she found that when children handwrite, they include more ideas in their work. And when coming up with ideas for a composition, brain scans of the older children indicated greater neural activity than those who typed.
Maybe handwriting my novel helped. But I can’t recall if my brain was on fire with neural activity and ideas as I wrote. Having said that, there’s something tangible about handwriting that a text editor can’t replicate. The words are a pure record of thoughts, a seismograph of ideas twitched across the page. Scratched deletions remain, insertions hover, arrows rip across lines, writing snakes down the margins. The handwritten page is a record of real-time improvised ideas, like early jazz music recorded straight to wax tubes. And, it must be said, filling an entire physical notebook with words feels like an accomplishment.
Maybe I should handwrite my next novel as well.
Perhaps if I can convince my partner to type it up for me…