Pulp Magic

AUGUST 31, 2016

Writing Longhand on Paper Is the Key to These Fiction Writers’ Success

With Labor Day coming up, I’ve been feverishly trying to catch up on my summer reading. I confess I have an affinity for fiction and Elin Hilderbrand’s novels, like this year’s “The Rumor” that have earned her the title “the queen of the summer novel.”

Even more remarkable than Hilderbrand’s ability to turn out two highly addictive novels per year is that she writes them all longhand on a yellow legal pad. “People think it takes a long time, and I suppose it does,” she told CBS News last year “but this is how my brain flows.”

She’s not alone, of course. Prolific writers such as James Patterson and Stephen King and many others prefer pen and paper to typewriters and computers when they create their stories. Patterson even uses pencils. While working his way through college, Patterson felt the urge to write. “I worked a lot, and I just started scribbling stories,” he recalled (73 books later) in a TV interview earlier this summer.

King writes notes about his many characters in longhand just to “keep the names straight,” he says. And J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book by hand because she couldn’t afford a typewriter at the time and she’s just kept up the habit.

note book

So why is writing by hand different than “writing” on a machine? A 2010 study found that putting ink to paper stimulates a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System, or the RAS and that this area of the brain, which is associated with learning, “lit up” much more when subjects were asked to write words like “spaceship” by hand versus just studying the word closely.

Another study from the University of Washington, found that elementary school students who wrote essays with a pen rather than a computer keyboard not only wrote more than their keyboarded peers, but they also wrote faster and in more complete sentences.

There are even a few physicians who believe the act of writing on paper exercises key motor-skills, memory, and other cognitive muscles that help keep you sharp as you age.

But for many writers, longhand just feels better. “A blank computer screen makes me want to throw up,” Niven Govinden told The Guardian newspaper in Britain. “It’s not conducive to good writing. The physicality of longhand pleases me. I can revise as I work in a way that doesn’t happen on a laptop. There’s a greater sense of space when using a pen. A lined notebook is less judgmental. But most importantly, I write in a more economical way. I think harder about one good sentence following another, which for me is all that matters.”

I wonder if we’re just confusing the act of writing with the method of recording what we write? According to Joyce Carol Oates who only writes in longhand, “Writing is a consequence of thinking, planning, dreaming — this is the process that results in ‘writing,’ rather than the way in which the writing is recorded.”

One thing seems certain when it comes to writing a great novel and for some of today’s most well-known writers, the process of putting pen (or pencil) to paper seems to be the best facilitator of great storytelling.