Writing,  Writing Wednesday

Draft Faster and Cleaner with a Writing Notebook


Whew! What a whirlwind the past month has been. The weather has been blessedly warm and dry here in Seattle, so I’ve taken every opportunity to go outside and soak up the rays, because who knows when the sun will wander back behind the Shroud of Eternal Grey? Between that and moving (on short notice), quality butt-in-chair writing time has been hard to come by. I didn’t want to lug my giant laptop outside, and with my home in disarray, it has been very hard to focus.

Which is why I am SO glad that about three months ago, I started writing in a notebook. I’m not talking about a handy little “idea book” to jot down notes. I mean that I have a full size spiral notebook that contains my ENTIRE WIP. I’ve written the last 20K words longhand, and am a total convert. This post will give you a few reasons you might want to try it too, and a couple of tips I’ve learned through trial and error.

Why switch to writing in a notebook? Here are just a few things I love about it.

Lightweight, portable, and convenient (and cheap!). With a notebook, your WIP is always with you. It fits in most purses and backpacks or is easy to carry by itself. Best of all, there is no need to be indoors with it or near an electric outlet, and it never runs out of batteries. Open, click, and go! You can climb a tree, lay in a hammock, or sit on the patio of your favorite coffee shop. I started writing in a notebook because I commute on a bus for 2+ hours a day. I had always spent the bus ride reading or dinking around on my iPhone, but I knew writing would be a better use of the time. Except I didn’t want to carry my laptop every day, or try to use it on the bus. I had intended to buy a more compact and cheaper word-processing-only device, but picked up a notebook to use in the interim. Needless to say, I haven’t looked back.

Fewer distractions. A notebook does not have the internet. There are no notifications dinging, and I’ve found it is excellent at derailing that nervous tick of constantly checking your phone or social media accounts. Just like a paper book, it becomes an escape and draws you in to its world. It’s been said that coloring is very grounding, even for adults – it puts us in a meditative state. I believe the physicality of writing longhand can do the same thing. If you have trouble staying focused, even when you sit down for designated writing time, give this a try. (Just make sure to turn off your phone ringer and keep it tucked away when you have your notebook out.)

Boosted creativity. I don’t know if this is demonstrable or if it’s just me, but I find that writing in a notebook is more fun, playful, and just feels less like “work”. It reminds me of when I used to write in a diary (mostly fantasy scenarios of my secret crushes asking me out) or when I was in college and would spend entire genomics lectures writing vampire fanfic instead of taking notes. 😛 Because it is more “freestyle”, drafting in my notebook has loosened up my creativity. My story has even gone in directions that I did not originally intend, and I don’t think I would have gone with the flow if I had been working on a computer.

Stay in the story. Because of the rigidity of my writing “routine” it would often take me a long time to get to the actual writing. First I had to get out my laptop, plug it in, boot it up, open the program, get comfortable, get a drink or snack, set everything up just so. THEN I would have to re-read the most recent scene or chapter to remember where I left off. Then I would start writing new stuff. Since I needed a larger block of time and so much set up, it often just wouldn’t happen. If I only have 30 free minutes and I probably will barely start to write at the end of that, may as well just do the dishes (or so I would make the excuse). No more! The convenience of the notebook has eliminated that roadblock, and as a result, I write much more frequently. Waiting for a prescription at the pharmacy? Jot down 300 words! Half hour lunch break? Writing for 25 minutes of it. Going to be in the bathroom for a while? Ummm…why not? My WIP is almost always – quite literally and physically – WITH me. Thanks to that, I no longer get disconnected from it or lose track of my place. The story is always brewing in the back of my mind, and when I do get those tiny windows, it’s easy to jump right back in where I left off without missing a beat.

Get unblocked and draft faster! At first, writing longhand was troublesome for me. I sometimes would scratch or tear out entire pages if I decided to rewrite, or else the pages would get so messy, even I couldn’t make sense of them. I did NOT want to rewrite entire scenes or chapters – that would just get frustrating. Then I read a writing tip about using brackets to draft faster. The idea is that instead of trying to figure out exactly what you want to say or have happen, just put it in brackets and move on, then go back and fill in the brackets later. So, I started making notes in the margins (or in brackets) whenever I wanted to change something and just picked up right where I’d left off AS IF I HAD CHANGED IT. This is a big deal, because it drastically accelerated my drafting. I started catapulting through my story faster than I ever had on a laptop. And guess what, that made it more FUN.

Separate drafting and editing. Most writers are natural editors. We can’t help it. We are those annoying folks correcting other peoples’ grammar in FB comments. For me, this meant that every time I sat down to write, I would first spend anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour reading back over what I had most recently written, adding to it, changing it, and correcting it. Sometimes even while drafting I will spend 10 minutes trying to get a sentence “just right.” But when you are writing longhand, you can’t delete, cut, copy, paste, or even fiddle with words too much. Basically, you cannot edit-as-you-go. THE ONLY WAY TO GO IS FORWARD. This is a rough draft in the truest sense. If you’re like me and spend more time editing what you’ve already written than drafting, this just may be the key to letting that go.

I should probably mention a couple of drawbacks of this method. It’s not all ink fountains and paper butterflies. The first is that if you lose your notebook, you’re screwed. A notebook is a lot easier to lose track of than a laptop, but I personally keep mine on my person at all times, just like my wallet or phone. But if you have kids, etc., that could be trickier, and I would recommend backing it up (transcribing) more often. The second drawback is hand cramps. The struggle is real! I have experimented with holding the pen different ways, changing my handwriting, and even doing finger stretches (no joke). I have calluses too, but I look at them with pride – they are the sign that I am a TRUE writer, just like the authors of old. And I don’t even mind the pain most times. If my hand is cramping, it means I’m on a roll.

Lastly, here are a couple of pro tips:

  • Get a sturdy notebook. It’s going to see a lot of use and travel. I recommend one with a plastic cover.
  • Get comfortable pens, and ALWAYS have extras. I use the cushy-grip Pilot G-2 gel pens. They write smooth and feel good, but that is a personal preference.
  • Use one color for drafting and one color for notes. This way you can pick out your “as you go” edits easier.
  • Edit and add as you type in your longhand pages. This effectively becomes your first edit/second draft. It saves a lot of time.

Let me know in the comments if you give this a try. It has revolutionized my entire process, and I think every book of mine will be written longhand first from now on.