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How Drafting Longhand Can Enhance Your Writing

You know how you try clothes on before deciding what to wear on a date? Do you iron those clothes before holding them in the mirror? I hope not, because that’ll be like undoing your pants to fart. Yet that’s how most writers tend to approach the first draft. They iron their clothes, spritz on a bit of perfume, and ...
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ChronicleLY

You know how you try clothes on before deciding what to wear on a date? Do you iron those clothes before holding them in the mirror? I hope not, because that’ll be like undoing your pants to fart. Yet that’s how most writers tend to approach the first draft. They iron their clothes, spritz on a bit of perfume, and have their makeup ready—all before knowing what they’re going to wear.

So today we’re going to talk first drafts. But we’re not going to talk just any first draft. We’re going to check out the benefits of drafting longhand.

First things first

Let’s start with the fact that there are many ways to tackle the blank page. Longhand is just one tool. And before we get on with the specific method, I just want to cover the mindset you should bring.

You will need to write as if you’re deciding what to wear. Nothing is finalised yet. Heck, you might not even go out on that date. So don’t fret over accessories or shoes, and try to see the big picture here.

There’s a high chance that you’ll discard every word from your first draft. If you keep that in mind, putting down imperfect words will become less of an ordeal.

You might also feel like drafting longhand is a waste of time. Why go through these fun and games just to get a few scribbles down on paper?

You’re not alone. Pen and paper can so easily feel like dawdling around instead of working on an actual project. But I promise that your sentences will start to guide you once you stick to it for fifteen minutes or so.

And when worse comes to worst, remember that the act of writing itself is the point. No matter the end product, you’ll always come out of a writing session a tiny bit better than before. Win-win!

Man sitting at a desk with a lamp and drawing mannequin

This guy’s probably drawing, but what the heck. Photo: Thomas Franke

Mould before you chisel

I love looking at writing as chiselling versus moulding. There’s the pottery part of it, where you mould something from nothing. Then there’s chipping away at a block to get what’s hidden within.

For me, there’s no picking between them. You need both moulding (drafting) and chiselling (editing) in the writing process.

When you’re in drafting mode, you’re not looking for beauty. You’re merely establishing your boundaries. Getting the rough shape down. Once you have that, then you begin sanding and polishing.

You will be tempted to craft your magnum opus every time you see a blank page. Don’t give in. There will be time for that later. When it’s time to draft, draft.

Treat your editor as a separate being

There’s this hack I once saw on Reddit on how to get more answers to your question. Instead of asking, you spew the wrong answers to your question. That’ll result in more answers because people love correcting others more than helping.

Whether or not that statement carries any basis remains unknown. But that’s how you should look at the drafting process—a way of annoying your editor into action.

So write as badly as you can. It’s a prerequisite. Give yourself permission to suck. It’s the only way that your editor will swoop in saying “Yep, that’s a mess. Let’s fix that.”

The trick is not letting the editor in until you’re done drafting. And writing longhand is a pretty decent way of achieving that.

More benefits to longhand

My first novel was written entirely with pen and paper, and it’s the only manuscript out of six that’s ever been published. Coincidence? Maybe. But what I can tell you is that the words just hit different when you embrace the slower nature of handwriting.

One benefit of drafting longhand is that once I put the first few words down, I tend to finish the rest of the sentence. There’s no deleting the first words until I find the perfect start, no false starts, no doubt.

I either cross out my mistakes—if needed—or move on. And since writing by hand takes so much energy, I often find myself opting just to get the words out.

Also, since I start every sentence to completion, my inner editor tends to stay in her office. Because we have to write something, right?

My editor is irked by incomplete sentences too, and will thus allow me to finish without much comment. If anything, she makes fun of my handwriting instead of the prose itself.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I am much more succinct with my words when writing longhand. Again, writing this way takes up so much energy that I often just write down the important bits.

I know I’m going to edit later when I transcribe to the computer, so even caveman sentences work. Weirdly enough, those sentences don’t sound as bad when it comes time to edit.

Longhand Draft Book - Stuart Danker

My longhand draft for this article. Photo: Stuart Danker

The speed of thought

The next time you try both handwriting and typing, take a moment to notice your thoughts. When you’re typing, you capture your thoughts as they materialise. When you write by hand, you tend to think before you write.

When I write digitally, my thoughts get transcribed verbatim onto the screen. But with a pen, the sentence would go through three edits in my head before I reach the full stop.

And that’s a trade-off that I can live with. I don’t mind sacrificing speed if I’ll be happier with what I write at the end of each session. And at an average typing speed of 100 words per minute, I can zoom through a draft much quicker on a keyboard.

The thing is, writing isn’t all about speed, isn’t it?

My personal practices

Want more actionable info? I’ve got you covered. Here are a few practical tips that I’ve fine-tuned to work for me.

i. I write each sentence as a separate entity

When I write on paper, it’s almost like I’m writing separate micro stories for every sentence. Each sentence may or may not have anything to do with the next one.

Basically, I get an idea in my head and I go as far as it would take me. Once I’m done, that sentence is forgotten, and it belongs in its own tiny container.

The challenge of drafting this way is the assembly. This is why I underline the main points of a sentence so that it’s easier to skim during transcribing.

The upside to this is that writing feels effortless. Sometimes my sentences run on for a hundred words. Sometimes it’s ten words. But I never feel like I have to ‘work on’ a huge project. It ends up feeling more like a journal entry.

ii. I use the slow burn

I like juggling multiple articles at once. And I’ve found that inspiration for any of them can strike throughout the day. So whenever I get an idea, I just add it to the relevant projects and move on.

When I’m in this mode, I don’t write articles from beginning to end. That part’s reserved for the editing phase.

How do I know when I have enough for a project and am ready for transcribing? It’s when I’ve filled four A4 pages’ worth of words. That’s an average of 1,000 words. You can adjust your goalposts accordingly.

Three candles and a notebook on a tabletop

You can use the candle or inferno method. There really is no right or wrong way. Photo: Sixteen Miles Out

iii. I exhaust my own ideas first

I don’t go out into the wild that is Google until I’ve used up my own ideas. This is because the top-ten results may sway the original angle I had on a story, and I want to draft with an untainted mind as possible.

It’s only after I’m done that I start my research, just to see if I’m repeating too much of what others have said.

iv. I ask myself questions

First of all is always: What’s the point of this post? Then I ask the same question for each subsection.

Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I use questions to guide me through the muddy bit. So I’m not exactly creating new material as much as I’m answering my own questions.

Or if you prefer, you can describe what you want to write to a friend instead of actually writing the post. Just a tiny perspective shift that may unlock your ability to write.

Also, it’s good to trick your brain back since it often leads you to think that your writing sucks. Payback, witches.

v. I use personal shorthand

I don’t write full words and I add my own lingo. ‘Procrastination’ becomes ‘pcr’. ‘Because’ becomes ‘cos’. And these change from article to article too.

Remember, you’re not ‘performing’ yet. This is just you speaking to yourself. So it doesn’t matter what you write as long as you understand it.

Building upon this point, I also write in print instead of cursive, despite preferring the latter. I’ve found that print is easier to reread, and it avoids having to decipher my handwriting, which is a huge flow-killer for me.

Go long

At the end of the day, it’s all about fun. It’s like how they always recommend you to find the exercise you like best. There’s no point forcing yourself to run if you’d much prefer to swim.

It’s the same here. The best method for you is one you’d actually use. So give longhand a whirl, but if you hate it, just remember that there are tons of other methods to try.

Because your ultimate goal should be to do only one thing: Write.

Have you tried longhand before? How do you feel about it? Share your thoughts with me!

The article credited to Stuart

Stuart is a writer in the no-niche niche and has been in the publishing industry for eight years. He’s recently signed a book deal for a cyberpunk novel and is expected to publish in April 2021.

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