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Is it better to write with a pen?

The Poetry Socety recently reposted this Guardian article on Facebook – Why creative writing is better with a pen  – and I was reminded of how vehement Gillian Clarke was on the subject when she was tutoring us at Ty Newydd. She urged us to work in longhand before opening the computer.

What do you think of this? I’m interested to know, because although I do have a notebook by the bed (to capture ideas I have at night) I never actually write poems longhand. If I’m in a workshop I do use a pen and notepad, but I get a potential poem onto the screen to work on it as soon as I can. Some reasons I can think of are:

  • I type much more quickly than I write – I find I can lose an idea in the time it takes to write it by hand
  • I find writing harder –  my hand doesn’t seem to write what I intend, letters get missed out or the writing is illegible afterwards, plus my wrist aches
  • On the screen I can make changes very quickly to word choice, line length, layout to see how it looks, and can change back easily without lots of scratchings out
  • Because the typewritten word is clearer, I can ‘hear’ what I’ve written better
  • I like the intimacy of working on a laptop computer, and (unlike the writer of the Guardian article, for example) I don’t find the noise of the keyboard intrusive, quite the opposite actually – but then again Mac keyboards are very quiet
  • I can swiftly check something on the internet or in my archive without leaving my seat or breaking my train of thought
  • I can keep old iterations of poems and can go always back to see how something started, perhaps retrieve an old idea or go down another route for revision

Do you have any preferences or habits when it comes to writing by hand or on screen? What do you find works for you?

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  1. thank you (again) Robin, you have said everything I might have said but much better. I can print your blog out and bring it from my pocket every time I am told that it is wrong. I refuse to be bullied by people who prefer handwritten – that is their way and they can do what they bloody well like!! Cut and paste – Wonderful. Throughout history there seems to have been this catch up with modernity – I bet those cavemen didn’t approve of vellum (or whatever came next) – stone and and your own blood is the only way. Yeah.

    • Oooh! strong words – thanks for that, Meg, good to know I’m not alone in this – I do sometimes wonder.

  2. Antony Mair Antony Mair

    Well, er, mm, sorry but I’m with the dinosaurs here. Not because I dislike computers – I use mine all the time, and touch type and copy and paste and all the other things you can do with text on the clever little thing. BUT when it comes to writing poetry I like to do it in longhand. The reason is nothing to do with technology: it’s to do with the way my brain works when creating something. I was immensely encouraged in this view by Ted Hughes, who says in one of his letters (needless to say, I now can’t find it in my copy) that writing by hand is a descendant of drawing, and consequently engages the right-hand side of the brain; whereas a typewriter or computer is operating a machine and will consequently engage the left-hand side. Does this matter? it depends on your particular poetics – but to quote TH again (letter to Frieda Hughes 1988) “A great deal of writing – some of the best – is simply (complicatedly) a projection of the fight – within the writer – between his/her ego and all that other hidden mainly subconscious part of the writer which the ego excludes from its idea of itself, and which lives its life beyond and in spite of the ego.” I feel increasingly that the reason why so much poetry is dull is because this negotiation between ego and non-ego is not sufficiently worked out.
    I understand what you say about speed etc. And it may be that your particular way of dealing with the ego/non-ego fight is a faster process than mine (that wouldn’t be difficult!). What I now tend to do is to type up a poem after struggling with and getting it into preliminary form, then leave it for a few days and then revise the typed text – again usually by hand unless the corrections are fairly minor.
    What became clear to me from reading the pieces by contemporary poets on “In Their Own Words” is that everyone comes at the business of writing from a slightly different angle. At one end of the spectrum is the inspired approach, at the other the calculating. Each of us in practice has to find our way way of coping with the difficult task of creating something that is true, in the fullest sense of the term – which may in turn be something quite different from what we started out with.

    • Thanks for leaving such a thought-provoking reply, Antony – and I think you’re right in saying it probably depends on how the brain is wired, as much as anything. I do remember Ted Hughes talking about this in his ‘Letters’. I’d have been interested to know if he felt the same if he were writing now, since computers are quite a different beast to typewriters. Thanks for sharing your own writing process – I find it fascinating how different people’s writing habits are, and it seems to be particularly so with poetry.

  3. There’s no ‘correct’ here. I’ve never worked out why I go straight to the keyboard to write prose, but the first draft of a poem is always on paper, with a pencil. Even a pen feels wrong. Somehow the different things come out of different bits of my brain. I usually edit poems on paper too, until the final stages when I tweak on screen.

    Everything else: straight on screen, and I too type quicker than I write, and a damn sight more legibly!

    • Aha! Yes, what is it about poetry that for many people feels different? I think what you’re saying about different bits of the brain ties in with Antony’s comment also. And now we have the pen versus pencil distinction…
      Thanks, Isabel.

  4. Poetry is one of the few things I still write by hand. I find typing easier and faster for most things these days. But with poetry I tend to start off jotting down lines, rough drafts etc by hand (although a very first thought for a poem might be “jotted down” by any means possible, and these days that’s very likely on my Blackberry.)

    I would tend to write rough drafts and semi-finished drafts by hand, but to get it typed into Word pretty quickly, and probably proceed with more tweaking there.

    Doing most of the work by hand, for poetry, does feel better, somehow. I spend too much of my life with computers so I need to hang onto things like this and I think it probably is a more organic way to write a poem.

    • Hi Clarissa, thanks for commenting – it sounds like you have a fair bit in common with Isabel and Antony in preferring to draft by hand. Oddly enough I too am on the computer more or less all the time, and yet when I’m in poetry-mode it feels entirely different, though the tools are the same.

  5. I really like your reasoning, Robin, and I don’t think it’s right when people state that one method is superior to another. Personally, I ALWAYS start with a pen and notebook, alternating between different sized notebooks once I start drafting, sometimes copying out lines between notebooks (I know this sounds messy and complicated – it is but seems to help my poems progress). Not until I’ve done this a few times do I type up a poem on the computer and call this my first draft. Then I sit with pen, read aloud and change the poem again. However, when I was writing prose and worked in a similar way, I made incredibly slow progress and I tried to train myself to work straight onto a computer. I couldn’t do it very well at all. I’m really interested in what you say about using a Mac. My first computer was an Apple Classic with a gorgeous keypad and I’m sure that made a difference. I wrote my stage play and radio play using that, and several short stories. Since I’ve switched to PC, I’ve been writing poetry. I wonder if I’d wrote prose and longer pieces again if I switched back to a Mac?! (perhaps I need a new computer!). My children, 12 and 14, much prefer writing with a computer and I encourage them to do so – they write so much more this way – although when I bought them both beautiful, hard-backed notebooks and nice pens, they really enjoyed writing in those and keeping journals, which they still do, intermittently. Sorry for waffling on! I love pens and notebooks but I would always encourage writers to work with what suits them best.

    • Not waffling at all Josephine, thank you for sharing your thoughts in such detail. It’s amazing how many different working methods are coming out here. Great that you encourage your children to use a computer if that means they write MORE – in fact that’s another factor for me too. I’m sure I write more because having the computer makes it easier. But that’s also to do with blogging, I think. Seems to me that blogging keeps one’s writing muscles warmed up, ready for the serious stuff 🙂 I also love stationery btw. I just can’t bring myself to spoil a lovely clean page of paper with my scrawlings!

  6. I think that what is clear is that there is no right way to write poetry. I have had to write first draughts in pencil in a beautiful moleskine notebook (my preferred implements after the computer) whilst being tutored, or when I wake inspired at night, or when without my laptop, but I can’t wait to get to the computer to sort it out, see it in print, judge it in print, play with it. Have you seen Byron’s draughts – illegibly crossed out, written over. Just think how much more and even better (ducks behind screen) he might have written on a computer!

  7. I write on paper for poetry, in the beginning and often several drafts, before sitting down a the computer…
    but for prose it tends to be straight to screen.

    Surely there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – we’re all different.

    But I’d like to take note of who is left handed and who is right handed to see if that factor makes a difference in the choices made! (I’m left handed, but use the mouse as right-handers do, leaving my left hand free to write an idea down if I need to in between times 🙂

  8. msjinnifer msjinnifer

    Not denigrating long-handers here, but I think the anti-computer things has become a bit fashionable, almost a received wisdom, so thanks for the post, Robin. I’m with the hybrid gang and definitely a pencil person – HB or B! I scribble away all till it has a semblance of shape and look forward to getting the scrawly Byron-style shambles visible and workable on the computer. I hope inspiration and calculation can communicate in varying degrees of tension either medium ¬¬ .

  9. Thanks for your comments, Pseu and Ms J. I’m a right-hander myself. So another vote for the prose-straight-to-screen and two more who start with a pen(cil) and move to the screen later on… hmmm! The plot thickens.

  10. Longhand with a composition notebook and a Lamy fountain pen. My lines likes to just pop up, so waiting for the computer to come alive is not option for me. Yes, it gets messy at time but that can be adventure too. Besides, I do bulk the writing at the desk and when I get stuck- I just look out the window and watch the world go by.

  11. When writing longer narratives such as a novel, I use the PC, but have a variety of notebooks to write poetry when out and about, or even at home, and I find the handwriting approach quite refreshing – scribbling words out keeps me young!

    • Hi Andy, thanks for your comments on the blog! I agree about the notebook. Just the other night I had a great idea for a poem, bud didn’t have my notebook in the bedside drawer, so didn’t write it down, thinking I would remember in the morning. Could I remember it? Not a single bit. Ugh.

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Robin Houghton 2021