National Novel Writing Month
This November, why not join hundreds of thousands of would-be, and actual, novelists around the world participating in National Novel Writing Month?
If like many of us, you have always felt you’ve got a best-seller lurking somewhere inside, then this November could be the time to finally put pen to paper.
NaNoWriMo offers no prize other than the satisfaction of taking part. It’s free to sign up and once you do you immediately have access to a range of information, support materials and forums all designed to keep you motivated over the course of the 30 days. You are also given access to your own dashboard page where you can set up a profile, define your targets, and log your progress – you can keep this information private, make it public, or share it with selected writing ‘buddies’.
According to the NaNoWriMo website, over 367,000 novels have been completed since the first NaNoWriMo was organised by a freelance writer and some of his friends back in 1999. Many of these novels will never see the light of day, but some have gone on to be bestsellers.
While 50,000 words might seem daunting, it breaks down into a less intimidating 1,667 words a day. As novelist David Barnett says, in his article in The Guardian offering advice on how to approach NaNoWriMo, “Sometimes the writing will flow; other days it won’t.”¹ The key – as with any form of creativity or something we want to get better at – is perseverance and practice. On those days when the words aren’t coming, just write – it doesn’t have to be perfect as that’s what editing is for, which can be done after the 30 days is up.
Possibly one of the most important considerations to make if you decide to embark on NaNoWriMo, or even if you’re just going to set about writing a novel in your own time, is where and how you will write. Will you put finger to keyboard or pen to paper?
For most of us these days, keyboards – whether on a phone, tablet or computer – have become an extension of our hands. Our first thought when embarking on our first novel, therefore, might be to open up a brand new Word document or download a writing app. Before you do that, however, consider these five reasons why you might want to put pen to paper and write longhand instead.
Five Reasons To Write Your Novel Longhand
1. Writing Longhand Helps Avoid Distraction
Keyboards are usually connected to computers of some form, which are usually connected to the internet and its endless possibilities of time-wasting diversions and distractions disguised as research. With pen and paper there is no such distraction, and, if this is your first foray into creative writing, leave research for another time. Instead, turn off your computer, tablet or smartphone, open your paper notepad, pick up your pen, and start writing!
2. Writing Longhand Can Help Overcome Writer’s Block
Most writers will experience writer’s block at some point. Staring at a blank page wondering where and how to start, and painstakingly mulling over the very first word of your novel, can leave even the most accomplished of writers holding their head in their hands. However, it is also well documented that one of the best ways to overcome writer’s block is to just write – not on a keyboard, but pen on paper.
Cursive (joined up) writing, which helps “stimulate brain synapses and synchronicity between left and right hemispheres, something that is absent from printing and typing”² is a practice used by many writers and on creative writing courses. It is about putting pen on paper and letting flow whatever comes into your head – there doesn’t have to be a rhyme, reason or purpose to the writing, it is simply the act of writing that is important. After a little time spent cursive writing, it can be surprising how quickly the thoughts and words begin to flow.
3. Writing Longhand Gives The Brain More Time To Think
Of course, the idea of writing anything longhand, never mind a novel, might seem an onerous task compared to typing straight onto a screen, but it is worth it. The important thing with creative writing isn’t the speed of writing, it’s the many-layered thoughts and processes that go into it; it’s a very different process to typing up a report or correspondence at work.
In his article “Bring Back Handwriting: It’s Good for Your Brain,” Markham Heid references Daniel Oppenheimer, co-author of 2014 study The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, who says that “because typing is fast, it tends to cause people to employ a less diverse group of words. Writing longhand allows people more time to come up with the most appropriate word, which may facilitate better self-expression.”
While writing the first draft of this article longhand (I never write first draft on the computer for all the reasons mentioned here), I could almost physically sense the next word or sentence forming as I was writing – something that seldom happens when I type straight onto a screen, which becomes a much more stilted process as my thoughts try and fail to keep pace with my fingers.
4. Writing Longhand Helps Make Editing Easier
This might sound very counterintuitive when we have the wonders of ‘control z’ and delete buttons at our fingertips, but creativity is seldom clean and tidy. Perfectionists, in particular, may struggle with the mess of a handwritten notebook with its crossings out and jottings in the margins, preferring instead to go straight to the computer where they can perfect each sentence. If we painstakingly grapple with each word and sentence during the first draft of a novel, however, it can be difficult to know when enough is enough and to move onto the next sentence or paragraph; it could mean that novel is a very long time coming.
British novelist, essayist, memoirist and screenwriter Martin Amis is one of a number of novelists who espouses the advantages of writing longhand rather than on screen:
“When you scratch out a word, it is still existing on the page. On the computer, when you delete a word, it disappears forever. This is important because usually your first instinct is the right one”.³
One of the important advantages of writing longhand in a notebook with scribblings and crossings out galore, is that it’s easier to move on to the next sentence or paragraph. Inevitably, the writing will eventually be typed up onto a computer, and it is within that key stage that the tidying up and editing can begin, and it usually comes a lot more easily as we have had time to absorb and think about what we have written.
5. Writing Longhand Boosts Learning And Retention Of Information
Lots of studies, including that of Oppenheimer mentioned above, have shown that writing down notes longhand can help in the learning and retention of information over a long period of time. The same applies to writing your novel, it’s something that is surprisingly important if you don’t want a character to be wearing green trousers on one page and a purple skirt on the next (unless it’s key to the plot of course). Writing longhand can also help what you have written to stay in your head ready to be quietly mulled over while in the bath or having a little break from the writing process.
So, if you’re ready to start developing and flexing your writing muscles this NaNoWriMo, there is much to be said for using a pen and paper instead of a keyboard and screen. Your first venture into the world of novel writing might not result in a masterpiece – it might not even leave the pages of your notepad – but you never know what might develop from that writing in the future. And if you need any more convincing that writing longhand is the way to go, J.K. Rowling still writes her first drafts and plots using pen and paper.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in reading our other articles on the benefits of using paper to support writing and creativity.