Why the pen is sometimes mightier than the keyboard

I’ve written quite a few books now, and while my writing process will probably always be evolving to some extent, some things are fundamental. For me, one of those things is advance planning. I write better – and more happily – when I outline and plan in detail. I need to get, not just the story, but the characters, clear in my head before I start. If I do that, I will generally have very few wasted words. If I don’t, revising will be much more painful. 

It’s not just about the pain of revision though. It’s also about exploring the possibilities fully. I realise that might sound counterintuitive to some people. After all, what could be more possibility-laden than a blank white page? But in my experience (and ok, it is only *my* experience) as soon as you begin writing – like it or not – you begin to make choices and at each of those forks in the road, you close down certain options. You can double back, of course, but not always. Some roads, once taken, can’t be retreated from. 

Besides those practical considerations, there’s a degree of preference here. Outlining is one of my favourite parts of the process. I love the ideas stage, when your brain is popping and fizzing with excitement, and the story is all wide-open potential. When I’m outlining a historical, there’s usually a fair bit of research going on at the same time (sometimes for a contemporary as well, but never as much). I love how research will not only inform things like setting, backstory etc. but will actually introduce new plot ideas. 

Outlining with a co-author is particularly fun. When Sally (Malcolm) and I are outlining, we usually end up creating a bunch of different Google docs and responding to each other’s comments in new colours. The result is a sprawling, chaotic, frothing rainbow of ideas. We do it very much ‘in the moment’ and in a conversational style. That’s a function of co-writing. When there’s two of you, the sparking of ideas back and forth is very much a dialogue. 

When I’m outlining alone, it’s a much more introspective affair. Without another person to spark off, I need other tools. That’s when I turn to good old-fashioned pen and paper. I do have the outline in a document on my laptop, but I do much of my thinking in handwritten form. 

Interestingly, I was reading an article recently that said we retain more information when we take handwritten rather than typed notes. The two activities involve different cognitive processes – as a purely physical act, writing is a far more complex activity (just think of the difference in motor skills required between tapping a few keys and writing a word). Something about parsing the words, reconstituting them in cursive, often summarising if you’re taking notes of what someone is saying verbally, helps with processing what is being said and being able to remember it later. Different brain processes are working together. 

I feel like something similar happens when I outline in pen and paper. The act of handwriting seems to help me think more creatively. Why should that be? I think – going back to what I said about the sense of dialogue you have with a co-author – that it’s similar to that sort of process. When I use a pen, it feels more like a conversation than a unilaterally drafted plan. Like questions and answers. In fact, I very often do start an outlining session with questions. This is the one I started last night. 

There’s just something more… interrogable about outlining by hand. It’s inherently more fluid, more like my actual thoughts. Less fully formed. It captures the blurriness of thought better somehow. Sometimes a question will have arrows that lead to five different answers. And those answers will have more arrows that lead off them, and to each other. And yes, of course you could create this pictorially on screen, but it wouldn’t be the same – the brain process would be entirely different, entirely less spontaneous. For me, at least.

All of which is a long lead up to this: I had one of my rare highly satisfying late night breakthroughs last night. I wasn’t planning on doing any writing. I popped off to bed with my Kindle, planning to read, but I found myself picking up my bedside notebook instead and – once again – turning my mind to the outline of the next book in the Enlightenment series – George’s story (which, incidentally, will be called Liberated). 

I’ve been tinkering with this outline on and off for ages, trying to get the story and characters straight in mind. It’s gone through a few different iterations – George is pretty much the same in all of them, it’s the other character I’ve been niggling away at. And then last night, as I was scribbling away with my pen, asking and answering questions – and sometimes just doodling – something new came to me. A kind of instant feeling of what the dynamic between these two characters needed to be. Two problems that had been hanging around for a while were instantly resolved, and a throwaway remark I’d made once about what would be in this book assumed a new and sudden significance. I scribbled away for an hour on and emerged blinking on the other side, much happier. 

Incidentally, I’ve already got the cover for this book, though it’s under wraps for now. 

Till it’s written. 

Happy reading, friends.

3 thoughts on “Why the pen is sometimes mightier than the keyboard

  1. I have loved all the characters in this series and look forward to reading Liberated. Hope will hear more of Henry and Kit in the book too. Another loving couple.


  2. Ooh you tease! I can’t write at all if I try to plan or plot.
    I use Dabble to create my stories sbd it’s great because I can pop character biographies and geographical details into a separate part of the overall project and easily switch between them so it’s like having all those notes and conversations.
    But when I write, I literally put fingers to keyboard and see what happens next.
    I do have vague ideas of story beats and I know how I’d like the ending to occur but the journey to get there – no clue!


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