Writing Process: Pen or Keyboard?

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I often hear the question, “Do you write your scripts by hand first, or do you always type?”

It’s a common enough debate among writers, and I’ve heard pros and cons for both approaches. On the pen-and-paper side, you have the advantage of a more physical connection with the words, which engages your mind and body differently and can make the writing process smoother and faster. Writing by hand also helps avoid distractions that tend to plague us from the internet. On the other hand, using a computer from the start eliminates the step of transferring what you’ve written from the page to the screen, and it makes editing cleaner and easier. It’s also just super convenient to have access to dozens of documents at once and, if needed for research, online resources.

Each writer has to learn what works best for their unique process, and I think for most people “what works best” will continue to change and develop through life. That said, since I get this question frequently, I thought I’d share my answer, even though the answer will likely change as I become more experienced.

For the time being, my way of writing has settled into a fairly predictable pattern with regard to this question of “pen vs. keyboard.” When I’m drafting a new script, I tend to progress through three stages, if we divide them according to what medium I’m using:

1) I typically have to brainstorm an idea for a few weeks before I can really plunge into the first draft proper. So when I have a general goal in mind for my next script—”full-length Christmas drama,” “comedy skit for teens,” or whatever—the first thing I do is start mentally sifting through possibilities for plot, characters, setting, and theme. My early brainstorming doesn’t involve anything written or typed, just a juggling of ideas in my head, and this phase can last for weeks or occasionally even months. I may well be brainstorming new ideas in the back corners of my mind while I’m still in the writing or editing stage of other projects.

2) But once it’s time to tackle a new project seriously and my thoughts have begun to trace a specific story thread that seems to have potential, then I pull out my pen and paper. I find I’m able to root around in a concept more easily on paper than on a computer, so I have a notebook dedicated to my brainstorming scribbles. I jot down my general idea and start making notes about characters and plot points I can envision. I sketch out the story’s structure if I can, predicting how many scenes I might need and how they might be divided. I also record what I think is meaningful about the idea and ways I might be able to show that meaning in the story.

Usually, this phase is where I’m able to tell whether an idea is really viable. As Winnie the Pooh says,

“When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

When I put pen to paper and incarnate my idea in ink, it quickly becomes clear whether the story has real potential or, for whatever reason, won’t work. Maybe the idea is good, but it’s too small or large for the project at hand. Maybe it’s too crazy or complex for the stage and really belongs in film. Or maybe it just sounded cool but is actually stupid (always a distinct possibility).

At any rate, my “by hand” phase typically filters out the worst ideas until I’m left with either a single idea that I really like or a few ideas that need tested before I can decide between them.

3) Which brings me to my computer. If I feel like I’ve identified the idea I want to pursue, I dive in. I have my major characters and some kind of outline worked out in my Scribbles Notebook by this time, so I cannonball into my first draft (a pretty accurate description, actually).

If, however, I’m not yet 100% sold on my concept or have multiple ideas that passed the Note-Making Test, then I have to hold back and splash my feet in the water for a while. Meaning, I open a blank document, type “Scene One,” and see what happens. Because sometimes an idea can appear solid, characters seem interesting, the structure looks like it will work, but when I really step into the storyworld and take on the characters’ voices, I realize something isn’t working. Or, on the other hand, Stage Two may have left me with an idea I’m not crazy about, but when I give it a fair try I find it more exciting than expected.

Either way, moving to my computer always brings me to the final decision of what direction I’m taking for this script. From then on, I typically leave behind the paper in favor of the screen, except for occasional returns to my Scribbles Notebook if I need to think out a specific plot twist, character change, or something of the kind. The writing itself, from first draft all the way to final edits, happens through the keyboard.

As I said, however, my process could (will!) change as I change as a writer. Just last month, for instance, I was without access to my computer a few times when I had writing time, so I was forced to pull out pen and paper, not for brainstorming, but for actual drafting. And you know what? It felt good! The words flowed more naturally than they do sometimes when I type. Sure, later I had to transfer everything I’d penned onto my computer, but when I did I was surprised to discover just how much I’d written by hand—over 1000 words in the first short sitting.

In other words, the process is bound to develop with time, and thank goodness for it! What kind of life would I have ahead if I’d figured everything out at age 22, anyway?

1 thought on “Writing Process: Pen or Keyboard?

  1. I loved getting to “peak over your shoulder” so to speak and watch you write.

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