The Writing Process: Computer vs. Longhand

As far as I can tell, there are three different modalities of writing: computer/word processor, typewriter, and longhand (handwritten). But unless you’re McGee on NCIS, no one uses a typewriter anymore, which leaves just two. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.

[To clarify, while “longhand” can mean cursive writing, it also means just plain ordinary writing, and that’s how I’m using it in this context.]


computerI think the computer is now the most popular way of writing. The advantages can far outweigh any disadvantages for many writers. With a computer, you can save all your materials in one place, and easily keep track of different versions. You don’t have to print anything out unless you want to, which can be environmentally friendly by saving paper. A computer or computer file is very portable. For example, I save everything to a flash drive, which makes it really easy to take my work from home to the office to a friend’s place, etc., and I don’t have to carry a lot of notebooks or anything with me. I have a mini laptop as well, so for me, it can be very easy to carry around a laptop and the flash drive and write anywhere. Writing on the computer also makes it easy to do research or look something up right when you need to. Some authors find it easier to write more on the computer because they can type faster than they can write on pen and paper. This means they could conceivably get a lot more done in one hour or one day by typing than by using longhand.

However, there are some drawbacks. What if you lose power while you’re writing? If you have an old computer that doesn’t keep a battery charge, you could lose your work the second the power goes out. What if the power goes out and your laptop does have a charge, but only for two hours? Do you switch to pen and paper, or do you have to stop? There are also some places where it would be unacceptable to have a laptop on, such as a family gathering (depends on your family), a date, maybe the office, etc. In those cases, plain old paper would be far more useful. It is also possible for a computer to crash and wipe your work, or download a virus and destroy your work, or Internet sites to crash and you lose access to your work or your backups.

Pros: easy to backup and store multiple versions, easy to store all materials in one place, typing faster than writing, flash drives and Internet very portable, potentially more environmentally friendly
Cons: the power goes out, machines less portable, less acceptable in certain situations, computer crash or virus


pen and paperI can’t lie, I love handwriting. Everyone’s handwriting is unique and beautiful, even the chicken scratches. I’ve written before in other places about how magical and beautiful the act of writing with pen and paper can be. Sometimes I can stare at my hand writing the words in my head and I’m simply amazed at how the pen follows my direction and translates my thoughts into something permanent. I don’t get the same feeling when I’m typing on a computer. Writing my work by hand is a completely different feeling, and it’s been my preferred method of writing since I was a kid.

Paper and notebooks are highly portable, and they’re great for places where a computer might not have been practical. I used to write on the Metro on my way to school. There’s no way I would have had a computer out on the Metro, not even my mini. Paper is also better for travel. Who would want to steal a notebook? I just have to make sure I don’t lose it, but other than that, it’s perfectly safe, while my iPad is not.

But even I can see some drawbacks. I am one of those people who types faster than I write. When I write with a pen, I sometimes feel like my brain is working faster than my fingers can move. With a computer, my typing is almost fast enough to keep up with my train of thought, so sometimes I feel like I’m just too slow with a pen. Using paper also means it can be harder to keep track of versions, materials, and ideas. Unless you have a good system in place, it can be easy to misplace ideas or forget which version you’re working on. Also, if you have a lot of research or reference materials on paper and you want to take it with you, you can end up carrying a lot of things you might reference and you might need, but you also might not end up needing them and have carted them around for nothing. The pen and paper method could also be environmentally unfriendly unless you recycle the paper or use recycled paper.

Backing up your work when you use longhand is a huge concern. Unless you make copies of the papers, there really is no way to make a backup of a notebook or your loose-leaf. If you lose a notebook, you could lose everything you worked on. You could type everything up at intervals and have the typed files act as backup, but that can grow cumbersome and time-consuming.

Pros: portable, emotional link, no threat of being stolen
Cons: no real backup, not environmentally friendly, little version control, slower

So which method do you prefer? I use both, but I’m slowly moving in favor of the computer and only using longhand when the mood strikes me.


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