Writing: From notebook to computer

Today’s post is a rumination on that fickle mistress, Typing. Specifically, the typing that occurs when you spend days and days slaving away writing out a scene by hand in your notebook, and then begin copying said scene onto your computer.

Intellectually, this should be the easiest thing in the world. Take what’s written, copy it word for word into the Word doc, save the file, and call it a day. But like many writers, I am a perfectionist. As I type each word, I think to myself, “Is this the best word? Surely there’s a more eloquent way to communicate Bob the Elephant’s intense hatred for fancy cheese trays.” And then the re-writing begins.

A simple task that should have taken a mere fifteen minutes now develops into three arduous hours of typing, deleting, typing, deleting, flipping through notebook pages to make sure I didn’t say something similar later in the scene, more typing, more deleting … MADNESS! UTTER MADNESS!

Of course, the net result is that the scene turns out far superior to how I had it written down in my notebook. But it makes me wonder … if I had skipped the notebook step and gone straight to computer, how differently would the scene have turned out? Would it have ended differently, had I not used my first, hand-written run at the scene to work out the kinks? Would it be worse? Better? Exactly the same?

These musings were brought to you by my cold cup of peppermint tea, which languished in winter’s icy chill due to the fact that I forgot about it and left it sitting on the counter for thirty minutes.


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53 thoughts on “Writing: From notebook to computer

  1. I have never seen any advantage to writing things out longhand, myself. I do my composing in my head and then go straight to typing.

  2. I do both! Usually I just type up the ideas right away. But I also have various notebooks with various scenes and notes in them. It all depends on where and when inspiration strikes.

    • See, the problem is that I’m trying to separate my work life from my writing life, so I’m trying not to use my desktop for writing. This means I need to use my laptop whenever inspiration strikes, but the striking inevitably occurs far away from the laptop and/or my laptop is out of power and I’m not near an outlet, lol. Still, I’m starting to wonder if notebooks are an integral part of my creative process. Hmm …

  3. I do both but my hand written version usually acts as inspiration to a more polished version on the computer! I tend to make hand written notes as I type, which is weird but it seems to be how I like to work! I then come back to the notes in my final re-write/brutal edit phase 🙂

    • Fascinating! I’d love to keep hand written notes, but I lose stuff very easily, so I suspect they would be relegated to the bottom of my sock drawer by the time I needed to see them again. Of course, the question this prompts is: why am I keeping notebooks in my sock drawer? The answer, of course, is: ocelot.

  4. I have to have something written. I think better with a pen in my hand than I do with fingers on keys. I edit really well with fingers on keys, but that may be due to the fact that I teach online and have to do all of my editing that way. To me, a pen is just a natural extension of my hand and the words flow from my mind to my hand through the ink onto the paper.

    • I totally get that. There’s also something really satisfying about covering a blank notebook page with ink. You don’t get that feeling on a computer, probably because of how easy it is to delete everything you just wrote.

      • Yeah, the delete button is a scary one for me…deleting what I have written out long hand would take some work and I would talk myself out of getting rid of all of it….but I can highlight every thing I have typed and click delete…scary

        • The worst part is when you’re not thinking straight and delete something .. and then you go back later, freak out, try to recover the data, fail, and realize that you have no one to blame but yourself.

  5. Alex Wells

    I write it by hand first. I’m fine with editing every word as I type it up from the notebook, but when I try to type from scratch, I get nowhere… Writing it by hand for me guarantees a base to build on as opposed to a blank white page.

    • Blank white pages are indeed the bane of writers. I’ve heard that some writers purposely end a writing session by stopping halfway through a sentence, so they’ll have somewhere to pick up from when they start writing the next day. I try to write by hand as much as possible, but I type so much faster than I write, and I sometimes get frustrated by how slowly the words are getting out, lol.

  6. I think if you were to write longhand, then transfer it to another notepad, you would see the same process at work. Our inner editor never sleeps. In an ideal world, we should transfer verbatim, but the fear of losing the inspiration for the ‘better’ version is overwhelming – and rightly so.

    • I never thought of that! Probably because I haven’t re-copied notes in years … not since high school, probably, back when I scribbled every which way during class and then tried to decipher it when I got home.

  7. It’s fantastic that you go through your scenes this way — it helps catch so many things. I sometimes do this, too.

    • It really does help catch things. It’s crazy how many ideas you get when you’re typing up something you’ve already written! The downside is that it takes a loooong time, lol.

  8. I do the same. I think pen to paper helps me get inspired. And of course if it works, why try to fix it. 😀

    • Of course, my problem is that I’ll write pen/paper for a chapter, then type the next seven directly to the computer, then hand write a bit more … meaning if you open any given notebook in my house, it’ll be a jumbled mess of random scenes from different stories, with no hope of ever sorting them out, lol.

      • I have 3 or 4 notebooks of different scenes to different stories or articles and new ideas. Plus tons of scenes in my PC files. But it works for me. The typing of the different hand written things and I do end up changing it from what was hand written.

  9. I can’t write longhand– it seems like a completely different process when I do so. When I am journaling or taking notes or attempting to creatively write by hand then I have to actually think about the words and THEN write them. But when I am typing it is almost like the words bypass the processing in my brain and just go straight to my fingers. Because of this I sometimes wonder if perhaps I am being controlled by aliens or something because I’ll see myself write things and think “aha! that’s clever!” as though I don’t even remember thinking it.

    • Haha I do that all the time. I think that’s the mark of a good writer — to look at something you just wrote, first think, “How the heck did that get there?” closely followed by “Hey, that’s actually quite clever”. Longhand vs. computer … I prefer computer, because I type so quickly compared to my writing. I wouldn’t say the words bypass my brain, but my brain certainly has an easier time getting the words out with a keyboard involved 🙂

  10. I write the whole first draft in longhand first, without going back and reading it at all (or not much). The first thing I see when I start a writing session is the last sentence I wrote, not the beginning as in a Word document. The trouble with that is the urge to read and fiddle with the beginning, instead of getting on with the first draft. It’s like you do a second, third, fourth etc.draft of the beginning before you’ve written the ending. But yes, when I go to Word with my longhand ms, I don’t transcribe what’s there exactly. That’s when revision begins. Too bad you can’t set Word up to open a document at the end (or can you? Word has all sorts of features I know nothing about).

    • My mother’s solution would work for the “open Word at the end” problem — she never shuts off her computer or closes her files. So, just do that, and then you’ll always be at the end of the document because you never closed it! Come to think of it, don’t do that. It sounds horrendously bad for your poor computer.

      • My computer is perfectly happy with the way I treat it, thank you very much! Harrumph! As a matter of fact, it’s actually better to leave your computer on all the time because then it doesn’t have to go through the mental anguish of never knowing when it’s going to have its consciousness temporarily snuffed out just because of the whims of its user.

  11. And even when you perfect the Word version after three hours…you’re still smoothing out the cracks three DAYS later! Such is the writing life. Wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂

    • Three DAYS later? Try three YEARS later! Maybe that’s just me 😀 Authors who put out several books a year baffle me. I don’t know where they get the time to write so much! But you’re right — gotta love the writing life 🙂

  12. Well, now I WANT to hear about Bob’s problem with fancy cheese trays… Thanks for that.
    And I know what you mean. When I did all the notebook-writing on the plane that almost finished LOG for me, I KNOW it grew a couple thousand words in the transition from page to computer, and that I spent more time on it than I should have. I JUST COULDN’T HELP IT.
    But now I get to mess with it AGAIN in editing, so.
    Six of one, half a dozen of the other, I guess. xD

    • Bob just never had a particular fondness for fancy cheese trays the way the other elephants did. He preferred sliced meats, but most elephants are vegetarians (none are vegans, obviously, or they could never eat the cheese trays). So he’s always felt like the odd elephant out, and it infuriates him.

  13. I’ve never been able to write in a notebook without getting frustrated, because I can’t edit as I go. I can plot in a notebook, but when I write scenes, my ideas flow better if I write on the computer. Have you tried cutting out the notebook step? Maybe just writing your scene idea and goal in the notebook and then fleshing out the scene on the computer? I have a friend who has to write her first draft in a notebook, like you, because she says the tactile flow of pen and paper makes her more creative. It’s so interesting how different techniques work for different people.

    • Oh, I only write in the notebook because I like to write when I’m in the bathroom, and I don’t want to bring my laptop in there in case something goes horribly wrong and I break all laws of physics and end up somehow knocking it into the toilet. I definitely get the frustration with not being able to edit — I still try it, though, and end up with asterisks all over my page with added text written in all directions … it’s a mess, and puts me in quite the pickle when I need to sort everything out later 😀

  14. I am so surprised to learn so many people write in longhand first. I’ve written a few things when I’ve been stuck in a car waiting on Mom or my sister, and maybe once when the power was out, but I can’t read my own writing! My handwriting can’t keep up with my brain, and it’s a scribble mess. I’m done as a writer if the electrical grid ever goes down. 🙂

    • Hahaha electricity, that fickle mistress. My handwriting isn’t terrible, but it’s definitely slower than typing. Mostly the longhand occurs when I don’t have access to a computer. Then again, a lot of my favorite scenes that I’ve written came from longhand, so maybe it’s a necessary step in my process. I just don’t know!

  15. I’m in the process of doing this right now! I’m trying not to cut too much out, for fear of cutting out some thing important.

    • Oh man, that’s the worst feeling. I think that’s why it takes me so long to get from page to computer, because I have to keep hopping around and reading and re-reading to make sure everything important gets where it needs to be. On the plus side, our notebooks aren’t going anywhere, so if we cut out something important we can always go back and find it 🙂

  16. Gwen Stephens

    I admire folks who spend time writing longhand. I don’t know how you do it. Author Kristin Hannah drafts every novel longhand on several yellow legal pads. Then her dedicated assistant transcribes it for her into the word processor (wouldn’t that be nice??) My new goal is to word vomit that first draft – just get it down on the computer without looking back – then go back after a day or two and start fixing. I’m doing this now with blog posts, very liberating! We’ll see how it goes when I attempt it with fiction.

    • Hahaha word vomit. An excellent description of how I usually write. I only write longhand when there’s no computer around — for example, in my bathroom. And I can’t even imagine the luxury of having a personal assistant to transcribe entire novels. One day 😀

  17. Definitely sounds like a writer to me! 😀

    The thought I am often haunted by is – had I written that scene yesterday or tomorrow, would it have been different. Especially when something shoots off at a tangent that I didn’t expect.

    It makes me wonder, had I just chosen different days, would the whole book be different? Scary thought, really, although I suspect the same notions would have popped out – they were just waiting for me to hold a pen in my hand or sit at the computer.

    Trouble is, that’s not something you can test out. You can’t put the thoughts or the writing back and come and check out how it would have gone at a different time.

    Cheers! 🙂

  18. Pingback: Guts Before Beauty? | Davetopia

  19. I’ve found that using a computer first, re-writing by computer, then using the printed pages to re-write it again, and then back to the computer helps me to get it completed. I catch so much when I re-write on paper and not the computer. I think the way you are doing it probably is a great way to get it done. For some reason you catch so much when you see it in print. Just my two cents anyway. Good post.

    • Absolutely! I mean, I like the whole editing on computer thing because you can do everything so easily, but nothing beats printing out a story and then just writing all over the darn thing. I find it’s also a lot easier to catch mistakes on paper — like you said, the magic of the printed word 🙂

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