Returning to Pen and Paper: The Art of Revising By Hand

As a young adult, I found my own writing practice after university by scribbling randomly on napkins or on the backs of overdue rent bills. I loved looking at all sorts of materials as a possible canvas and feel now that these artifacts can exist as works in and of themselves. With the digitization of, well, everything, these handmade words exude an aura of an original, as one of our most original cultural critics so famously put it, that Times New Roman could never emulate.

There is a bevy of information conveyed in the representation of language by hand that does not come through in the typed text. So much character and emotion in the loops and points. It’s almost a version of speaking. I enjoyed writing like this so much that I came to rely on the personality my cursive or block or inkblots carried. But, it didn’t take more than a few seasons for the mesh bags I was using as storage for my notes to overflow. So I decided it was at last time to transcribe my writing into documents. Now I was face to face with the nakedness of my words, laid bare in type on a utilitarian letter-sized page formatted for predetermined fonts. I was stripped down to the quick, I felt. What would these symbols say without my penmanship to help them along?

It was a stunning lesson and one I am continually learning. My writing goes off into the world without me. I am not there to explain or amend or encourage or detract or further its course into the reader’s mind or heart in the slightest once it leaves my domain. I don’t say this to bully myself into writing better (as if!), but to help me to see the letters as typed on the page in front of me as cleanly as possible. What are my tics or hiccups that I like or need to push to the side? What am I actually communicating?

Here’s the other thing that typing my writing does that handwriting doesn’t: I am afforded a streamlined process for rewriting. It’s one thing to dash a ditty interestingly on the white space of a coffee maker manual (I still relish this hybrid form), but it’s quite another to put together 1,000 words for a column or 3,000 for a story or, aesthetes forbid, 60,000 or more for a book specifically geared toward mechanical reproduction (although I just heard of one writer who wrote her entire novel by hand!). For me, you better believe I’ll be clicking on spell check, thesaurus, and “save as” at the very minimum. For my most recent book, I’ve got almost one hundred drafts in succession up to the current near-ready version.  

But here’s where my old habits can be of use. Sometimes, to open up a paragraph or few pages that refuse to cooperate on rewrite after rewrite, I go back to my post-college writing roots. I sit at the table, grab my familiar friends the pen and the pad, and, without the excerpt I’m reworking in front of me, I literally recreate, by hand, the troubling section through a combination of memory and invention. This loosens everything up and shakes the words out of the bag. By forcing me to let go of awkward sentences that I’m holding onto because they set up ones that I love (that should also be sacrificed) and helping me smooth out some tripped up syntax, this process can be productive in a way that working onscreen inhibits.

I am so grateful for this tool in my writer’s toolkit. It has liberated both me and my texts from an overbearing approach to “getting it right.” Suddenly, perfection matters less because the handwriting makes the process less formalized. I get to play again, and that’s often when my better writing happens anyway. Heck, my next book even has reproduced doodles in it! Not that that’s the whole book. There’s a good 61,472 words that were very much not all written out by hand. I can tell you, though, that I reworked my opening by hand one morning, and I couldn’t be more pleased with it.

About the Author

Cara Benson is an award winning writer whose stories, poems, book reviews, and essays have been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, Fence, Electric Literature, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 3:AM, and in syndication. She has received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Literature and is in revision on her second book, a novel. Of her first book the Huffington Post writes: “Benson does more with the two-word sentence than many poets do in two stanzas or even two poems, largely because it would be difficult to find even a single wasted word." Cara teaches Creative Writing in the Graduate Program at Prescott College. Her online home is: carabensonwriter.com.

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