Write by hand.

This is the first piece of advice I give anyone who asks me about writing. Typing into a blank screen, as we've become so accustomed to doing these days, isn't the same. For one thing, it's too easy to back up -- to delete. It's too easy to type something -- anything -- and to leave it in place, simply because it's already there.

That said: if you're very good at having conversations in your head, and if you've practised writing-by-typing-into-a-screen for a while, then you might get along alright. For my purposes here, I've done a lot of typing into a blank screen, partly because I type nearly as fast as I think, and I want this to sound conversational. But please note: this works for me, here, because I type ridiculously fast, and because I've practised this form of composition for many years. As they say: your mileage will vary. Note also that I edit my own work heavily and have others who edit my words as well; self-editing is often a fool's errand!

Generally, and especially when your aim is to improve your skills, slow, methodical, careful writing is essential. Writing by hand is all this.

Pen to paper is as close to the thought as you can get because of the physicality of the act. Typing previously-handwritten writing is transcription.

Handwriting is a kind of filtering or processing. What happens without the filter?

Typing into a computer differs from typing on paper with a typewriter. The difference is commitment – commitment in your head before you let the idea out.

Typing-as-writing is faster than writing by hand, which leaves you less time for composition, generally. Surely there are those who compose slowly, in their heads, then type that composition quickly. I'm not like that, and I frankly don't know many people who are. If you're sufficiently disciplined to compose separately from the act of typing, then by all means do what comes naturally. But note: composition differs from transcribing. If you will: composition is a mental process; transcription is a physical process.

The physical act of writing guides acts of composition. The medium you choose to record your words affects the results. To write this way is to compose this way. To write this other way is to compose this other way.

When do you compose? Always. Composition becomes a natural act, like shifting gears in a car. That’s what practice gets you – effortlessness in this or that area, so that you can pay attention to other areas. (Effort might shift, but there is always effort.)

For many professional writers, writing is a deliberate process, to be undertaken in a particular place under particular conditions. Writers often trade ideas about their writing spaces, their desks, their favourite quiet spots to write, and so forth. I'm not this way. For me, composition happens nearly constantly; composition is a way of life. Sometimes I stop, somewhere, and record the compositions that occur to me, but it's living that's writing; as I live, I write. Later, I transcribe.

In writing, there’s a lot of sitting still, because that’s one way we think.

In writing, there’s a lot of moving around, because that’s one way we think.

(Why hand write those last two sentences? Isn’t it a waste of time? Ah, but if productivity and efficiency seem paramount to good writing, the game is already lost.)

Writing is a horribly inefficient process. Don’t try to change that fact.

I wrote the first two sentences while thinking about thinking -- which is something I've done a lot as a philosopher. (Yes: philosophy is a weird topic.) It seemed important to record because we think in a variety of ways; we also write in a variety of ways. I find that some professional educators seem of the opinion that there is one way to write, and that they must adhere as rigidly to that technique as they insist others do. This is wrongheaded.

It occurred to me that we write when we carry on conversations; we write when we tell jokes; we write when we teach or speak publicly. Writing is any composition with words, whether transcribed or not. I find this releases a lot of anxiety about writing (writer's block anyone?) I find that when I conceive of myself as writing while bouncing around the world quite ordinarily, the world presents itself differently. This is to say: to learn to write is to learn to see the world differently. Embrace this.

Last modified: Friday, 1 March 2019, 9:57 AM