If you take a quick gander at my Instagram feed, it should be pretty obvious that I am now an unapologetic notebook guy these days. A good 90% of my posts are basically me doing the pictorial equivalent of posting word-counts in a blog – tracking progress through a project by photographing page numbers.
I do it there because, quite honestly, I have a pretty minimal number of Instagram followers and it’s less likely to piss people off, but also because I’ve come to appreciate the value of focusing on my process, rather than my goals.
Occasionally I feel bad about doing this, but over the last week I’ve talked to a handful of people who have been inspired to the rock the analogue approach to their writing. And, since this wasn’t exactly a natural progression for me, I figured I’d put down a little advice.
First, some background: I spent about fifteen years failing to write in notebooks prior to last year. I liked the idea of it. I could see the sense in working away from the computer. And, every year, there would be a sporadic attempt: I’d buy six packs of Spirax notebooks or legal pads, do about a dozen pages of notes or story drafts, then abandon them for the keyboard within the space of a week.
I’m faster on a keyboard, I’d tell myself. I’m just not wired for handwriting.
When I decided to handwrite a novel draft last year, it was largely out of desperation. GenreCon was looming. I’d hit a point where I needed to draw a line between my writing and my duties as the guy who got a conference running, and that was getting impossible to do when I worked on a computer.
I was surprised to discover how effective it was. Even more surprised when I made the decision to go back to typing first drafts, after the con, and discovered that I had completely broken my process. I spent much of December and January struggling to get things done at the keyboard, right up until I broke out a new notebook and went analogue once more. After that, boom. Approximately half a novel inside of forty days.
What made this attempt work after all the previous failures? Research. I looked up the work habits of writers who were routinely working longhand and paid attention to the things that did and didn’t work for them. Trialed a whoe bunch of processes and kept the ones that worked for me.
None of which implies that you should be handwriting all your work – my process is not your process – but if you’re inclined to try, this is the stuff that really worked for me.
ONE: INVEST IN BETTER QUALITY WRITING TOOLS THAN YOU NEED
It’s hard to say this without feeling like an incredible wanker, but one of the biggest differences between my recent attempt to go analogue and my previous attempts was really paying attention to the tools.
Using dedicated notebooks instead of exercise books was a big starting point, particularly since the hard-backed style books by J Burrows and Moleskin that I’ve been using essentially give you mobile writing surface built right into the notebook. That freed me up to work anywhere, with relative ease, and really cut back on the amount of stuff I’m carting around to write clubs.
The notebook made a difference, but the bigger difference was paying attention to the pen.
Holy shit, do pens matter.
Ballpoint pens conquered the world because they were cheap and easy to produce, but they are a complete arse to write with in large quantities. The ink used in them doesn’t flow as freely as it does in old-school fountain pens, which means you have to press down harder to get the ink flowing across the page. If you’re writing twenty or so pages ever day, having to press down matters more than you’d think. For me, that difference manifested in the form of shoulder pain if I spent too long scribbling.
That hasn’t happened in about a year, despite me writing far more than I used too.
Invest in a good pen. It doesn’t need to be a fountain pen – I still look at them and wonder if I’m that far gone yet, and I’m not – , but do go for one of the new-school options like a gel-ink pen or a rollerball that flow a little easier across the page. I spent about four straight months working with PaperMate Grip Rollerballs, which I originally picked up to do the signing sheets for the Flotsam hardbacks in an acid-free ink.
I goddamn loved those pens . They were an absolute pleasure to write with, just thick enough to be comfortable with a smooth-flowing ink that would, admittedly, bleed into the notebook if I pressed too hard. I would have stuck with it, but for the inability to reliably tell when it was running short of ink, which meant there are pages where my writing got…scratchy.
Now, I’ve converted to the Pentel Energel after getting nerdy about handwriting while talking to Anna Campbell about her process. It bleeds on the page less than the Papermate, and has the added advantage of a window where I can see how much ink is remaining in the pen. Just as easy to write with, but the perks are considerable.
TWO: ALTERNATE INK COLOUR EVERY DAY
Google Neil Gaiman and longhand writing and this advice should come up, repeated all across the internet. Basically, grab two different coloured pens and alternate which one you use every day. This allows you to quickly see where one days work ends and the next begins, especially when you’re two hundred pages into a project and flipping through the work that’s come before.
This was originally important to me because I was tracking writing data for the tail end of the 600K writing challenge I took in 2015. These days, it’s important to me because I’ve realized one of the secret satisfactions of writing longhand: it actually feels like you’ve done something, at the end of the day.
Adding a thousand words to a computer file has an air of satisfaction about it, because you know you’re making progress. It’s right there in the word count, growing steadily upwards.
But when you’re writing in a notebook you are always aware of your progress. Every time you open the book up, you’re visibly further along. Because I’d never done more than twenty pages or so, I had no sense of how brilliant this was until my most recent drafts. I’m going to run out of space in my first notebook sometime this week, and I find myself doing a little bit extra every writing session just to get there faster.
THREE: PAGE NUMBERS, INDEXING, AND THREADING
I number the pages of my journals before I write in them. Pretty much every writer I researched did some variation of this, but I’d never even considered it before I encountered the idea while researching the Bullet Journal towards the middle of last year.
And page numbers are useful, but what really made it possible for me to stick with notebooks long-term was the concept of indexing and threading mentioned in the bullet journal archives.
The inside cover of each notebook contains a list of all the contents, with the corresponding page numbers. This allows me to quickly find a particular chapter, or the notes about the overall structure I made halfway through the notebook, or a short story that has one scene written on page 12-15, and the next on page 20-22.
Threading is a similar concept – basically, at the bottom of page fifteen in the example above, I’d put a little 20 and an arrow pointing forward. On page twenty, I’d add a fifteen and an arrow pointing back. Quick and easy ways of going from story section to story section, without having to search and remember when and where the other parts were written.
Being able to work on more than one story at a time is a big part of my process, and was frequently a fail-point for me and notebooks. I’d frequently end up carrying around a small mountain of books, just to cover all the things I was working on, which isn’t really practical.
FOUR: EMBRACE WHAT YOU’RE GAINING, FORGET WHAT YOU’RE LOSING
Let’s be clear: I can burn through a novel draft much faster in a notebook than I can on a computer.
My per-word output on a keyboard is better, but I’m prone to getting distracted by other things and I will frequently get slowed down by my own typos. Hell, I’ve habitually corrected three or four things just in the process of typing this paragraph, with at least one sentence that got rewritten on the fly. I’m aware that I’m doing it, but only on a barely conscious level where I habitually swear at myself for being a clumsy idiot and intellectually hit backspace.
This is the advantage of working on a computer, but it’s also a curse.
Do you know how many typos there are in my handwritten manuscripts? None. Everything that’s on the page is pretty much what I was thinking. I gain a lot of time by not having the ability to go back and do a quick edit of something that’s not-quite-right. I have no choice but to move forward, no matter what. If I want to junk something, I have to junk whole paragraphs, whole pages, and there are rarely points where that’s worth it to make the kinds of fixes that are habitually on a computer.
This speeds you up more than you’d think.
On the other hand, I get to the end of the manuscript and I have four hundred and eighty handwritten pages full of things that are not quite right. The typos aren’t there, but I’ve also lost the ability to quickly duck back and make a quick correction. Those I have made were usually urgent, but there are significantly more sloppy sentences and poorly conceived scenes than I’m used too in a draft.
So the upside is that I can actually finish a novel draft in about two months. The downside is that I need a much more stringent editorial process to get it into readable form.
And, as I’ve discovered recently, I don’t have a stringent editorial process. I’m used to living inside drafts until they’re done, shaping and reshaping as I go. This is one of the reasons why I spent so much tie working on short stories and novellas, ’cause that process is utterly balls for writing novels. I got bogged down in scenes that didn’t work, blind to the larger picture and unable to keep up forward momentum.
FIVE: HAVE A WRITING BUDGET
When I started out, I expected a 240 page notebook to last me a couple of months. Turns out, I will go through one in a period of about 40 days. I go through at least one blue pen and one black pen every week, more if I’m using them at work. The pens I use aren’t exorbitantly priced, but they cost six or seven bucks for a four-pack. My preferred notebooks set me back about fifteen bucks.
At the pace I’m writing and going through things, all this adds up quickly. It adds up really quickly if you’re used to working on a computer and quietly printing your manuscripts on the work printer at your dayjob.
It adds up even quicker if, like me, it suddenly occurs to you that you can write anywhere you want now that you’re not connected to the keyboard.
When I figured this was my default mode of drafting from now on, I immediately started setting aside budget and spending quality time in stationary supply stores, waiting for things to come on sale.
SIX: EMBRACE YOUR PROCESS; EMBRACE THE RITUAL
There is something about writing in a notebook that will make you feel like a hipster wanker, unwilling to engage with the modern world and preparing to grow an epic beard. There is no escaping that. There is also no escaping the fact that other people will comment on your new analogue process.
But the nice thing about a notebook is the way it lends itself to writing rituals, which are more important to developing habits than you’d think. I did a lot of reading about habits and processes over the course of 2015, and I became very conscious of the notion of triggers and reward that Charles Duhigg talks about in the appendix of his book, The Power of Habit.
Computers get used for so much, these days, that it’s easy to slip into a habit other than writing simply by doing something slightly differently when you sit down and boot up. Notebooks don’t give you that option, which is part of their strength. Every time you open a notebook, you are sitting down to write.
What I find really useful about notebooks is the way they make it easier to keep motivated with regard to writing. I’ve always been very goal-oriented with writing, rather than focusing on process, and it turns out that may be the wrong way to go. Goals are great for getting you to an activity, but will detract from your motivation over time.
What helps keep us engaged with an activity long-term is a focus on the process. It’s why – much as people complain about things like word-counting posts and the #AmWriting hashtag on twitter, they can actually be remarkably useful in terms of getting to the end of a big writing project.
My process with notebooks is replete with little rituals designed to keep me engaged with the process. Instagram photos of the work in progress is one of those, but little things like going back and circling the page numbers after I finish a block of four pages, recording the time I start and finish a micro-stint of writing, and quietly riffling through the pages whenever I’m pondering the next scene are also there.
I’m a heavily tactile person, in general, so having something to hold and play with as I work is incredibly soothing for me. For the first time in years, I am not anxious about writing. I don’t fret about whether I’m doing enough, or the quality of what I’m doing. I’m just enjoying the whole process, and looking forward to the next time I get to sit down and write.
Which is not to say that I don’t have bad writing days, or even whole days where I get nothing productive done. But there are fewer than there used to be, and the periods where I’ll disappear down a rabbit hole to binge on Netflix or pay computers games are much shorter. Things that used to be my kryptonite have become relatively inert.
Rituals matter, in this context. And notebooks lend themselves to rituals like you wouldn’t believe.
This, at it’s core, is one of the secret strengths of going analogue, so I figure you may as well embrace it.
Well, those are my tips on the analogue front. One thing I have discovered since doing this is the number of other writer who get enormously geeky about their own analogue processes, which is part of the pleasure as well. If you’ve got any recommendations for tools or processes, let me know in the comments.
I’m always happy to try and fine-tune my processes a little more.