500 Words is a blog about the writing process that is published on Thursdays.
There is nothing as dependably useful as a good pencil, except a good roasting pan. Writing by hand using a pencil is the most pleasurable and ultimately useless form of writing, in the most satisfying way.
Wait, you say. Writing by hand connects you with your innermost self.
Yeah, well. There are also practical matters. Once you have stacked notebook upon notebook of handwritten notes, many scrawled in moving vehicles and therefore unreadable, you have a gigantic scribbled mountain to climb. You must make that scrap pile of scrawl into a book, article, or podcast.
I pay a price for writing by hand and reap tremendous rewards by doing it. Pencils are good for capturing thoughts before they fly away. Because of their beauty in the grasp and always-on capabilities, pencils are motivators on their own. They are humble, yet claim a cultish power. I like Japanese- and German-made pencils for the way they slide across the page with just the right amount of friction. They shape thoughts, convey emotion — a hard line for anger or urgency — a blurred doodle, tracing an aimless, wandering phrase that later becomes critically important.
A book worth reading about this, and more, is Frank R. Wilson’s The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. It’s not about pencils, but about the humans who use them.
Pens, even more so than pencils, can command the mind as memory objects. I have written books using a fountain pen my mother gave me as my solo instrument. My father’s favorite pen is clogged and unusable after his death — look for the symbolism in that.
And paper. Before I tried to write any of my novels I would buy a box of paper. Then I removed all 500 sheets and stacked them on my desk. I rolled one piece of paper at a time into the typewriter and put them back into the box when they were filled with words. I would easily go through two boxes to write a novel. Typing on a typewriter is a form of writing by hand. The product also reflects the emotion of your work process — dark and blurry for keys struck hard on a manual typewriter, cross outs for the haste of an electric one.
The last thing to know about writing by hand is that you must read the words aloud. There is no better clunker-remover than listening to words in your own voice.
I don’t fear machines. I write on computers, my phone, and an iPad. I scan my penciled notes into apps. I am writing this in an app called Bear. I use Scrivener. Sometimes I write in Markdown, a simple formatting language, and I use an AI to transcribe interview recordings.
Nothing beats a pencil to cut a direct road on the page from mind to hand. So you were right to object at the beginning of this essay. There is no more dependable tool for self expression. Except for a good roasting pan.
Thanks for reading,