Old-school writing tools will boost your creativity, concentration—and speed

Could you be Ernest Hemingway with the right writing implement?
Could you be Ernest Hemingway with the right writing implement?
Image: Reuters/Desmond Boylan
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It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes the fastest route to great work involves taking the slow road. Or at least that is the contention of many great writers who rely on old-timey tools to produce the literature of postmodernity.

As the biographer Robert Caro recently told the Wall Street Journal (paywall), he still writes first drafts longhand, finishing his books on a typewriter. Caro, who is not really known for his speed and produces about one major biography a decade, claims,“I’m a very fast writer.” What takes him time is research, not writing, and he relies on the old-fashioned pen and typewriter “to slow myself down, to make myself think.”

Caro is not alone or unusually quirky in this regard. Lots of renowned writers avoid computers when they are first working on a story, and sometimes they avoid them altogether. J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and Danielle Steel are among the super-successful scribes who draft by hand. And Don DeLillo, a veritable master of literary fiction whose works have predicted the zeitgeist of the future ahead of their time, insists on using an old typewriter, which he continually has to have repaired.

The reason these writers choose old-school tools is that when it comes to writing, computers are too efficient and make changing things too easy, and this ease can slow things down. Writing by hand allows writers who pen their drafts to proceed in a linear fashion rather than continually being tempted to rearrange words on the screen before they know precisely where the story is going.

Gaiman likens writing a novel to building a brick wall without mortar. It’s a series of interlocking stones that form a thing but only if the writer is continually building. “Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat,” he advises other writers. When he’s floundering himself, he doesn’t always remember this advice and calls his agent to complain. As he tells it, she reassures him that he and every other novelist she represents despair with every book. Then, he says, he gets back to work, “one word after another.”

DeLillo, for his part, believes that using a typewriter allows him to work at a more thoughtful pace and feel a sense of accomplishment. He likes to see the words on the page. “Our physical involvement with the typewriter…stands in relation to our connection with the PC as a fistfight does to a handshake,” DeLillo wrote in a 2007 New Yorker story about the typing life (paywall). He explains:

On the PC, we use the same typing skills that we used on the typewriter, but the contact is not the same. We run our fingers lightly over the keys, making a gentle, pitter-patter sound. On the typewriter, by contrast, we had to stab, and the machine recorded our action with a great big clack. We liked that…The noise told us that we had achieved something. So, in larger measure, did the carriage return—another line done!—and the job of changing the paper—another page done!

It should also be noted that DeLillo now writes only one paragraph per page, which makes this feeling of accomplishment even easier to achieve. “No crowded pages. This enabled me to see a given set of sentences more clearly. It made rewriting easier and more effective. The white space on the page helped me concentrate more deeply on what I’d written,” he said, describing his approach to writing his novel The Names.

Now, you may argue that you can’t take this approach, or the even more traditional one of drafting longhand, because you are no master of the writing craft—and you’re in a hurry to get things done. But there’s research that suggests writing by hand improves thinking. Brain scans during the two activities—typing on a keyboard and handwriting—show that forming words by hand as opposed to on a keyboard leads to increased cognitive activity (pdf). Scientific studies of children and adults show that wielding a pen when taking notes, rather than typing, is associated with improved long-term information retention (pdf), better thought organization, and increased ability to generate ideas.

So, consider taking a page from the giants of writing and adopting an old-school tool. It may help generate your best ideas about the future.