Sunday, October 22, 2017

How to write more productively - by writing slower


Trying to figure out how to write faster?  Maybe you need to slow down.

I know, I know... that probably feels like the exact OPPOSITE of the advice you're looking for.

But maybe you've heard about the SLOW trend?
It's epitomized by the Slow Food movement, but in general it's a trend towards handmade, artisanal, more authentic living.

Last week, I sent out an email to friends on my list (join me by signing up at the bottom of this post!) with a call for YOU to tell me your biggest writing challenges. 

One writer wrote back that he struggles with writing regularly.  Not that he can't get what he calls his “butt in the chair,” but that he senses that writing at the computer is not as efficient as it's cracked up to be.  On the other hand, he said, any other approach (I guess this means writing by hand, but perhaps also dictation), means writing twice as much as necessary.

I can relate.  But still - I want to address two things:

  1. Yes, the computer is not terribly efficient unless you're one of these super-disciplined people who shuts down every background app, turns off your phone, maybe blasts some music, and writes non-stop for a timed session.  If you do, kudos to you.  Most of us can't do that.
  2. Writing by hand doesn't HAVE to be inefficient.

That’s what I want to talk about in this post.  How despite my love for writing on the computer – which I’m doing this second as I craft this post - I have also discovered the joy of writing by hand. 

Don’t worry, I won’t try to turn you into a luddite who shuns computers altogether (like I said, here I am!), but I do want you to start thinking of your hand as yet another writing tool, one which can help you write better and even (gasp!) more productively.

Hand writing as a discipline

Here’s how I was sold on the value of hand writing.

I haven't really mentioned here, but I'm 8/11ths of the way through a master's degree in Writing and New Media which I started in 2016 (yay, me!) and as part of that, I had to do a course in "developmental writing."  That means therapeutic writing, writing for personal development, writing as therapy, whatever you want to call it.

To pass that course, I had to take on a 3x/weekly practice of writing by hand for 20-minute sessions with a candle, a timer, and a playlist of baroque cello music by Yo Yo Ma. 

I wish I was joking.

You have to understand how hard this was for me.  I type somewhere between 90-120 words a minute.  I type ALMOST faster than I can think.  Superhuman speed.  My kids fall asleep every single night to the clatter, like ocean waves, of my keyboard. 

Whereas I hand-write... well, definitely at the speed of mere mortals; maybe even slower.  I'm also slightly dyslexic when I write by hand, in the sense that if my mind's going too quickly, the letters tumble out in any order they like, making what I write nearly incomprehensible.  So frustrating!

(Here’s a sample – pretty bad, I think…)


(And yes, I print in all-caps… apparently that says a lot about me, but mostly, I don’t want to know!)

Needless to say, when I first started this discipline, just over a year ago, I wrote a lot of gibberish.  Not to mention wasted a lot of time writing about writing (we were allowed to write about anything!), about how hot and irritated I was… about how much my hand hurt and the pen was always running out of ink.

See? I thought to myself.  The computer maybe inefficient, but this hand-writing thing isn't working either.

BUT... but... but...

The process we had to use for the course involved focusing our writing by stopping from time to time and asking the crucial question, "What do I mean by ____?" (some word we'd just written) (This method, known as "proprioceptive writing," comes from the book Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice, which was a required text for the course.)

Hand writing for FOCUS and DEPTH

Asking that question – “What do I mean by ____?” forced me to learn to backtrack and explain myself and maybe sometimes go deeper into a topic than I'd originally planned to.

Now this part is going to sound New-Agey, and I'm anything but New-Agey.  Whatever it is, I don't believe in it.  I’m a natural-born skeptic.  BUT - when I was writing by hand, I found that I was tapping into richer emotional veins than when I wrote on the computer.

Given that emotional depth is what my writing often lacks, this meant I was actually writing BETTER.

All that frustration of writing by hand - and getting the words wrong or out of order! - somehow led to some pretty interesting material.

Now I'm right there with this writer who wrote to me when I say that there was a lot of inefficiency; tons of stuff came out that was kind of worthless and that I probably would have deleted the second I typed it if I was brainstorming on a computer.

But maybe that's exactly the point.

Hand writing as draft

Writer and teacher Anne Lamott wrote in her classic of writing instruction/inspiration, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life that we have to allow ourselves the right to create what she refers to as "shitty first drafts" -

"All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts." (p. 68)

Here, have a look at how she writes.  If this sounds like it would be helpful to you, I strongly recommend you buy the book and glance at it from time to time.  (Her style overwhelms me too much to read cover to cover, but I keep coming back!)


Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird in 1994, at a time when many writers still wrote by hand or by typewriter, leaving them with screeds of first drafts, second drafts, third drafts - in the old-fashioned, formal way.  These days, unless you're a digital packrat, you don't really have drafts - you just revise and revise and revise the same document, which isn't the same thing at all.

The material I was tapping into when I wrote with a pen on paper was first-draft material - some was brilliant, but most was not.  But by forcing my mind to slow down to the speed of my hand, I also gradually found that I could force myself to think and not waste time, not fart around the way I sometimes do on the computer when the writing comes easily.  With practice, I found that there was quality stuff in there, equal or BETTER than that which I could create on a computer.

If you’re younger than Anne Lamott (I am), you may not have ever experienced what earlier writers would call a true “draft.”  It may be time you give it a try (I’ll give you some recommendations further on to help you get started!).

Giving yourself permission – and then reining it in

When you write by hand, you give yourself permission to write crud.  But ironically, I found I also started being able to warn my brain, "Hey, brain, don't send me the worst of the crud because I'm writing this by hand and you know how easily my hand gets tired.  Don't waste my hand's time."

Since we moved to Israel, I typically travel a lot (maybe because I travelled so little as a Canadian - a country so big there's nowhere easy to get to!), and up until recently, I have always packed up my laptop if I'm going to be gone more than a couple of hours so I can "get writing done."  I write on trains and love it - steady motion, monotonous view out the window, and most of the seats have a table, albeit a shared one (it helps that most Israelis aren't fluent enough in English to read over my shoulder).

(There are even some single-seaters at the ends of the cars - ahh... fully air-conditioned, ergonomic armchair, coffee, and an outlet: the most comfy office space in Israel!!)


But my laptop is ridiculously heavy; I started wondering a couple of months ago if I could channel some of the good stuff I had learned in the writing course into my own kids' stories - on paper.  So I left the house without the laptop, and enjoyed a productive 1-hour journey in which I got a LOT written.  I haven't compared word counts, but as I was retyping it into the computer later on (with some light editing, but not much), I know the wordcount of the middle-grade chapter book I'm working on jumped by a couple thousand.  And they were GOOD words.  Possibly my best.

Will it work for you?

So am I the only one, or will giving up the computer - at least for part of the time - work for you? 
I guess it depends what you mean by "work."

Will you write MORE?  Maybe not.  And yes, your hand will ache at first.
Will you eliminate distractions?  Almost certainly.
Will you write better?  Maybe so.  Time magazine kind of waffles on the subject, saying there's no way to measure creativity.  Which is true, but I know when I'm being creative and when I'm not.  You do, too.  All you can do is try it out. 

If you're going to try it, give it a fair chance.  Here are my recommendations for giving it a fair try:

  • Get a good pen.  Something that glides smoothly over the paper and won't drag or weigh your hand down.
  • Get lots of paper and otherwise eliminate distractions and excuses.  Get everybody else (and your phone) out of your writing space, whatever it takes.
  • Get a timer.  I strongly recommend timed writing periods of at least 15-20 minutes, which may feel like an eternity at first.  I won't tell you you have to use the music or candle, but you can, and they might help.  I'm the world's biggest skeptic and avoider of touchy-feely stuff, but candles definitely helped me focus (I also used a candle when I was in labour with my last 2 kids).
  • Give yourself permission to write anything and everything, even crud.
  • Figure out a prompt ahead of time to get yourself back on track if you get stuck or start to ramble.  I mentioned the phrase, "What do I mean by ____?" - this also helps prompt deeper explanation... but feel free to use any phrase that works for you.
  • Optional: Think of a story you're currently writing that's stuck and try to address what's not working.
  • Optional: Think of a story you're currently writing that's stuck and ignore what's not working - jump to another scene altogether and write that instead!

If you give it a real try, I honestly think there's a good chance that "Slow Writing" may eventually become part of your writing repertoire.  It's one tool out of many, and it may prove valuable if you do it right. 

Maybe we'll start a movement, too – a Slow Writing movement.  We’ll create hand-crafted, artisanal stories, bespoke stories, tales that take time – that begin as lousy first drafts but emerge all the better for having put time, energy, and literally muscle into them.  And by putting in that time, you may actually find yourself becoming a more productive writer.

If you hand-write your stories, or have tried it in the past, I’d love to hear your tips in the Comments below!


  1. I love this idea of slow writing! I actually write my first draft by hand. If I do it on the computer, I start to fall into the trap of perfectionism because it's so easy to cut and paste. But in my journal, I just keep writing and get the story out...before trying to fix it. I definitely have distraction once I move to the computer. You've actually given me the idea to pull out our old electric typewriter and try a second draft that way.

    1. I hope you don't have neighbours, and/or don't write late at night - those things can be LOUD! I adored my Selectric typewriter but did not look back when I got rid of it.
      I hear you about perfectionism; it can be SUCH a trap. So much so that I don't even notice I'm correcting myself until it's too late sometimes. .. :-(

      Thanks for stopping by!


As always, I love to hear from you.