Productive on paper

I am very slowly sifting through the posts from my old blog with a view to collating the better material into some sort of eBook eventually. In that process I came across an off-topic post that I wrote about my blog-writing workflow (2 Essential blogging tools), which at the time (written in 2010) was distinctly paper based:

Blog content comes out of your head, and unless you happen to have Dumbledore’s penseive you need a reliable way to get that stuff from your head to your blog.

For this capture process I use a small notebook and pen. I cross-out, scrawl messily, doodle and tear pages out — this is a scruffy notebook because I cart it everywhere and am just scribbling down rough ideas.

The next step towards a blog post that does not resemble keyboard vomit is to take one of those ideas and work it into sentences and paragraphs. For this I also prefer to use pen and paper because it is quicker to access (no startup time), helps me see the flow of thought best and it is easier to concentrate on writing without gadgetry to distract me. Only once I’m happy with what I’ve written on paper do I type it into WordPress and add formatting, hyperlinks, images, headings, tags and category metadata (often I indicate on my paper version what formatting or tags is required).

Then comes editing to fix all the typos and etc. I know some folks don’t edit posts after publishing them, and it shows! Others care about the quality of their writing and take time to fix errors.

What intrigues me is that the process described was actually a lot more productive in terms of finished blog posts than the much more digital workflow that I currently use (also this blog is hosted on Squarespace rather than WordPress). Part of my recent dearth of writing has been due to lack of motivation and needing to focus on other things in life. However, I think having an easy, no-real-thought-required workflow does help a lot. For this, pen and paper wins with ease of use, rapidly accessible, and minimal distractions.

My current workflow relies on Evernote as a central hub and I am able to input stuff from my home or work computers or through my smartphone. This is really good for collecting ideas, but seems to clog up at the crucial writing stage where the initial idea is crafted into something worth reading (I hope!).

​Two styles of writer

In an essay which pre-dates web 2.0 and blogging, Daniel Chandler discusses two different styles of writer; those for whom writing is primarily a communication medium for the thoughts they already have formulated in their mind, and those for whom the act of writing is a process of discovering what they are thinking.

Hemingway wrote initial drafts in pencil: You have to work over what you write. If you use a pencil… it keeps it fluid longer so that you can improve it easier’ (Strickland, 1989). Many writers, of course, experience a similar fluidity with the word processor. The word processor extends the malleability of the written word. Paper sets’ text, but text on disc and screen is wet’ and workable. Some writers enjoy this sense of fluidity. However, some report that the ease with which they can edit encourages them to be sloppier’ or less critical than they feel they are with the pen or the typewriter (where words must be pre-considered). Some feel that the word processor encourages them to do too much editing, and leads to a loss of spontaneity. (Daniel Chandler, The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand, 1992)

Chandler also makes the point that, writing done with a word processor obscures its own evolution” compared to pen and paper in which, the handwritten text maps paths not taken in a way that enables them to be re-explored if necessary”. He discusses at length the sense of intimacy a writer can achieve when handwriting on paper in contrast to separation between writer and pixels on a screen.

Not only is the writing process different between paper and keyboard, the resulting media has different characteristics which influence how writer, editor and reader interact with it. Paper has an inherent tangibility and weight with which we are very familiar. Bits and pixels have no physical weight, their size and flow can be manipulated and are fluid — dependant upon the device rather than the document. Composing text on a screen is a different experience to composing on paper in ways which are rooted deep within our worldview.

Although I personally like the tactile experience of writing on paper with a pen, a digital workflow works well for me during the editing phase because I can easily move text around, inserting a thought where it fits better in the flow of an argument or cutting a section out and saving it in draft form as the seed of another post.

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