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Writers need computers. In today’s world, no publisher or editor would ever consider a handwritten manuscript. Why is it, then, that many writers still resist the digitalisation of the writing process? Graham Greene famously said “two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does.” Admittedly, using only two fingers to type a story is probably not very efficient, but his point goes far deeper. What is it about writing with pen and paper that makes our writing brains connect so much better?


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Pens make a mark

When you put pen to paper, you are making a physical, indelible mark on something that is changed forever because of what you have done to it. It takes time for you to physically form letters. That circle you just drew, starting at the top and sweeping round until you meet yourself? That’s an ‘o’, and when you write it, you’ve experienced it. When you type, you press a button, which is exactly the same experience as when you press any other button on your keyboard. Your fingers flash across them indiscriminately. Physically writing has a very different psychological effect from typing something.


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Our digital world

The relationship we have with our computers and the way they fit into our lives is changing. For most people, time at their computer now means being connected, and playing a part socially in a network that spans the entire world. Computers are social machines, and we think of them as such. A notebook, on the other hand, is private; you share it with whom you want and only when you want to do so. You can’t hack a notebook, or accidentally send it to your boss. People who meet you today can’t see what you wrote in your notebook three years ago. On a computer, we tweet, we blog, we email, and nothing feels entirely our own. It’s not surprising that this would have a psychological effect on our writing, and many writers struggle with the lack of privacy and intimacy they feel in front of a computer screen.

Computers also have an impressive capacity for distraction – during the process of typing this article, I have played 61 games of minesweeper, checked my blog stats seven times, tweeted twice and looked up the exact weight of an ostrich egg when cooked. This possibly isn’t the best environment to nurture your concentration, productivity and artistic flow.


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Computers have their benefits, too

Being a writer is doing a hundred jobs, most of which involve computers. Researching your new crime thriller? The internet is the best place to find information on semi-automatic weapons or obscure samurai swords. Communicating with your editor? Email is faster than post, and it won’t cost you in stamps. And of course, the job of advertising your book is made much easier by blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking and using a million and one other social outlets that wouldn’t exist without computers. We have to remember, however, that none of these jobs are actually writing, which is, of course, the only absolutely indispensable part of the job. Everything else must come  second.


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Editing: where writing and computing come together

When you write with pen and paper, the editing process is helped immensely by the need to type things up. Clunky sentences are so much easier to spot when you are forced to take them from a notebook and implant them into a computer. Editing directly from a computer screen makes it much easier to skim over errors. It helps towards conciseness, too – if you think something worth typing up, it’s more likely to be worth reading.

The editing process is wildly different across the two mediums. On a computer, it’s almost compulsive. No sooner have you As soon as you’ve written something, you’re editing it. Hang on, maybe this paragraph should go before the previous one, you think. It’s there in a flash. On a bad writing day, then all you need to do is press ctrl-‘a’-delete-save and your entire project is gone. Four taps of a finger to nothingness. The effort to destroy what you have physically made would take so much more; we are programmed not to destroy physical things, but type is not physical, and as such, it doesn’t have the same psychological safeguarding.


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The sense of creation

Even if your handwriting, like mine, looks like an unravelling jumper dying on the page, physically writing will still help you. Pens allow us the feeling of rooting our story in the physical world, and making our stories are real. French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described writing as “catching living things in the trap of phrases” – a physical act. It is only logical that for our stories to become real, we must bring them from the foggy dimensions of our minds into the physical, so they can live and breathe on a page. Grab a notebook and pen, and keep them by your side at all times. Leave your computer for all of the non-writing parts of being a writer, and write deliberately with your new friend, the pen.