Why I gave in and started brainstorming by hand

Handwritten outline for chapter 11 of Cora Riley

Ask a hundred different writers how they do their brainstorming, you’ll get a hundred different answers. But I’d bet at least half of them include writing something out longhand, the old-fashioned way.

People love to fill up scraps of paper, I tell you what.

I resisted for the longest time, which makes no sense because I’m a habitual list-maker and I learn best when I take notes while listening, but I’d gotten so attached to my technology that I didn’t see the value in going back to the slow, uneditable process of hand-writing. I’d put all my thoughts into Evernote and laugh at the simpletons scrawling on dead trees.

But when I got stuck around chapter ten of The Transmigration of Cora Riley, nothing I did on the computer helped. I stared at the abominable blinking cursor for hours, transitioning between the Word file and my digital outline, looking for something to push me in the right direction. Then I remembered the pen and paper in my backpack and figured what the hell.

A few pointed questions to a friend and two oversized pages later, and I had the outline for three brand-new chapters, taking the book and its characters in a direction I hadn’t anticipated. It’s almost like all those other writers knew what they were talking about.

Around the same time, I stumbled on this WSJ article about how writing things out by hand increases our ability to learn new information. They’re talking about kids learning the alphabet, but it’s pretty obvious how it applies to writers: Writing story ideas out by hand cements them in your mind by connecting physical experience to abstract thought. You’re taking the implicit craziness swirling around your brain and making it explicit by forming the words in flow – getting your body involved in the process rather than relying solely on memory. That makes room for more thoughts; you’re learning your own worlds and stories so you can build on what you know.

Well, that sold me. I’m such a sucker for psychology + writing.

My new process is much more paper-centric. I scribble all over some paper as things occur to me, then transfer those appalling notes into a digital version later (giving me an extra layer of refinement as I write it a second time). I also do full handwritten outlines before each chapter in the rough draft to get me hyper-focused on the ideas of the day. Even if I never look at the notebook again, its function – to hold ideas while I work with them – has been fulfilled, and my writing is better for it.

Longhand brainstorming isn’t for every writer, though it’s worth a try. In our slick iDevice world, it’s almost like we think we’re too advanced for the old, slow ways of doing things. But as any knitter, canner, or Crossfitter will tell you, sometimes those ways are best.


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