Tools of the Trade

A very Happy Memorial Day to those who served, and those who still do~

I’m spread out over the end of our dining table with research materials, folders, and several notebooks as I tackle the beginnings of a standalone historical set in 1926. There is the notebook I carry around with me for jottings, plus another that is dedicated to this project where I’ve made early character names and lists of names that were commonly used in that era in Yorkshire where the book is set.

Then there is another that has the early chapters outlined, details about the setting, and also the bibles of the main characters.

I’ve spent a lot of time doing this early work before plunging into the actual writing of the first draft on my laptop, despite having several scenes already written in longhand in some of those notebooks.

I used to tell my writing students that they had to figure out what method worked best for them. That got me thinking about the habits of other writers.

J. K. Rowling is famous for handwriting her first drafts, to the point she has released images of her original lists, notes, pages, and drawings to the public.

The graphic here is her outline for chapters 13-24 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Joyce Carol Oates writes for up to eight hours a day in longhand. That’s one tired hand at the end of the day!

Similarly, George R.R. Martin takes years to write his tales, and all in longhand. And Neil Gaiman and Stephen King always use a fountain pen to write their first drafts out, while I learned that Vladimir Nabokov wrote his stories on index cards!

Studies have shown that the tactile stimulation of holding a pen enhances creativity, which may explain why so many writers start their first drafts in long hand.

However, The Hasty Book List ( did a survey that showed less than 5% of writers write their entire books longhand. 53.2% only use a computer, while 41% are a hybrid, using a combination of writing on paper and computer.

PD James was one who wrote her entire novels in longhand, on yellow legal pads, at her pine kitchen table. She wrote exhaustive outlines first, too, also in longhand. Once the actual writing commenced, she would give the daily pages to her assistant, Joyce McLennan, who typed every one of James’s novels, and she would make edits on those typed pages and keep going.

So what about those who write directly to computer? The most common explanations for avoiding handwriting at all are given as: lousy handwriting, ease of on-the-spot editing, and being able to keep up with one’s thoughts easier when typing.

Delia Owens of Where the Crawdads Sing fame, goes straight to her computer. “I can’t even read my own grocery lists,” she claims.

And short story writer Ian Creasey uses an old version of Microsoft Word that he installs on any new computers.

He feels he’s already so familiar with it he doesn’t want to learn a new type of technology. I can identify with that!

To any writers out there: are you a hybrid, a long hander, or go straight to computer?





MIss Demeanors


Marni Graff is the award-winning author of The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries. Her story “Quiche Alain” appears in the Anthony-winning Malice Domestic Anthology, Murder Most Edible.  Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press, she’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Triangle SinC, Mavens of Mayhem SinC, the NC Writers Network, and the International Crime Writers Association.


  1. Many years ago, when I was writing lectures, I resisted the computer. Writing by hand was all I knew. But once I’d seen the magic of instant and tidy revisions, I was hooked. Tidy is the important word here. Seeing clean words on a clean page is important to me. But I do keep a notebook and pad of paper handy for jotting down random ideas and snatches of conversation.
    Good luck with that new novel!

  2. I used to outline or take notes for the outline in longhand. Now I only use my computer. I type like lightening, if I do say so myself. And there’s something tactile going on, too. My brain starts up when my fingers are on the keyboard.

  3. I do like writing things out by hand, maybe because I get so many of my ideas when I’m away from my computer, but I always have a notebook with me. Lately I’m really enjoying speaking the scenes into my phone and then transcribing it.

  4. As the years have passed the arthritis in my right hand–my writing hand of course–has twisted my fingers to where it is very difficult to hold a regular pen for any length of time. However, I have treated myself to a couple of lovely pens from Levenger that are on the fat side and I use them for when I do longhand. That entails character studies, character arcs, story arcs, notations on research material, etc. After that it’s strictly the MacBook, and my reinvented typing style because of how my fingers are bent. After the first draft is done and printed, I do my first edit with my fat Levenger red pen, and so it goes. The flotsam and jetsam of yellow legal pads, folders labeled characters, research, rabbit holes, a stapler, a roll of tape, emails from Ellie A. have a migration habit that befuddles me. Who knew? LOL!

  5. I definitely get more creative when I write longhand. Plus, less distraction from the device!

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