Writing Rough Drafts by Hand — like Hemingway

Charles Daly
3 min readApr 30, 2021

There’s a reason we write “thank you” notes and love letters by hand.

I write the rough draft of almost everything by hand: fiction, client work, this post, all my notes.

This week, after watching the first episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Hemingway, I reread some of Hemingway on Writing. In it, he says that writing by hand makes it easier to improve your writing.

He writes:

When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is that much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier. (Source).

Ernest Hemingway writing by hand while on safari.
Ernest Hemingway writing by hand while on safari.

Writing by hand slows you down (in a good way)

Hemingway’s style was a product of endless rewriting and revision.* He found that the process of typing what he had written by hand gave him a chance to improve it.

He worked on a typewriter, but his advice is maybe even more relevant in the laptop age. Rewriting, content editing and line editing are three distinct steps in the writing process. Writing by hand forces you to go one step at a time. A computer lets you skip to the line edit and convince yourself that whatever you’re working on is ready to show the world.

Even if you take the time to make substantial changes to the content and structure of your draft, that’s not the same as having to re-type the entire thing and make improvements as you go.

Rewriting is effective because it sucks. When I have a stack of legal pad pages to type up, I’m interested in getting through them as quickly as possible. That means not wasting time typing up lines that should be cut…

Charles Daly

B2B Copywriter. Co-author of Make Peace or Die: a Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares (my dad’s memoir). https://www.makepeaceordie.com/