Why I write longhand

(Originally published as a guest article for The Huffington Post.)

As a writer and game designer, I’ve spent a good chunk of the past 30 years trying to do various types of creative work while sitting, standing, or slouching at a computer keyboard (and, more recently, a touchscreen). The power of those devices has grown exponentially, enabling me with a tap or a keystroke to accomplish marvels that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. (“Upload PDF to Dropbox”; “Open Scrivener file.”)

And yet I’ve been increasingly bemused to realize that by real-world measures of productivity — words written, problems solved, good ideas crystallized — my output has not only not multiplied along with the power of my tools, it hasn’t increased one bit.

Not only that: I’ve had for some time the gnawing feeling that my best ideas — the ones that really make a difference — tend to come while I’m walking in the park, or showering after a workout, or talking a problem through with a friend, or writing in a notebook; i.e., almost anywhere but in front of a screen.

For a long time I tried to talk myself out of this. I figured that if my computer time wasn’t maximally productive, it was because I didn’t have the right software, or wasn’t using it right. I tried configuring panels and preferences differently. I created keyboard shortcuts. I downloaded apps to track time I spent using other apps, apps to make it easier to switch between multiple apps. Nothing changed the basic observed fact: There was an inverse relationship between my screen time and my productivity on a given day.

I started mentioning this to people. Cautiously at first. For someone who makes his living by putting stuff on screens, to question the fundamental symbiotic bond of user and machine could seem perverse, even a sort of heresy. But the more I brought it up, the more I discovered I wasn’t alone.

It turns out that some of the most productive and successful people I know still write longhand. Screenwriters write on index cards and big rolls of paper, the way I did in elementary school. One dictates his first drafts out loud and has an assistant transcribe them. Game designers and directors scribble on whiteboards and in notebooks. And some of these people were born after 1980.

For myself, I’ve found that I spend the vast majority of my working computer time staring at the screen in a state of mind that falls somewhere within the gray spectrum from “passive/reactive” to “sporadically/somewhat productive,” and in which a few minutes can stretch unnoticed into a quarter-hour, or a couple of hours, without breaking the seamless self-delusion that because I am at my desk, at my computer, I am therefore working.

It’s so easy to move words and sentences around in Word or Scrivener or Final Draft that it feels like writing, even if what I’m actually doing would rate only a 2 on the scale in which 10 is “getting an idea and writing it down.” Writing down an idea, an actual idea, is something I can do as easily with a fifty-cent ball-point pen as with a thousand-dollar MacBook Air. Only with the ball-point, it’s harder to fool myself. If the page stays blank, I can see it’s blank.

Which is why, after years of making progressively heavier use of more apps and more devices to do things I used to do without any devices at all, I’ve thrown that train into reverse. I now keep my project notes and journals in actual notebooks. I’ve even switched to paper for my “to-do lists,” and cross off action items literally, not figuratively. It’s simpler and I get more done this way.

As much as I love my tricked-out MacBook Air, I try not to begin workdays automatically by lifting its lid, as if to say “I have arrived at work; now tell me what to do”; just as I try not to reach for my iPhone to fill the silence of a solitary moment. Ideally, I want my screen sessions to begin with a conscious choice, a clear intention of why I’m turning to that device at that moment and what I mean to accomplish.

It’s easier said than done. The more I try, the more I realize that what I’m actually doing is fighting an addiction. The Apple II that first enchanted me thirty years ago as a tool to make fun games has evolved, one update and one upgrade at a time, into a multi-tentacled entity so powerful that it takes an ongoing effort of will for me not to be enslaved by it.

Posted on Aug 8, 2013 in Blog, Making Games | 5 comments

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  1. 8-16-2013

    I’m with you on this one. I find there is something in the space and brightness of the screen that makes me lose focus on meaningful objectives and distracts deep moments of imagination. I guess it’s a psychological thing. One can write creatively on a computer once they get used to it (and remove access to all potential distractions), but I’m not sure if they can write as freely as when writing on paper.

    An alternative in the digital space that I find interesting are the eInk displays. They feel more like paper, and in theory devices carrying these displays should allow you type something on a keyboard without distractions, much like the typewriter has done a long time ago. Unfortunately most of today’s eInk displays are far too small for practical use, so I guess a computer device like that is still in the making.

    On a related note, look how far computer technology has advanced, and we still can’t take our laptop outdoors to do work in the park! (If you’ve ever tried this, you’ll know that the laptop’s screen turns unreadably dark.) This is something I’ve wanted to be able to do since I was 10! Why can’t I take my computer work outdoors; why do I have to be in an enclosed space? With today’s long-lasting batteries and “portable” devices it seems quite satirical.

    • 5-26-2014

      hello …please help me if you can…when i was in the 3rd&4th grade back in the late 1970″s ….at OAK PARK ELEM…instead of going to play at recess….i would go to the “Computer Lab”….almost everyday and play a game called karateka…..on the apple computer system…then one day a guy said “Hey kid ,do you have a computer at home”?…..and i said “YES”(i lied)…..so he gave me a floppy disk of the game…that i still have….so im tryin to give it back if that guy was Jordan Mechner…..the game was not out yet and i had a copy ….?….my phone # is (619)434-8504 my name is FRANK_____thx if you can help….

  2. 8-22-2013

    I was born in ’89, so I’m relatively younger, but I prefer a simple pen and a few sheets over a screen. I work as a software engineer and fiction writer, and whenever possible I work on paper, take notes, draw figures etc.

    I have a workstation, a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone and I use all of them heavily, but still, my design and work (unless I’m writing the code or the story for the first draft) is still on paper. People used to call me old fashioned, but that’s long gone, and I don’t really care if I feel comfortable.

  3. 9-30-2013

    Hello Jordan,

    I think you’re right on this one. This screen has a sort of mesmerizing light that seems to numb creativity… But how hard today to get away from this screen ! My pen seems so much slower than my keyboard.. And the proximity of Internet has this “comforting” feeling. But I’ll try this week to write on an notebook and see if there is a change ! Will keep you informed!(sorry for the English, I’m French!)

    BTW i love your work and your blog !

  4. 6-14-2014

    Hey Jordan,
    I’m a long-term colleague friend and business partner of your father Francis
    Call me today to check in on a project, to learn that I had been recovering from West Nile virus for some 22 months
    We reconnected again for another new beginning
    Decided to check out the family since I had no usage you were born
    Then came across your phenomenal success of Prince of Persia
    But I’m particularly interested in your journal writing I found it was particularly important to capture ideas and longhand and pick it when I call capture pads. These are journals that I have kept since 1983 and I now have some 1500 of them 30 pages long each. However coming back to the real world after my WNV encephalitis and long-term rehab from poliomyelitis, I am delighted to be addicted to my iPhone 5s my iPad because I no longer have the full use of my arms and legs or cars Siri means that I could get more done more quickly but perhaps not more better
    Just touching base and let me know if you get this Charlie Atkinson

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