1 like = 1 fact about me as a writer

I did this last week on Twitter, and wanted to compile them and share them here. I got 17 likes, so here are 17 random facts about me as writer.

I did this last week on Twitter, and wanted to compile them and share them here. I got 17 likes, so here are 17 random facts about me as writer.

1. I wrote my first novel-length original fic at age 15 because I couldn’t get my plot to work as a fan fiction.

2. My favorite of my published books so far is Ripper’s Victims, because that’s the work closest to my heart. (My mom’s favorite is the one about H.H. Holmes.)

3. I keep track of how much I write each day, but not always in the same place. Sometimes it’s on the NaNoWriMo website, sometimes a sheet of graph paper, and sometimes in my daily planner. (I’ve written over 300k so far this year.)

4. My writing schedule varies wildly. Some days I write 0 words. Others I’m up and at the computer immediately and forget to take breaks for real-life things. It all balances out.

5. In 2020 I decided to complete NaNoWriMo (50k words) in two days, simply because I did it in three days in 2019. I hit 50k by 8pm November 2. And had to baby my wrist for months afterward because … people aren’t meant to type 50k in two days.

6. Because of 5, I taught myself how to dictate my writing, both academic and fiction. I didn’t think it was possible for me but really it’s just the learning curve I didn’t want to tackle.

7. I started lighting a candle when I write as a signal to my brain that it’s time for words, and somehow it’s grown up into this entire thing.


8. The proposal for an academic book is the hardest part for me. I love having swirling ideas and hate forcing myself to commit to a very specific outline. I’ll put off writing the outline as long as possible, even when I know what I want to propose next.

9. I got the contract for Ripper’s Victims because my editor saw my published dissertation and emailed to ask if I had anything she might be able to help me with. (Put yourself out there!)

10. When it’s time to edit, I prefer a hard copy to a screen. Considering the usual length of my manuscripts, this generally means going somewhere to have it printed, since our elderly printer isn’t up to the task.

11. Printing things off means I can use my custom stamps. I get tired of writing the same thing over and over on my first drafts so … I had these made. And of course they’re red.


12. When I’m writing fiction, I tend to “cast” actors as my characters. It especially helps when a character is very much not like me – say, when I have someone whose speech patterns are very calm in moments of stress. If I can picture the actor saying it, it helps.

13. I frequently right click to find synonyms for words I’ve used in my own writing that I’m pretty sure mean what they think they mean, just to be positive. Sometimes I realize I’ve used a word that doesn’t mean what I think it means …

14. I used to write all my “novels” by hand, in pencil, and super teeny – two lines of writing per ruled line on college-ruled paper. I did NaNoWriMo by hand in 2013, but otherwise I type the first draft these days.

15. I used to say all my dialogue out loud as I typed it. My brother laughed because he could hear me arguing with myself. I can write out in public now because I don’t have to do that anymore … but some days I still find myself muttering things as I type them, dialogue or not.

16. I don’t like doing book titles, chapter titles, or heading titles. They’re usually last-minute things I put in before I have to deliver something. It’s rare for me to have a title early on in a project.

17. When the words are flowing and the writing is good, I write fast. Really fast. Which makes the slow days feel agonizingly slow.

Share a random fact about yourself below!

“Don’t compare your rough draft to someone else’s final product.”

You’ve probably seen that before, maybe in Helvetica with some sort of soothing photo background, but maybe you’ve never really thought about what, exactly, it means. How many steps go between a rough draft and a final product?

Short answer: too many, thanks.

Longer answer: let me walk you through it.

First, I have some sort of nebulous idea. Sometimes it just comes from reading and thinking about a topic. Other times I see a CFP (Call for Papers/Proposals) that gets me thinking in a certain direction. Depending on the deadline, I can remain at this nebulous idea stage for weeks or months.

Sometimes I do a little more research here, too, with my idea in mind. This can help it become less nebulous. This means another few weeks (or months) before I actually start to draft it. I might take notes, scribbling ideas or phrases here and there, but a lot of my pre-planning takes place solely in my head.

Then comes the first written thing: the proposal. I have to have a good enough grasp on the idea to get it boiled down to fit the required word count. This can be around 300 words for a conference paper or a chapter, or longer for a book proposal (which also includes a couple chapters), but it’s me laying out what I’m going to do.

It’s also the first time where my idea – and however much writing I’ve done so far – gets feedback. This is important: I’ve only really started writing the thing, but I’m already getting feedback. Someone else has already seen it and provided a nudge.

It’s also important to note that, at this point, I’ve got a complete outline. I know where things are going, and the people judging whether it’s an idea worth pursuing know it, too. If things get approved, I’m locked in.

Then, if I get the go-ahead, we get to the actual writing itself. Which usually looks like:

  • the first draft: just get the words on the page. Jump around that outline if I get stuck. Slowly narrow down the parts of the draft that still need to be written until I have to write the stuff I didn’t want to at first.
  • let it sit: put the draft aside after saving it in multiple formats, just in case, and don’t look at it for a while. Do more research if I found any gaps. Let it become as new and strange to myself as I can.
  • read it again: with multiple pens and my stamps at hand, I pick up a hard copy of my rough draft and go to town on it. I go directly for the weak spots. Sorry, Past Me, but this part sucks. So does this one. And this … well, it’s a mess. I color-code the issues and make a ton of notes to myself.
  • attempt to fix it: once the paper copy is covered, I’ll go back to the computer and start implementing the changes. I say “attempt to fix it” because yeah, sometimes new issues get introduced at this point, but … I try.
  • let it rest again: if I have time, I take another break. Try to make it strange and new and exciting again before I come back to it.
  • read through from the beginning, slowly: this is where I have Word read it out loud to me, and man, this part takes time. I’m looking for continuity, to see if the patches I put in totally stand out and need to be smoothed over, and also for any typos. Through, though, thorough … that kind of thing. I’m super nitpicky at this stage because it’s usually the last thing I do, mostly because the thing is due.

And now somebody else sees it. The whole thing and not just the proposal.

At this point the writing gets bounced back and forth multiple times between the editor, peer reviewer(s), and me. I get comments, make changes, and send it back. Get updated comments, make more changes, and send it back. I think the most times I’ve volleyed something is three, but I’m responding to multiple people at this point, in multiple roles. Trying to make them happy because, if they’re not happy, this isn’t going to get published.

Then there’s another break, on their end instead of mine this time. Time to twiddle my thumbs or get more ideas.

Some day, out of the blue, I’ll get proofs. Another chance to go over it line by line and look for typos or other issues that might have snuck in. If it’s a book, I’m also doing the index. And usually I’ve got a couple other people reading through it at this point in case I miss something.

And then – then – it gets published.

Phew.

I mean, I fall into the same trap sometimes – I want that first draft to be perfect. Polished. The absolute best writing I’m capable of producing. Even when I know all the steps that still have to come before it’s actually out there.

But your first draft is just … a draft. Something only you ever have to see. The thing you’re going to massage and tweak before handing it over to other people who will further massage and tweak.

Don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s final product, and don’t compare your first draft to your own previous final products, either.

Do you struggle with this, too? Do you have any advice on how to keep from thinking this way?

How do you encourage a writer?

This has come up a few times lately, in different settings. One was a discussion with a mother of young kids who wanted to know how, exactly, I got to like writing so much. One was a question in an online forum about whether or not they should tell their friend about all the errors in a story the friend and shared. And one was on Father’s Day. They all kind of mush together in my answer.

The experience I can really point to as being That Moment comes from when I was 15 and writing my first long original fiction. I’d been doing some fanfic, but I had this idea for a character and a plot that just didn’t fit within any of my fandoms. So, not really knowing what I was doing (which was probably helpful in and of itself), I started writing my own story.

I don’t entirely remember how this next part started, or who suggested it, but it turned into me reading that day’s output to my dad each night. And he just … listened. He didn’t gush over it, and he didn’t critique it. He was simply consistently available to listen to me read my story. And the next one. And the next one. To the point where, when I went off to college and couldn’t read to him every night, I recorded myself reading my new one. Somewhere he has 6 CDs of a Rebecca Frost original audiobook.

It evolved from there to printed “zero editions” in binders and now it’s emailed files. He got a kindle so I could email him my stories as soon as I was done with them (rough plots and typos have never been an issue for him) and now reads them on his iPhone. Come November and NaNoWriMo, he starts asking me mid-month if I’m done yet.

We’ll talk a little bit about them, but nothing at length. No real critique. I’ve made him cry with character deaths (sorry …) and we’ve got a running joke about how poorly I treated my first male main character before I let him get his happy ending. We’re talking two decades of Rebecca writing her little stories (some of them not so little – I maxed out one fantasy epic at over 250,000 words) and sharing them with her dad when they’re done.

That’s been such a big thing: somebody who wants to read the next one. And if you’ve got a writing friend or kid, take notice: all it takes is the time for you to read it and say that you did. That’s it. Maybe point out a cool line or particularly emotional scene as proof.

That’s where the “Do I tell my friend her story is illogical or lacks depth or …?” question comes in. If someone hands you their writing and sort of awkwardly says they want you to read it, then that’s your job. Read it. Let them know when you did. If you like the person at all, let them know you’d like to read the next one, too. (Seriously it’s scary sharing your writing with someone. If I get anything less than “Let me know when you’re done with the next one,” you’re not getting the next one. And I’ll be shutting up about my writing around you in the future.)

The only time you should give feedback on someone else’s writing is when feedback is specifically asked for. “Hey, can you tell me if this plot is off?” Respond to the plot. “Can you proofread this for me?” Clarify that they just want typos and such and then only look at typos and such. “I wrote a novel about dragons. Would you want to read it?” Read it and let them know you did it. Maybe tell them what you liked about the dragons.

I’ve been a writing instructor. I’ve taught my share of college composition. I know you want to argue with me and say grammar and punctuation matter – and yes, sometimes misuses make things a lot harder to read. But, unless this is taking place in a classroom or as an agreed-upon exchange and critique, it’s not your job to teach your friend about the genitive case or they really need to research x. If they go to publish and keep getting things kicked back and ask you why you think this might be, then you’re being invited to critique. Otherwise you’re being asked to encourage.

We learn to write by writing. If we get quashed when we’re young, we’re not going to learn. We’re just going to stop.

It doesn’t take much to encourage a writer. Just a little bit of your time to show that you don’t think their stories are frivolous and stupid. And then, once they’ve written more and have been able to grow (and look back on that first story and wince and thing “You let me read you that and you still came back for more?”) you can have good things to say about what they write.

How about you in your own writing journey? Who’s been your biggest source of encouragement and support?

The curse of “perfection”

The other day I read a comment (about a knitting pattern, but it still applies) where someone said “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect.”

It wasn’t even an exorbitant amount of money. Just a very normal price for a knitting pattern. Probably too low, even, but we don’t need to get sidetracked into discussions of fair pay for designers. The part that’s stuck with me is this idea of “If I’m paying for it, then it should be perfect.”

Putting your writing (of any kind) out there for other people to read is a scary thing, because it means random strangers can pick it apart. Insult it. Post that they can’t believe they paid $X for this. Sharing your writing means opening yourself up to critique, criticism, and insults of something you’ve worked hard on, and done all you could to “fix,” but …

Errors happen.

Especially when your document goes from person to person and each is focused on perfecting one aspect of it. Your editor fixes your commas, maybe, but then once it goes into layout, you end up with a weird line division of a multi-syllable word. It’s not because layout wanted to introduce an error. Layout did exactly what layout is supposed to do. And hopefully you catch it in the proofs stage, but in the proofs stage you’re looking for errors and trying to build your index, working under a hard deadline.

I think it’s time for Gaiman’s First Law again:

“Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.”

Neil Gaiman

We’re human. All of us, no matter what our title or CV or reputation. We’re all trying our best to contribute what the process – and it’s a long, long process – needs from us so we can end up putting something in your hands. We read our own words so many times, trying to approach them from so many mindsets, that a mistake isn’t a sign of neglect. Everyone involved is doing their best and laboring over the document and reading so closely that yes, sometimes we miss something that a casual reader will think is glaringly obvious.

There will always be errors, and there will always be people pointing out errors. I guess my fear is that someone will read “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect” and then … never try. Never write something in the first place. If a complete stranger has such high expectations, never having met you, imagine how high your own must be since you’re fully aware of your own capabilities.

Have you ever heard this one?

A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither.

old academic adage now apparently posted everywhere without an accompanying citation

Stop expecting perfection. Of other people. Of yourself. If perfection were a requirement, nothing would ever be published. We’d all be stuck in the pit of despair and red ink. Forever.

If your idea is going to get out there, you need to make peace with the fact that it won’t be perfect. (Whether you really want to make peace with the fact that strangers will communicate with you solely to point out errors is your own decision.)

There are some things you have no control over. There are some things you just have to let go. One of the first is others’ idea of perfection. And one of the second is your own.

What do you think? Can writing ever actually be “perfect”? (And do people send the same number of comments about something if it is?)

About handling multiple projects again …

I had a virtual conference this past weekend and I was talking to some friends I haven’t seen in over a year. This is usually how it goes for me: someone asks what I’ve been up, to, and … I realize I need to start counting things off on my fingers. Which inevitably leads to another question of “How in the world do you do it?”

Right now, in this very moment, I’ve got three book projects going. They’re all in different stages, but they’re all currently in progress. Some of the progress of getting a book published is actually “waiting,” which is helpful, because I can fill the “waiting” time with other work.

It’s also something I rather seriously compartmentalize. Two of the projects are currently in the “waiting” stage. I’m waiting for one of them to get me proofs, and for feedback on the other, so currently I don’t really consider either of those as “active.” I don’t know exactly when they will be “active” again, but, until they hit my mailbox with the next step and a new deadline, they’re basically snoozed.

A downside to the “waiting on other people” can be that multiple things hit your inbox at once. There was that one memorable year when I wrote three chapters for different collections, plus a book, and things just kept hitting my inbox with tight deadlines and a lot of tasks. That’s when I had to step my compartmentalization up to the next level, assigning each project a block of time per day instead of a block of days.

This is also the time when anxiety can kick into higher gear and imposter syndrome can rear its head, because people are actually reading what I wrote, or they’ll soon be able to. They can pick it apart and tear my argument down piece by piece. (For some reason anxiety never worries that the publisher won’t be able to keep up with demand and people will complain about that.)

And usually when you get feedback, there are at least some positive comments in the mix … but you’re not concentrating on those. You’re looking at what you have to change, and how you’re going to do it, and whether you’re going to be able to keep to your main goals and ideas secure while responding to outside influences. (This is why it’s nice to only have one project in the feedback part of the process at a time, if possible, so at least you can retreat to something else for a break.)

And honestly, it’s only when I have to catch someone else at my life that I step back and see the forest for the trees. I know that’s usually meant as something people should do, because otherwise they miss things, but … for me, at least, focusing on one project at a time (and strictly outlining what those times should be) helps me block out the wider anxieties and put as much of my energy as possible into the project at hand.

How do you deal with working on multiple projects at once?

You’re not a train

Say you’re sitting down to write a new project and it’s just … not working. You’ve got a deadline coming up, but that doesn’t seem to be helping. You’re going through all of your usual tricks to get words on the page, and the blinking cursor still taunts you.

The thing is, you’re not a train. You’re not stuck to a single track. There’s more than one way to get from point A to point B.

Trains can only go where the tracks have been laid, and the tracks themselves have to follow a bunch of rules: no turns tighter than such-and-such. No inclines steeper than so-and-so. They need this much track to get up to speed, and this much to stop, and if they come off the tracks, they’re in big trouble. Anything from a cow to an avalanche can ruin everything, up to and including your perfect murder plot on the Orient Express.

But you’re not a train.

That’s one of the reasons there are so many “how to write” books out there. Maybe a bunch of writers agree on certain sets of train tracks, and there’s a lot of traffic there, and maybe they even usually work for you, but the world is so much more than train tracks. There are paved roads, and dirt roads, and trails through the woods, and not only are you capable of off-roading when necessary, you can even fly. You’re a drone with controls in the hands of a master.

Not a train.

I fall into this, too: thinking that, since x, y, and z have worked well for me in the past, they’re the only paths I have. The only ones I know. The only way to get from point A (the blank screen) to point B (the completed manuscript.)

As though I haven’t read (and rejected) other ways of writing, and I haven’t heard about other apps and technology, and there’s no pen or paper in the house.

When you get stuck with writing, the best thing is to stop trying to force it and take some time away. Deadlines don’t always allow for that, so the second best thing is to stop trying to force it this way and try another approach. Instead of cutting straight on through, the way you always have, look for a different path to see if it’ll skirt the issue and get you where you need to be.

It’s like the old rhyme about going on a bear hunt, except you can go under it. Or around it. Or over it. You’re not forced to always stay on the same tracks and always go through it.

You’re not a train.

The tracks are there, and well-known, and comfortable, but if they’re not meeting your needs right now … leave them. Seek out the path that’ll get you where you need to be, because sometimes plowing through the trees gets you there faster than continuing to inch painfully along the tracks.

(With apologies to my brother, who might actually be a train. He works at the Strasburg Railroad, and that’s him in the front. He’s even written a book about trains and how to make your own.)

Blinders on

There are a lot of times I point out how useful it is to put on your metaphorical blinders when you’re working on a project – or especially when you’re working on multiple projects. Having a clear focus helps keep you from getting sidetracked, especially if today you’re supposed to be working on Manuscript 2, so stop thinking about 1. But, sometimes … the blinders work against you.

Lately I’ve been working toward the tail end of a couple projects. Proofreading, final manuscript preparations, that kind of thing. Generally surface-level stuff and final checks before sending something off. I’ve just finished the current step on a couple of these, and I was telling a friend that I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my week, since I know I’m getting comments back from someone next week.

He told me he’s spending his week reading.

… oh. Right.

I’ve been so focused on these particular steps for these particular projects that I’ve been ignoring the stack of books to the left of my desk in my “read these next” pile. Not to mention a whole bunch of other books lined up behind them.

I have to admit, though, that this isn’t new. Once I get to the end of my to-do list, even two items at a time, there’s generally a moment of stunned silence and a feeling of “Uh … so what now?” I’ve been so focused on getting this one thing done – thank you, blinders – that, once I’ve checked it all off, I have to blink a few times before I can back up and take a look at the forest again.

So: this week, I’ll be reading. Also known as “putting words back in my brain.” Making notes in the margins and highlighting all sorts of things and writing down any new ideas and connections that occur. (But not messing with anything I’ve already handed off – nope: once you put something out there for someone else to look over, don’t even look at it again. Because you can’t go changing it now, anyway.)

Writing blinders, off. Reading blinders, on.

Tools of the trade – digital

It’s the third point of the triangle: my favorite purely-digital writing tools. Once again there’s a selection, depending on what part of the process I’m in. I don’t use all of these every single day – except maybe Microsoft Word – but they all tend to play a role in every writing project.

Microsoft Word – Yeah, I know, but first, most places want you to submit as a Word document, and second, I’m not going to talk about the typing aspect. While it’s useful, and my comfort my word processor, lately I’ve been utilizing the “Read Aloud” feature.

You can adjust the reading speed, but I keep it a little slow and jerky because I’m not really listening to get the meaning of what I’m writing. I use it to proofread, because Read Aloud won’t add extra words in if I’ve missed them, won’t skip over the extra words I’ve put there, and will pronounce whatever word I’ve written instead of the one I think I’ve written. Proofreading your own work is hard, but listening to a semi-robotic voice cover exactly what’s on the page helps.

Scrivener – I’m not as die-hard a Scrivener fan as some of my friends, but I’ve been playing around with it more since the update earlier this year. Scrivener lets you view things as notecards (a plus for me, considering my analog tool preference), move them around, and get an overview more easily than Word. You can choose how closely to zoom in on your work and when to pull back to see how it all fits together.

If you just jump in without watching the tutorial, you’ll probably be lost and think it’s pointless. It might not work for your writing style anyway even after you do watch the tutorial, but there are a lot of steps and processes built in to Scrivener that make it … Scrivener. Going through the tutorial means knowing all of the possibilities, and you might stumble across a different way of thinking about your writing.

Pro Writing Aid – A self-publishing friend of mine recommended Pro Writing Aid because it, like Scrivener, gives you a different way of looking at your work. You can try it out for free on the website with a small sample and play around with the various reports it offers. For me, Pro Writing Aid works best when I’ve got the writing as strong as I can, so it comes near the end of the process – I haven’t tried composing in the program, but just importing once it’s fairly polished.

All the reports and suggestions can be overwhelming, so it’s recommended to work on small sections at a time, anyway. It helps give an overview of your writing weaknesses and crutches, beyond “just” grammar and usage.

Dragon (formerly Dragon Naturally Speaking) – Whenever I mention this one, I get hit with “Oh, I could never dictate my writing!” I mean, not with that attitude …

There’s a learning curve. Any new process or technology has a learning curve. I first downloaded Dragon in December 2020 to give my hands a break because, for some reason, I decided to completely NaNoWriMo (50,000 words) in two days. Ow. So I looked into various dictation tools I already owned, and then went with Dragon because it’s not an add-on – it’s all they do.

And yes, you start off slow and feeling kind of silly. Yes, you have to train yourself to add in punctuation. But again, Dragon offers something that typing doesn’t, the way different programs have their own affordances and limitations. I like being able to dictate when my hands feel like they need a break, and I’ve put enough time into it that I can switch back and forth, depending on how I want to write that way. You absolutely can dictate your writing, if you decide it’s worth the time and effort.

What other digital writing tools do you use? Is there anything else I should try?

Tools of the trade: analog

There are a lot of steps to the writing process, and I’ve used a lot of tools over the years. (Fun fact: I wrote my first “novel” when I was 15. It ended up being about 25,000 words, all written by hand, using a mechanical pencil and college-ruled notebook paper.) Some tools come, and some go, but I’ve found that a number of hands-on pieces still work really well for me, especially in the planning stage.

Pens and markers and highlighters, oh my: I like thick, bold lines, so I’m apt to reach for Sharpies or markers. My husband writes with the finest pens he can find. On the plus side, we’re not going to steal each other’s writing utensils.

It’s kind of like what they say about kitchen knives: the best one is the one you’re going to use. The one that feels good in your hand. And, in the case of writing, the one that leaves the sort of mark you want it to leave. (Leaving marks with kitchen knives is a different story.)

I’m also all about colors. When I’m reading or taking notes, I’ll have at least two on hand: one for the important things, and one for the stuff I want to stand out as even more important. I know this about myself, so in the Before Times when writing in coffee shops was common, I always made sure I had multiple pens in my bag before going out to one.

I mentioned the Frixion brand in my other post, and they’re not just for Rocketbook – they work on normal paper, too, and erase with the heat from the friction of rubbing at the page with the rubberized “eraser.” I use their pens, markers, and highlighters for basically everything, because then I get my nice bold lines but also the ease of being able to fix any mistakes. (Note that disappearing in heat means don’t leave any important documents in your hot car, and that you shouldn’t sign important documents with them. Every tool has its intended purpose.)

Index cards and sticky notes: I like being able to capture ideas or due dates in bite-sized, discrete chunks. I’ve got a number of reminders posted around my desk on bulletin boards or just stuck there to keep me on top of the various projects I’m working on (because there are always overlapping timelines). These are, of course, color-coded, because I’m me.

It feels easier for me to have not only the condensed space of this smaller sheet, but also the ability to be able to move them around or toss them out if necessary. There’s something about typing an outline or initial ideas on a computer that feels too polished and final. In the initial brainstorming stages, I want to be able to write things down, cross things out, and shift them into new groups to discover better connections. Being able to physically move sticky notes around helps me do that.

I will frequently do sort of a quick study on plain white index cards or just one color of sticky notes and then, once I’m starting to see the shape of the project, group them and write them out again on different colors to trace the themes and ideas. I like the visual aspects of being able to pull back and see an entire project laid out like that, and then being able to focus today’s writing on just one of the points.

The Mover Family: the idea here combines sticky notes and magnets. I backed their first kickstarter campaign to get a number of sticky notes in two different colors and a couple of the magnet boards to place around my workspace. It’s like having eternally restickable sticky notes (and the new version turns each magnet from a finite amount of sticky notes that need to be replaced into mini whiteboards).

I like these because they’re meant to be moved and displayed, and the new whiteboards will cut down on the number of sticky notes I use. (Yeah, I know, there are apps and things that will look like sticky notes and index cards, but sometimes I want the feel of a pen in my hand and something in my own handwriting.)

What analog writing tools do you like to use?

Tools of the trade: hybrids

I think it’s a fairly common lament these days: I like writing by hand, but. But then I have to type it up. But then I forget it or lose it. But it’s just not feasible to share.

Personally I like writing by hand. I know it makes me think differently, and using different pens and colors helps me sort through my thoughts and get organizes. I also use two different tools that merge the handwritten and the digital. (I’m not sponsored by either of them. Yet. I just like good tools that make the writing process easier.)

First, there’s Livescribe. It’s a pen-and-paper system that pairs with an app via Bluetooth to digitize your handwritten notes and also to transcribe them. Let’s break it down a little.

  • The pen: the one I have is older, so it’s got a thicker barrel than most pens. You replace the ink cartridge when it runs out – I’ve used both black and blue. This is what syncs with your phone, so you don’t want to misplace it. It feels like writing with a normal pen because it basically is a normal pen, at least where the ink meets the paper.
  • The paper: you need to use Livescribe dot paper with the pen, or else it doesn’t work. There are all kinds of notebooks and sticky notes, so you can find the style that works best for you. The paper isn’t blinding white – it can take a little bit to get used to the gray – but it feels like normal paper. You have to activate each notebook before you use it, and archive the old ones, so the pen doesn’t get confused and try to put your writing from page 1 in the new notebook on top of page 1 from the old one.
  • Pros and cons: Livescribe will transcribe your handwriting into text at the flick of a finger, and it’s fairly accurate. It’s at least faster for me to transcribe, copy into a document, and fix a few things than to have to type up my entire pages of notes. The ink only comes through as black, though, no matter which cartridge you use. This isn’t for you if you want your notes in color or if you need to routinely sketch or doodle for your notes. You will also fill up the notebooks and need to get more, but it took me over a year to complete my big spiral-bound one – and, for once, I did actually use every page.

My other go-to is Rocketbook. There’s a wider selection of pens (markers, and highlighters), but the “paper” doesn’t actually feel like paper. It uses your phone’s camera to digitize what you put on the page.

  • The pens: Rocketbook needs to be used with any Frixion-brand products. There’s a wide variety writing implements in this case, and colors? Use all the colors. As long as it’s Frixion, you can use it, from extra fine line pens to nice thick markers.
  • The paper: Rocketbook notebooks are reusable, so they don’t have nearly as many pages as Livescribe notebooks. My current favorite – the flip, with the binding at the top – has 16 sheets. Each sheet is lined on one side and has a dot grid on the other. The paper is thicker, and shinier, which is why you can erase what you’ve written after you’ve scanned it in. The newer versions erase with water. Some older notebooks, with more paper-like paper, erased using heat (you’d stick it in the microwave) so double-check which kind you have and don’t microwave other notebooks.
  • Pros and cons: Rocketbook turns your page into an image or a PDF. There’s no transcription, but it shows you exactly what you wrote or drew, in the proper colors. You can also set up the symbols at the bottom of the page to automatically upload your files into specific places – I’ve got mine going to different files on my Google drive, depending on what project it’s for. You can scan multiple pages into a single document, or jump around from page to page, depending on inspiration.

Both of these systems mean I can pull up digitized versions of notes in my phone in case I’m out somewhere and need to look something up. Livescribe means I have the paper cop on hand in case I ever need it, but Rocketbook means being able to erase and reuse without having to buy more notebooks. Livescribe means just buying ink refills, but Rocketbook can mean either buying pen refills or another set of pens. Livescribe transcribes, but Rocketbook saves your ideas in full color. I use each of them for different purposes, depending on what part of the process I’m in.

Have you used either Livescribe or Rocketbook? Which one’s your favorite? Is there another brand you think I should try?