Experiencing Our Stories With All Of Our Senses

My good friend and colleague, artist Roxie Munro recently shared a very important article that got me thinking about why I edit the way I edit and why I make a certain editorial suggestion to authors.

The article is titled "Why Handwriting Is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age" and is written for the New York Times by the inestimable Perri Klass, a pediatrician who is a Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at New York University and is National Medical Director of Reach Out and Read, the national literacy organization which works through doctors and nurses to promote parents reading aloud to young children.

I found myself nodding vigorously as I read this article and then I started to feel downright validated for a certain editorial suggestion I often make to authors and which authors, for the most part, tend to hate with a passion. That suggestion? To hand write your manuscript. Yup! I tell authors over and over again not to underestimate the value of writing out their manuscripts by hand at least once all the way through, either in the early draft phase or in the revision phase of their process. For picture book authors, this is a piece of cake. For poets, this is common practice. For novelists, not so much. But who ever said writing would be easy?

Susan Cooper's early notes for her
Dark Is Rising sequence
As we were working on one of her manuscripts, author Susan Cooper once told me she hand writes her early drafts of novels on yellow lined legal-size pads of paper. And look at Susan Cooper--she's won the Newbery Medal, the Newbery Honor, the Margaret Edward Award, and a whole lot more. She's doing something right. And to my mind it is hand writing her early drafts that not only helps discipline her thoughts but also helps fully engage her on multiple levels as she's immersing herself in her story and characters.

Why do I suggest authors hand write their manuscripts? To immerse as many senses at once in the creation of a story: Hand writing engages the hands and touch; hand writing engages the ears (the sound of a pencil or pen crossing paper is a form of background music that can't be created in any other way); hand writing engages the eyes. If one is writing with scented pens, hand writing can even engage the sense of smell. Lest you think I'm being flip, there is a distinctive smell of pencil on paper, the smell of certain inks and pens is distinctive, and the smell of eraser is distinctive, too--and these can certainly add to the overall immersive sensory experience of hand writing. So the only sense hand writing may not directly engage is the sense of taste. But before we leave it at that, I actually did write a post a while back on the very subject of the importance of listening to our manuscript being read aloud as not only a means to hear the work, but to in fact taste it and sense it. So tasting our work is not such a crazy idea as much as delicious one.

Roxie Munro inking one of her pieces. Talk about
immersion! (www.roxiemunro.com)
Think for a moment about artists and illustrators--people who work with paints, brushes, inks, papers, and all sort of fabrics and materials to create their artwork. Talk about an immersive sensory engagement where smell is most definitely as engages as touch, sight, and hearing. And perhaps even taste too. 

Suffice to say, the more fully engaged and immersed one can be with their creative work, the more fully a part of the work one will become on deeply sensory and emotional levels that may be not able to be described, but can be experienced and felt. The more we experience and feel as we create our stories, the more our stories will allow readers to experience and feel.

When I'm editing a manuscript--be it an 80-word picture book or an 80,000-word novel, I always ALWAYS hand write notes, comments, and impressions on the manuscript pages and in red wide-ruled letter-size notebooks. I don't ever EVER share these hand written notes with authors; this process of hand writing my notes is an essential step in my editorial process and it's something I need to do before ever typing up an editorial memo or typing in Track Changes. The hand writing process is my way of getting immersed in the word and in the story, is my way of helping myself remember what I'm reading, and is my way of clarifying what I'm really thinking.

In her article, Perri Klass is writing specifically about the importance of children hand writing. She quotes Karin James, a professor of psychology and brain sciences, who says, "My overarching research focuses on how learning and interacting with the world with out hands has a really significant effect on our cognition, on how writing by hand changes brain function and can change brain development."  I'm not a scientist, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I don't think stimulating brain function in this way ends in childhood. I think writing by hand continues to stimulate and change brain function throughout our adult lives.

So I challenge you:  Hand write your manuscript. See what happens. Start easily, with a scene or a sequence or a chapter. Then keep going if you possibly can. Experience your work with as many senses as you possibly can. It's got to be great for your brain and I can promise it will be great for your stories!

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks llc