How to Physically Write a Novel – Writing Guide

Sentient Ink Logo-01By Chris Wright

So you have your idea. It’s brilliant, genre redefining. You can see your characters as fully fleshed beings in your mind and the plot stretches out before you in glorious Technicolor, its intricate twists and devious turns ready to be unleashed into the world. So, now what?

Publishers, agents and the public at large really prefer if you somehow translate your abstract masterpiece into a series of symbols that can be visibly observed and decoded as language. Preferably, if you speak English (or many other languages) the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet. OK, I’m sorry, I’m going to stop being facetious and get to the crux of the matter. You have your idea, you need to get it down. Do you type? Do you write? Laptop? Pen? Typewriter? Pencil? Phone? Felt tip? What is the best way to physically write a book?

Pen and paper

Let’s start with a personal anecdote. My first (and so far only) novel’s first eight and a half chapters were written longhand, with pen and paper. I would love to tell you that this was some sort of high-minded ideal or that the brush of ink on paper sparked in me the inkling of the trail to that elusive muse we all so desperately chase. But the truth of the matter is my laptop broke and I couldn’t afford a new one. I started Wartorn when I was travelling in the States and, when I got home, I found my laptop, broken when I left, had not magically revived itself in my absence. So I continued with the long form, old-school approach and, in a way, it was nice. There are plenty of authors out there who will tell you that this is the way you should write. It is slower, more contemplative, more definite and real than its digital counterpart. The slower pace forces you to consider each word as you write it and the end result is there, physical and definite, taking up space on your desk or bookshelf. It’s nice. But it wasn’t for me.

Yes, writing with pen and paper is lovely because it’s slower but, also, it’s slower. A lot slower. Your wrist will ache, your neck will crick and, if you’re a little compulsive like me, you will count every single word you write at the end of each chapter to track your progress (32,056).

And yet, all this should mean nothing to you if you like to write. If you enjoy it, do it and don’t let me talk you out of it, even though you’re wrong.


When I finally gave up on writing Wartorn with ink and paper, I moved onto my phone. ‘This is the 21st Century,’ I almost certainly didn’t say to myself (it was a few years ago, I can’t be sure). ‘Why not type it on my phone then send it out to the wondrous ether of the internet? Then, I can get it whenever and wherever I want and access it when I finally raise the, frankly quite little, money I need to buy a simple laptop.’ This I did and it worked pretty well. If you’re used to typing on your phone (and if you’re not, get with it Granddad), it’s relatively quick and easy and, vitally, you can do it without ever having to sit up. You can comfortably type pretty much anywhere and in any position and have your work easily transferred elsewhere. If you’re like most of the world, and statistically most of you are, you have your phone on you pretty much all the time and this is where its great advantages lie.

There is great virtue in having a notepad, physical or digital, at all times, upon which you can write any ideas that might occur to you. We’ll talk about that a little more another time, but I also think it is of great merit to write in such a manner that allows you to just pick up and go whenever. Creative writing is hard to do and each time you sit down to that blank page, you must conquer your twelve labours of procrastination, writers block, [fill in ten more labours here, Chris]. I, like many writers, am prone to moments of inspiration and drive between lulls of inactivity and it behoves me to be able to write whenever that inspiration hits. Writing on my phone allows me to do that, which is why I still do it, every now and then, to this day. Whether I’m in the bath, waiting for a bus, driving my car (DO NOT DO IT WHILE DRIVING YOUR CAR), I can easily pick up my phone, open up a note and write. The formatting etc. will have to be done elsewhere but copy and paste and email are beautiful things.


Alright, let’s address the proverbial in the proverbial here. We all know that, whatever I say, you’re probably going to write on a laptop, personal computer or maybe a tablet. And that’s great, I thoroughly approve. For all the convenience of the phone and the artistry of pen and paper, if you want anything to happen with it, your story will have to end up on a computer. I have yet to come across an agent or publisher who will accept handwritten manuscripts. Your work, if you want to get it published, needs to be appropriately typed and formatted before it is sent flying off to that nerve-quivering scrutiny. Even if you want to self-publish or write in a blog, if you want it to look good, then realistically, it probably needs proper formatting and that needs a computer.

Quite apart from that though, computers hold many advantages. You can easily undo, redo, edit and draft on a good word processor and, most importantly for me, you can have many documents through which you can effortlessly cycle. Remember that ‘compulsive’ thing from, oh, about four paragraphs ago? Well that goes into story planning too. Character profiles, plans, story plot points, research, geographical and universe (if you are writing Sci Fi or Fantasy) planning are all important aspects (in my opinion) of creating a really well-rounded story. We will talk about planning in depth another time but suffice to say, I have databases for pretty much every story I have written, detailing all these things, if nothing else, simply to keep everything straight in my head. On a computer, this is easy to do. You have documents, you have folders and you have the internet for research and that is why most of my work, and the words I am typing right now, are written on a computer.

Other (the weirdos)

Jeffrey Archer writes in felt tip pen. Yes, I didn’t (just) include it in my list at the top as a piece of endearing whimsy, Archer (Kane and Abel, Shall We Tell the President, HM Prison Belmarsh etc.) writes his novels longhand in felt tip. That’s the way he likes to do it and it works for him. The same goes with Danielle Steel and an old typewriter. And this is really the crucial point.

For all I’ve said here, the important thing is to find what works for you. Yes, computers are the most convenient and yes, you’ll almost certainly need to put your story on one somehow, at some point, but you need to choose the method with which you feel most comfortable. If writing with ink on paper helps transport you to far-off worlds or long-past times then do it. If creating something tangible helps your stories come to life then do it. If scrawling in chalk onto pieces of slate is what best gets that idea into the world, then do that.

Try writing a story in longhand, try writing on your phone, try typing on a laptop and see what fits you best. It is the same with all things in writing, I have found. Read pieces like this and others from people wiser than I, take in the advice, consider it, then ignore it and find out for yourself. All these ways and methods have their own advantages (though I’m still struggling with felt tip) and perhaps they will all work for you at different times, in different places. Just, however you do it, get writing and don’t stop.

By Chris Wright

What is your preferred method of writing? Let us know in the comments and tell us what you think of our first article. Subscribe to Sentient Ink via WordPress or email and follow us on Twitter @Setient_ink.Thanks for reading.

Once you’ve managed to start your story, you will probably need to establish some characters (we have an article for that) and know how to write good dialogue with strong character voice. Our Writing Guides page has you covered.


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