The Pen is mightier than the keyboard

Musing: The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard

Let me start today’s story by pointing out something that isn’t obvious—I created this post with a pen and not a keyboard.

Now I know what you’re thinking—My, what neat handwriting you have.

Oh. That’s not what went through your mind? I see, you thought I’m losing it because it’s obvious I typed this, right?

No, you really are reading a document written with a pen, not typed. Let me explain, but to do that, I need to go back in time.

For those of you younger than me, this may be hard to imagine, but computers were not always ubiquitous. Most workers got data into computers by filling out paper forms and forwarding them to data entry clerks. Those clerks typed on keyboards in front of CRTs (monitors), but the computer was off in some distant, locked, cold room.

I did tax returns my first year out of college. I know, exciting stuff. We spent the day completing input forms that were sent each night to a data processing center. Two days later, we would receive draft tax returns for review. We would note changes on yet more input forms and repeat the cycle. You can’t imagine what a convoluted process it was.

You’re also wondering why I gave it all up to pursue a literary career. Shocking, I know.

Computers sitting on someone’s desk, much less in someone’s home, didn’t become common until the 1990s. In college, I used a computer by going to a central lab.

I was a few years out college before I first used a portable computer. For clarity, portable does not mean laptop. It was the size of a large suitcase and twice as heavy. The keyboard flipped out of the front to reveal a monitor the size of a small iPad with green text on a black background. Beside the screen were two 5 1/4 inch floppy drives. There was no hard drive, so one floppy contained the program and the other the data.

For the already stunned younger generation, understand an iPad has for more processing power than that behemoth had. I would fetch coffee while waiting for it to boot up.

Anyway, the relevance of these meandering facts is that I never saw a reason to learn how to type. I had avoided typing classes in high school and could always find someone to type term papers in college. That lack of skill has haunted me ever since.

As computers became commonplace at work, I had to learn how to type. My developed technique, however, is comical. I use three fingers of my right hand and one of the left. Somehow, though, I squeeze out around 80 words per minute.

That lack of form haunts me with pain. I’ve learned to use a vertical mouse—a lifesaver for those of us with wrist issues—and a Wacom Tablet for drawing and photography and videography editing, but I’ve never solved the typing issues. That’s a genuine problem since I crank out over a half-million published words a year (and far more left on the cutting room floor).

Many authors use computerized dictation. You can speak into a small tape recorder and let the software transcribe your narration. Or you can speak into a microphone and watch the translation appear on the screen in front of you. Voice-to-text sounds cutting edge. Many authors love it, but I don’t. The process interferes with my flow of thought. The software can’t figure out punctuation, so you have to tell it where to place commas, periods, quote marks, and more. Spoken dictation sounds like this:

Begin quotes seriously comma learning to add punctuation is challenging comma end quote he said period

See? I can’t say that AND be creative and entertaining. I’m amazed at those who can (and many do), but I’ve never succeeded.

So typing causes physical issues. Dictation muddles my creativity. What’s left?

I was looking for the answer when the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. I have a long habit of writing in my paper journal each morning. I’ve resisted computerizing that process because part of the idea is to let your brain flow freely through your hand to the pen to the paper. Nothing interferes with your creative mind because your hand is busy getting the words on paper.

The challenge with paper, though, is finding some thought written days or weeks or years ago. Journaling is great for the creative juices, but I’ve lost ideas or time looking for the ideas I had jotted in a notebook.

A friend suggested I try the Day One app with my iPad and Apple pencil. He swore it felt just like writing on paper. I reluctantly agreed to try, though I was sure I would hate it.

To my surprise, I found he was right. I could journal just as easily that way.

As a bonus, Apple’s Scribble technology converts the handwriting into text, making my journals searchable. With a simple word or phrase, I can find any reference—a tremendous bonus considering how many story ideas start from my journal.

Now you can see where this is going. What if, I wondered, I could handwrite much more than twenty or thirty minutes of journaling? Could I write a complete first draft of a novel by pen?

But who does that nowadays?

Prolific and best-selling author James Patterson.

He writes everything longhand and ships if off for a human to type and return printed copies for editing. He works the same way with his many co-authors. They send their drafts via email for someone to print for Patterson to scribble notes.

I can’t afford someone to type my notes, but was there another solution? If a journaling app can transcribe my handwriting to text, can something else handle longer manuscripts?

I searched the various note-taking apps that can convert handwriting to text. Many were terrific for notes, but not great for writing thousands of words.

Then I found Nebo. The app translates my chicken scratch to text with minimal errors, far more accurately than the dictation software handles my Southern accent. Unlike some note-taking apps, its terrific output options allow me to send the work to other computer programs such as Scrivener, Microsoft Word, or Apple Pages. I have been writing first drafts with a pen ever since.

The results have been positive for me. Not only do I have less stress in my hands, but I find I am far more productive and the output requires less rewriting and editing. I’m focusing on the thought and not the technique. The words feel more natural. My conclusion is the pen is mightier than the keyboard.

So, yes, I wrote and edited this post with a pen in Nebo. Once completed, I uploaded the final product for your reading pleasure. I didn’t use a keyboard to write a single word.

Things like this amuse me. Considering all the technology changes I’ve seen over the years, I’ve now come full circle and am scribbling stories like I’m back in my high school days. Yes, I used to write novels and stories in notebooks, though they’re all awful, full of teenaged angst, and will never see the light of day.

But I am writing with a pen again. And unlike those long ago stories, these are being published. Things both change and stay the same.


I mention two apps in today’s story and thought I would share them.

I’m a big fan of Morning Pages, a journaling technique done first thing in the morning to clear your mind and focus you on the coming day. There is no set format or focus, but is meant to be a free-flowing thought exercise. Writing longhand is a key component because it helps you focus on your thoughts and not editing (which is also why longhand is so great for drafting stories).

Until I stumbled upon the Day One app, I had resisted using technology. Because it’s done with an Apple Pencil on an essentially blank page (of an iPad), it has worked the same as paper for me.

For long form writing, I am using the Nebo app by My Script. It’s a good note-taking app (though see the next paragraph for two other suggestions), but it’s a great long-form writing app with handwriting-to-text conversion.

Two other apps I’ve tested were superb and better products in many ways, especially for note-takers and visual creatives—Notability and GoodNotes. Both convert handwriting to text, but the power is more in the visual side of things. If you are interested in using a pen on an iPad but want to retain the handwritten look, either of these would make excellent choices.

These are NOT affiliate links nor do I have any connection to the companies other than as a paying customer.


Since we are discussing writing by hand, I thought it would be fun to look at the related words scribe and scrivener, both referring to someone who writes. Like so many of our words, the origins can be found in Latin—the verb scribere (to write) and the related noun scriba (writer, though also a keeper of accounts) and evolved through English.

Scrivener has the same Latin roots, but evolved through French. As always, the French make things sound a little more poetic.

The two words mean essentially the same thing today, though scrivener is sometimes seen as more formal.

What you may not have realized is that the word “describe” is directly related to scribe. The Latin de- has many nuanced meanings, including creating the opposite (think deconstruct versus construct), but in this case is better described as down or out—as in to write down or to write out.


Ingram, the world’s largest book printer (and who prints my books), has announced its second price increase since summer coming in March. Publishers everywhere are absorbing the news and planning what to do, so expect book prices to climb again. If you have any books you’ve been thinking about buying, you might want to go ahead and do it. (Note: We haven’t had time to determine what we will do, but my intention is to try to absorb it if I can. No promises yet.)


Gratuitous Dog Picture

Bet you can hear Roscoe P.'s sigh of boredom - from The Pen is Mightier Than The Keyboard
Bet you can hear Roscoe P.’s sigh of boredom

Roscoe P.’s favorite way to get my attention in the study is to plop his head in my lap and let loose a deep sigh. I can be very productive on a rainy afternoon, but I might need to put down the pen and attend to my other duties of ear scratching.


Background title image is courtesy Yusuf Evli

7 Comments

  1. mary michaud on January 10, 2022 at 7:38 am

    love that doggie face!!

  2. Debbie & Miss Ruby on January 10, 2022 at 8:04 am

    Poor Roscoe doesn’t understand that Hu-Dad must work to put food in the bowls!! I agree that using a pen is much better then banging away on a keyboard. The fingers don’t always go where the brain wants them to.

  3. HokiePack on January 10, 2022 at 9:06 am

    Thanks for the tips / app advice. Much appreciated!
    Roscoe is well versed in how to get attention! Who can resist ?

  4. Amarok & Co on January 10, 2022 at 11:18 am

    Love the Roscoe’s face. So much is said with the expression.
    Completely understand the paper issue/costs; I work in a direct mail for a not for profit and this past year has been not only scrambling to accommodate price increases but more at issue paper availability. Ah . . . good times

  5. Lori & Izzy Bear on January 11, 2022 at 8:10 am

    Irresistible!!!! Muah Roscoe!!

  6. chris on January 11, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    I would type all your stuff for free if you would get yourself away from all those apps and stuff.

  7. Deborah Rolman on January 11, 2022 at 4:01 pm

    I’m amazed by this. My parents made my older brother and I take typing in high school. (I’m not sure if my younger brother took it or not.) Now I type almost everything. I was recently writing notes while watching a webinar and wondered how I was able to do all that writing in high school and college.

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