Guest post: “Advertising Statistics and ROI for Authors – Part 3: Facebook” by Patrick “Bahumat” Rochefort

Advertising Statistics and ROI for Authors: Part 3

 


For the next few parts, we’re going to look at major advertising channels I’ve used for my webserial “From Winter’s Ashes” and analyze them one by one for the ROI and needs of an author and publisher. Today’s focus is one of the busiest sites in the world, Facebook!
 
Facebook advertising is extremely cagey about presenting its stats in a standard advertising way, which doesn’t inspire much confidence in me. However, the response results weren’t terrible:
 
My response rate was 32 interactions out of 1055 impressions, which translates into 3% CTR. Compared to Reddit and Google, there’s definitely a LOT more engagement per impression. 
 
Almost 90% of those engagements came from Mobile users, which means that if you’re going to use Facebook for a webserial or author’s, make *absolutely* sure that your site works well on mobile devices. Mobile devices are taking the internet by storm, make absolutely sure your website is presentable to them in mobile format.
 
User demographics were particularly revealing:
 
18–24
5 Likes
261 Impressions
$1.19 Cost per Like
$5.95 Total Spent
 
25–34
3 Likes
242 Impressions
$2.18 Cost per Like
$6.55 Total Spent
 
35–44
7 Likes
263 Impressions
$1.04 Cost per Like
$7.26 Total Spent
 
45–54
9 Likes
168 Impressions
$0.93 Cost per Like
$8.34 Total Spent
 
55–64
8 Likes
121 Impressions
$0.86 Cost per Like
$6.86 Total Spent
 
 
Gender Breakdown:
 
Female: 
22 Likes 
709 Impressions 
Cost per page like: $1.09 
Engagement 3.1%
 
Male: 
10 Likes 
336 Impressions 
Cost per page like: $1.08 
Engagement 2.9%
 
 
Country Breakdown:
 
Canada: 1 Like, 134 Impressions
United Kingdom: 3 Likes, 257 Impressions
United States: 28 Likes, 665 Impressions
 
 
Device Breakdown:
 
All 32 engagements were on mobile devices. No Likes at all occurred on PCs. 
 
25 of the 32 likes came from Android smartphones.
 

Analysis:

The numbers provided are of a limited and low-confidence sample base. As such, some interesting artifacts of data are easy to dismiss as error bars, while other insights provide reliable feedback on the performance of Facebook ads.

The biggest surprise to me was the gender disparity in engagement on Facebook. More than twice as many women as men are clicking on From Winter’s Ashes, despite the advertisement being deliberately as gender-neutral as possible. Facebook simply engages women much more than men.

Age of engagement wasn’t as surprising: Facebook appeals to an older demographic, and that shows. While they’re more likely to have disposable income, they are less likely to engage in modern payment methods, such as PayPal and Patreon. Of the 32 Likes, only two resulted in conversions to Patreon clicks. None of them became Patrons.

Of greater value in this advertisement, if not financially, was that 32 people with Likes on Facebook are 32 people who see each update notice posted to Facebook. (Ideally. As some have noted, Facebook is notoriously bad for playing silly buggers with this.)

Demographically, specific to the story itself, engagement was especially high with Christian women of color ages 40-65, with notable spikes in engagement in Alabama and Ohio. Facebook gives you some incredibly in-depth analysis of your advertisement successes. They know a LOT about you, and they’re not shy about sharing it (in aggregate).

Monetarily, the higher expense of a Facebook Like will only trade off if you’re using Facebook effectively to engage your audience. Your content will definitely matter; Facebook demographics overall are skewed towards women ages 35+. If you believe your content would appeal to that demographic, Facebook might work for you.

Overall, I’m not sure that Facebook’s high cost-per-engagement is a fit for From Winter’s Ashes, or most webserials. I’m wondering if most of my readers are, in fact, engaging the story with mobile devices. (If so, then designing for mobile presentation is critical.) The CPC is, of course, miles and miles too high for the business model of most publishing sites. But it’s a great way to get repeat engagements with customers down the line. I could see Facebook working if you’re already an established author with multiple titles for sale and more in the pipeline.

 

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Guest post: “Advertising Statistics and ROI for Authors – Part 2: Reddit” by Patrick “Bahumat” Rochefort

Advertising Statistics and ROI for Authors: Part 2

 

 

For the next few parts, we’re going to look at major advertising channels I’ve used for my webserial “From Winter’s Ashes” and analyzing them one by one for the ROI and needs of an author and publisher. Today’s focus is the popular web 2.0 social/news aggregator, Reddit!
 
 
Advertising on Reddit:
 

Here’s what my marketing campaign on “From Winter’s Ashes” looks like on Reddit right now. I’m currently advertising in /r/Fantasy, and I’m at 89% of the campaign budget’s run as of today. I decided to see what gambling a modest $10.00 would look like advertising this way, and here’s my results.

Budget: $10.00 (the minimum)
Impressions Purchased: 10,000
CPM: (Cost per thousand impressions): $1.00
Impressions Delivered: (to date) 8890
Clicks: 17
CTR: 0.191%
CPC: $0.52
 
Analysis: The click-through rate of this advertising campaign is mildly disappointing, call it a C grade. More concerning, however, is the CPC. 
 
While $0.52 is, in fact, a very reasonable CPC for most advertising? I have to compare that against the performance of my website:
 
Conversion rate 0.02% (abysmal), average income per conversion $1.00. (That’s one conversion in 1823 unique visitors.)
 
I’d need a CPC of only $0.00055 right now just to break even. One THOUSAND times better performance just to break even.
 
If, however, I could add an ebook onto my website for sale, and turn that conversion rate to 2% and an average income of conversion of $4.85? My CPC break-even bar becomes $0.097. So anything below a $0.10 CPC and I’d be breaking even, really.  
 
What if I really went snazzy with my site, though, and brought it up to the standard like Tor.com or Amazon.com enjoyed, of 10% conversion rate, at the same cost? Then, and only then, would the CPC I’m paying begin to make sense, at a per-conversion income of $4.85 off of a $6.00 sale.
 
Thus, Reddit advertising is far too expensive for my current business, from an ROI standpoint. 
 
However, there are some nice advantages to Reddit advertising:
 
1. The CPC is very reasonable, and I can target my advertising to a particular subreddit, allowing me to target users in a meaningful way based on their interests.
2. The advertisement includes a little bit of graphical space, and is presented top-center on the page, which makes it hard to miss or ignore.
3. Interactivity. People can comment directly on your advertisements and engage you, as an author. Handy for starting conversations that convert the curious into the committed.
 
Disadvantages:
 
1. The AdBlock rate on Reddit is much higher than the general internet, with the average block rate being 55%, with some subreddits seeing 85-90%(!) of ads blocked.
2. Lead-in time. Unlike other websites, Reddit inventories advertisements by the subreddit. I had to wait 23 days until my advertisement began to show. Unless you’re planning well in advance of your event, Reddit might not fit well for your marketing plan.
 

Guest post: “Advertising Statistics and ROI for Authors – Part 1” by Patrick “Bahumat” Rochefort

Advertising Statistics and ROI for Authors: Part 1

 
In a past career and under current contracts, I’m responsible for the advertising analysis of clients and customers. As a small business owner and operator, making sure that my dollars spent pay back in sales is critical for me. In this series, I’m going to dissect and analyze my paid advertising efforts for my current webserial, From Winter’s Ashes.
 
I advertised the WebSerial through three major channels of online targeted advertising: 
 
Reddit – 170 million users, offers targeted advertising by subreddit. In this case, /r/Fantasy with a user base of 83,750 readers, with a peak daily readership of ~1300.
Facebook – 1.5 billion users, 1.1 billion active users.
Twitter: 316 million active users.
 
My methodology on this analysis involved making minimum advertising commitments to each advertising channel. Each represents the minimum financial commitment through advertising on that channel:
 
Reddit: $10, for a month-long campaign on modestly populated subreddit.
Facebook: $35, at $5/day for a week. 
Twitter: $35, at $5/day for a week.
 

Understanding your key metrics for advertising your writing and determining the cost effectiveness:
 
1. Impressions. How many times was your advertisement served? Chances are good that actual human eyeballs didn’t see them. (Thanks, AdBlocker). Depending on the website, 35%-85% of users block ads. Young markets with tech-savvy users block ads much more.
2. Clicks / “Engagements”. How many times was one of your advertisements actually interacted with?
3. Engagement rate: What percentile of your ads served resulted in an interaction? (For Search advertising, 3% is a good target. For display advertising, 0.3% is a solid average.) So per thousand impressions, expect an average of 30 clicks on Search advertising like Google, and 0.3% on display advertising like Reddit/Facebook/Twitter.
4. Cost Per Click (CPC). The core metric in any advertising campaign: Divide the cost of your campaign by the number of times the ad was interacted with. That’s what you paid per click. 
5. Conversion rate: What percentage of visits to your website, overall, resulted in income?
6. Conversion income: What’s the average income that a conversion supplies you?
7. AIpV / Average Income Per Visitor: On average, how much money do you make per click on your website?
8. ROI-A: Return on investment on your advertising. Realistically, 10-20% is a good target. Most ads, if they’re profitable at all (most aren’t), will return only 10-20% more in additional sales than the advertising cost you. The best campaign I’ve ever run for a client returned a 310% ROI, but that was a finely tuned Google Search ad campaign for a regional, limited-supply professional service. 
 
Be aware that some advertisers (Facebook) will obfuscate their metrics or want you to use their own interaction metrics, which can make it very difficult to determine to industry standards some of these metrics. If you plan to make a serious advertising campaign on one of these advertisers, spend extra time learning what metrics will matter, and look to professional advertiser forums for appropriate targets for your campaign there.
 
 
How to determine if your advertising campaign for your writing will be profitable (MATH TIME):
 
1. Look up your own website’s conversion rate. (If you don’t know, divide your number of transactions on your site in a month by the number of unique visitors in a month. Google Analytics can help you determine this.)
2. Determine your conversion income. (Divide your monthly income from your site by the number of paying customers on your site.)
3. Divide your conversion rate by your conversion income. 
4. Look up the average CPC on the advertising channel. 
5. Compare that against your AIpV. 
 
Chances are distressingly good that your advertising campaign will not be profitable. Sorry. Just because it won’t be profitable doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be useful, however. When building a name or a brand, having a lot of Impressions hitting eyeballs consistently can help build your brand awareness, and get your name to stick in people’s minds.
 

A sample advertising campaign, using plausible numbers:
 
Author writes a book titled “FooDog Generic Fantasy”, and sells it directly from their own website as well as through other distribution channels. It’s a nice book! It’s got great cover art, a solid synopsis with plenty of hooks, and the pricing is well within market norms for a genre book.
 
Author decides they want to advertise their book. The Author has a choice between two fundamentally different kinds of online advertising: Search Advertising, and Display Advertising. Search advertising displays when someone searches for a related search term that the Author specifies. Display advertising shows to (potentially) just anyone visiting a site/network.
 
Because the product is a book with a specific title, Author wisely decides that people aren’t likely to be searching for their book by name if they don’t know about it. The title of their fabulous book is “FooDogs Generic Fantasy”, and Author rightly determines that almost nobody will do a Google Search for the nonsense term “FooDogs” unless they already know about the book anyway, and the words “generic” and “fantasy” aren’t going to be useful search terms. (Google will agree with them, and degrade or decline their advertising.)
 
So Author wisely decides to advertise FooDog Generic Fantasy on display ads, instead. Author is hopefully either decent with art design, or else they’ll be paying someone else for nice artwork for their ads. If Author is going to do it themselves, Author needs to know the technical specifications of the display advertising on their channel, such as resolution of image, size limits, file formats, and form factors. Author will also have to invest the time (10-30 minutes per channel) setting up their user accounts to advertise. 
 
It takes Author 1 hour to make their own art to their satisfaction, and Author spends 30 minutes setting up their first advertising campaign, researching, and implementing the ad, and another 30 minutes tuning it to their target: Readers who would plausibly enjoy and be interested in FooDog Generic Fantasy. Author knows not to waste their money advertising to people who would prefer to read Wartime Specific NonFiction, so they ensure their ads go where they’d be most effective.
 
Author makes a $35 investment in one weeks’ worth of advertising, and is down 2 hours of labour.
 
After week’s worth of waiting and tweaking, Author’s results come in:
 
Impressions: 35,000
Clicks: 105
Engagement Rate: 0.3%
Cost per Click: $0.33
 
Author’s results from this advertising campaign are firmly average for a Display ad campaign. So, the advertiser is delivering pretty average results on the internet. Not great, not terrible. 
 
Next, Author goes to their own website, to track their statistics:
 
Visitors last week: 105
Conversions: 3
Visitors this week: 210
Conversions: 7
 
Conversion Rate: 3%. (Firmly average for retail sales online. Not great. Not terrible.)
 
Author sells FooDog Generic Fantasy eBook for a retail price of $6.00. Of that $6.00, $4.85 is the Author’s profit after taxes and fees. 
 
Since this is all that the Author currently sells on their site, calculating the average income per conversion is easy: $4.85.
 
Author’s advertising campaign ostensibly brought in 4 additional customers, for a net benefit of $19.40. 
 
The ROI-A on this advertising campaign, therefor, is -45%. Ouch! 
 
BUT.
 
While it cost the author money out of pocket to commit to this advertising, it teaches the Author a few valuable lessons about their own website’s offerings: 
 
1. Author’s advertising campaign was average, it was middle of the road, it was unremarkable. It worked. It was not a failure. By every metric the professionals care about, the ad did what it was supposed to do.
2. Author’s website sucks at making them money. 
3. Author paid only $15.60 (net) to double their site traffic for a week, and put their name and brand awareness into the minds of 105 additional customers. That’s about $0.15 per potential customer, and that isn’t counting the number of people who saw Author’s name and advertising and had it stick in their minds.
 
If Author had, say, a second and third book to offer on their website for sale, that average income per conversion might rise from $4.85 to $7.50 as readers found interesting looking titles to buy. In this case, Author would still be losing money, but they would be losing only $5.00 for the same advertising and brand marketing benefit.
 
The better your website is at making conversions of visitors, the more effective your advertisement will be. We’ll see in part 2 my personal experiences with advertising channels, and why controlling your CPC (and, more importantly, improving your conversion rate and income-per-conversion) matters for an author.
 
 

Guest post: “The Lady or the Tiger or the Wolf?” by Carmen K. Welsh Jr.

The Lady or the Tiger or the Wolf?

by Carmen K. Welsh Jr.

 

I was asked by more than one person while writing my book if I’ve owned any dogs. The answer is no. Most of my life, I have actually identified with cats more but decided many years ago that I refused to get into the eternal debate about which pet is Better: a Dog or a Cat. I didn’t want to get caught up in nonsense and senseless hype.

Both cats and dogs are no better or worse than the other. I don’t even like that there’s such a debate. As an animal lover, it makes more sense to learn to enjoy and learn more about as many creatures as possible, even those one may be deathly afraid of, because, it’s nature, and nature’s cool.

Many cultures do not, or once did not, view animals as separate species. Animals were spirit guides, soul companions as well as kin. Depending on the individual, and among many animal-lovers and pet owner anecdotes, a human and a particular creature will bond no matter what, solidifying the idea that the human and animal species have more in common than is understood.

To tell you the truth, since I was a child, I felt drawn to cats (both literally and figuratively as well as artistically). I would draw them constantly. Cartoon cats I would often copy and change to my liking. If one reads my FWG bio, my first character at age 5 or 6, was a cat with bat wings! My avatar is an anthro snow leopard from one of my short stories. Saturday night, with my older brothers, watching original Star Trek episodes had me drawing on leftover cardboard a space opera comic with a galactic ship complete with captain and crew (all cats! What I wouldn’t give to find some of those drawings).

Also, as a child, I was deathly afraid of dogs. I mean, it made sense. Cats hate dogs because dogs chase them, right? But dogs also barked with large teeth when one walked by their wired fences or wooden gates. Yet, when I stayed in Jamaica with relatives, and after a few summers, having even lived there, going to school and all (talk about culture shock) the dogs there seemed… nicer. The strays didn’t try to bite. Dogs would run to a person, mouth wide open, tails wagging. House dogs seemed quiet and not growly. They also looked similar, lanky, medium size and short-furred, but that’s because being on an island did not allow for a varied gene pool. United States’ dogs seemed meaner to me at 8 years old. Do I sound as if I’m making ‘cultural stereotypes’ on dogs?

But I learned from those dogs and how to interact with them. Also, my grandma, being of old ideas, believed cats were evil and didn’t want them around. However, she had no problem with canines. There was a dog known as Old Max in the neighborhood. Though he had an owner, he would amble about our block. Nearly every household he visited would feed him, including my grandmother. He was a stately gentleman and never barked loud and always allowed us children to play with him.

It took more years and experience to realize that dogs weren’t the antithesis to cats. They couldn’t be. It was like comparing from the old adage about apples and oranges. One could love cats and still love dogs! Once I understood that I began to incorporate more dogs into my writings.

Also, plenty of my beloved childhood films during the 1980s had canine actors I cheered for! I loved the Benji film series as well as Disney’s A Dog of Flanders, Ol’ Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and its sequel The Shaggy DA. One of my favorite Disney animations is Lady and the Tramp, which I count as the earliest inspiration for my novel draft. But I equally loved The Aristocats!

If I’m the animal writer I believe myself to be, then I should learn from them, and not just the ones I readily relate to. A writer should step out of the comfort zone. Writing what one knows is fine, yet it’s even better to learn new things so one could write on that as well. I read more on dogs, I met friends’ dogs and I began to study them.

When my thesis needed new life, I began to dig deeper into why I loved dogs (ah, puns). That’s when the story’s voice and tone were found. Not just deciding on Third-person vs. First POV (on my thesis mentor’s advice, I switched all previous drafts to first-person), but experimenting with other literary vehicles to best tell my story. Instead of the ‘aloof’ third-person I used for my cat characters in my fantasy series (there’s those stereotypes again), I would let go and let my dogs tell their own stories in immediate First-person.

Because such a voice felt more historical, I wanted a sense of the familiar as well as what we humans often overlooked or took for granted in canines. Though I still haven’t had a dog for a companion yet, I’m looking forward to many more adventures with both dogs AND cats. See? Cats aren’t the only muses for writers; dogs can be a writer’s best friend too. And yes, I went there. *groan*

Guest post: “A Tale of Two Rejections” by Ocean Tigrox

A Tale of Two Rejections

by Ocean Tigrox

 

Once upon a time, there were two aspiring writers, Stanza and Prose. Both had aspirations of someday being published, and together they began sending off submissions to various publishers. Stanza was successful, receiving an acceptance on their first story! They quickly began drafting up their second story to send off. Prose, unfortunately, was met with a kind rejection letter. Disappointment hit them hard as they took their lumps, pushed their chin up and tried again. The second round of letters came back with similar results. Once again, Stanza succeeded in having another work accepted. Clearly their first time hadn’t just been just a stroke of luck. Meanwhile, Prose found themself sighing at a second rejection letter. What went wrong this time?

This cycle repeated a few times. Stanza submitted more, being accepted each time; Prose became more disappointed with each new rejection. As this continued, Stanza became empowered, feeling invincible. Anything they wrote was gold and always came back with a happy congratulatory note from the editor. Prose continued to struggle through each deemed failure, learning how to improve with every submission’s iteration.

One day the cycle broke. Upon opening a letter from another editor, Stanza nearly choked on their coffee when they read words that they had never seen before: “We’re sorry, but your story was not selected.” Preposterous, they thought. An editor clearly made a mistake. But, no, that was their story in the explanation below about why it was not selected. The editors had found issues with the main character and decided against accepting the story.

Doubt filled Stanza’s mind. They were invincible. How could this happen? Unless, they thought, the other times really had been flukes. Maybe the accepted stories had just been filler or just barely squeaked in. Maybe Stanza wasn’t as talented a writer as they had originally believed. After all, talented writers don’t get rejected, do they? Lost and confused about their own skill as a writer, Stanza put away their writing, unsure if they should submit another story.

Things were quite the opposite with Prose. They awoke the next day to find their first acceptance letter. Tears overwhelmed them as they read the editor’s glowing notes about the submitted story. After wading through rejection after rejection, continuing to push through and not stop, their hard work and perseverance paid off. Their treasure was well deserved. After telling their friends and family, what better way to celebrate than to write another story?

Prose would go on to find more stories being accepted. Occasionally a rejection letter still found its way to their mailbox, but it never had the same effect on Prose that it once had. They took the criticism and moved on, just like they had done before. Stanza, on the other hand, struggled for a long time before picking the pen back up. It had taken a lot of willpower to pull themselves back together after falling so far. They found the motivation to write again, and although they had their share of rejection letters that still came, acceptance soon returned. Their confidence soon resumed, though this time with a small bit of humility.

Is this just a fairy tale? Some writing allegory? Not quite. This is actually based on a true story (though slightly exaggerated). If you’ve listened to the Fangs and Fonts podcast, you may already know that this happened to two writers in my writing group. Some of you may know them as FWG members Roland Jovaik and Tarl “Voice” Hoch. They both experienced acceptance and rejection, but both ended up handling them differently. Neither of them did anything wrong. Prose, like most new writers, had to struggle and climb higher with each new submission until they finally achieved victory. Stanza on the other side managed to knock it out of the park on the first try. This isn’t common, but it happens. Still, rejection found them both eventually, and they were forced to confront the inevitability that all writers experience. The moral of this story is that although they dealt with their rejections differently, they both pushed through and went back to writing.

The one thing missing from this story is the support of other writers. We need to be there for each other. Something I’ve seen lately is people congratulating new writers on their first rejection. This may be a weird event to see from the outside, but what we’re really saying is “Congrats on taking your first serious step in becoming published” or “Congrats on the achievement”. It takes guts to send your story out into the aether and have an editor you don’t know reject it. It hurts. And recently, I found it hurts being the editor having to reject people, too!

Rejection doesn’t feel good for anyone, but it’s inevitable within our craft. Be ready when it comes. Don’t worry, each one gets easier to take, and it’ll all be worth it when you get that glowing acceptance one day.

Guest post: “Getting It Done: What Determines a Writing Quota?” by Franklin Leo

Getting It Done: What Determines a Writing Quota?

by Franklin Leo

 

Writing is hard, and even for the experienced, it continues to be difficult. Whether it’s editing or drafting, there’s always a point when we find ourselves unable to move forward simply because time is such a huge issue.

I’ve instructed and tutored writing to college students for a few years, and I have only recently started to come out more as a furry author, but the number one thing that I hear from other writers or hopeful-writers is that there’s too much going on in their life.

Stephen King says in his memoir On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that it’s best for one to get around 1,000 words a day down and written into some piece he or she’s working on. That alone is around four pages, and to some, the idea of doing so much so soon comes off like a triathlon equal to NaNoWriMo.

What matters, however, is that you get something down — anything down. Students tell me that they could only get a paragraph written. In college, that’s quite a bit, I tell them. Some often tell me that they could only get a sentence or two down because they had to do some reading. That’s okay as well. Reading and writing go together. You simply can’t do one without the other, I say.

I also tell them that some days, it’s okay to write more than other days. Some days, it’s okay to write nothing. What’s important is to discipline and let yourself write as much as you can, understand that there is no punishment for writing too little, and being there for yourself when you need it. Writing is part therapy and part communication. Try to write as much as you can, but also allow yourself the freedom that the work demands.

Personally, I stand by the 1,000 word quota, simply because it works for me. I enjoy it, I get good enough results from it, and it makes me feel accomplished. Have I ever questioned my own methods? Of course. Working as a writer is like working as your own personal trainer at the gym. You need to know how much, when, and in what way to push yourself. I continue to keep my quota going as long as I can, but with work and class (as well as different stories going on at the same time in my head), it’s just impossible to do everything that I wish.

What works? Again, it really depends. For someone, writing a couple of sentences before bed can be enough to get him or her going until the next day. For others, they may feel that 2,000 words a day is worthy of any acknowledgement. Working with others, as well, forces you to work as much as you can; several times, I’ve had other writers tell me that I’m just not writing enough, which is nice because they hold me accountable when I myself am unable to do so. Beating yourself up about it, however, is something a writer should never do. By changing writing into something that you have to do rather than what you get to do, you ultimately take the fun out of it. You ruin your chance of wanting to return to a story because it honestly gripped you. For a writer at any level, that there is the kiss of death, whiskers and all.

My students come to me every day when I’m in my school’s lab, and I get to hear how they enjoy writing now because they realize it’s not work — it’s fun when they allow for it.

That’s all you can ever do. Allow for it, and be proud of those moments when you do. That there will build you a quota and keep you pressing forward amidst a hectic schedule and series of setbacks.

 

Guest post: “The Writer’s Notebook” by Renee Carter Hall

The Writer’s Notebook

by Renee Carter Hall

Writers today have more tools than ever to choose from. We can tap out notes on a phone or type our stories on a laptop or tablet. With all the spellchecking, grammar checking, sync, and instant backups at our fingertips, why would anyone still bother to write by hand? What can a pen and notebook give us that a word processor can’t?

  • A slower process. In today’s on-demand culture, that might not sound like a benefit. But when it comes to writing, faster isn’t always better, and writing by hand can force you to slow down and weigh your thoughts as you put them on paper.
  • Fewer distractions. When you write by hand, there are no emails, games, or social media to demand your attention. You can also write in a coffee shop without scoping out the available power outlets — and while I’ve learned the hard way that waterproof ink is sometimes a good idea, I’ve still never gotten an error message from a notebook.
  • A different mindset.  For me, there’s something very direct and true about writing first drafts by hand. Typed writing can feel “finished” before its time, and while I’d never trade a computer for editing, the drafting process feels more intimate in my own handwriting than a font. I’m sure some of this is generational, but to me, writing done by hand is writing for the self, while typing on a keyboard puts me in a “public writing” mindset — blog posts, emails, functional writing instead of creative — where writing by hand reminds me of childhood days spent scribbling stories in wide-ruled notebooks, and reminds me that writing is supposed to be fun. A journal feels like a safe, private, patient space to experiment, in a way a blinking cursor can’t duplicate.

I’ve kept some form of writer’s notebook (or journal, whatever term appeals to you) for over twenty years, and I can’t imagine giving it up. My journals have been to me what a sketchbook is to an artist: a gym for exercise, a laboratory for experimentation, a butterfly net for rounding up stray thoughts. Unless I’m on a tight deadline where I have to get from first draft to submitted work in a hurry, my preference is to write the first draft by hand. (This also has the fringe benefit of easing me into the editing process, since I always start making changes to the text as I’m typing up the draft.)

My notebooks also place my writing within the larger scope of my life. Interspersed among story drafts and notes are quirky lists of favorite commercials, possible character names, passages I’ve loved from books and poems, and the odd to-do list. To me there’s something delightfully grounding in that. There’s also a physical pleasure in writing with a good pen on quality paper, and there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with filling pages in a journal that isn’t quite matched by keeping track of word counts in a spreadsheet.

Keeping a notebook isn’t for everyone, of course. Some have physical restrictions that make writing by hand impractical, and if you’re prone to losing things, you’re probably better off with tools that allow for backups. Writers who keep notebooks have to be comfortable with a certain amount of chaos and inefficiency, but out of that chaos can come a playful serendipity that brings renewed focus, deeper contemplation, and revitalized creativity — all from putting pen to paper.

My current journal, open to the notes and brainstorming for this blog post.

My current journal, open to the notes and brainstorming for this blog post.

Tips

  • Choose materials you’re comfortable with. That might be a handmade leather journal or a black-and-white composition book, a pencil or a fountain pen. Different moods and projects can also call for different tools.
  • Take it along. Try to choose a journal you can easily carry with you, or keep one at home and a smaller one in your bag.
  • Play! Experiment with tools — write in pencil, marker, crayon. Try out prompts. Paste in pictures from magazines, cancelled stamps, ticket stubs. Make it part of your life, not just your writing life.

Supplies