Paper As a Second Screen

Writing with a notepad and laptop
Writing with a notepad as a second screen (Andrew Neel on Unsplash)

A key step in working on my book proposal has been to run each chapter idea through a checklist of elements it has to include. They are:

  • Argument: The thesis for the chapter, the main ideas and topics I want to get across. What are the conflicts? What’s going on here?
  • Characters: Who will the narrative follow to give the thesis color and evidence?
  • Section: Breaking the chapter into an even smaller bit following a particular set of characters and including:
    • Scene: A vivid anecdote
    • Context: Zoom out from the scene with background, further events, why the moment matters and what led to or from it
  • Add Sections as needed
  • Cliffhanger: Finish the chapter in a climactic or surprising way that keeps the pages turning

I could try to run my chapter outlines through this list from memory, but it’s easier to have it in a second document. I’m working in Ulysses on a 13” laptop, so my best option is to have two document windows, either side by side, or one each on two desktop screens that I can three-finger swipe between.

Neither one of these is quite right: swiping adds just enough friction for me to forget or be annoyed; on a 13” screen, having side-by-side windows feels a little crowded. I’m being a sensitive and fickle writer here, but I’ll try anything if it helps me work happier and more productively. So I arrived at this: paper as a second screen. I write my checklist on a notepad—argument, characters, section, scene, context, cliffhanger—and place it on my desk to the left of my laptop.

When I get to a new chapter, it’s there. When I don’t need it, it’s not filling up pixel real estate. It’s just simple enough to be helpful.

I also find that writing on paper forces me to think with a little more urgency than typing. Physically writing out the checklist helps me remember it better and keeps it at the front of my mind, like a shiny toy in a store window.

If I’m taking notes, say, from a book I’m reading for research, I’ll write them on paper first. I’ll mark page numbers for quotes I want to come back to and type in full, and put it all on the computer later. It seems like more work, but it keeps my notes focused and the laptop transcription step is an opportunity to finalize and confirm any ideas or commentary that started brewing on the notepad—to revisit why the note seemed important, and if it actually was.

A number of studies, including one in Psychological Science in 2016, have pointed out the power of handwriting as a way of forced selection of key points and a means to signal importance to memory, vs. the disposable-feeling text of 100 word-per-minute typing. And I just think a little better on paper. Maybe it’s because I’m not resisting the temptation of a Chrome tab or my Twitter feed. But it works for me.