The Quill Pen: What Writers of the Past Can Teach Us

"The Poor Poet" by Carl Spitzweg (1839)

If I look around my “writing area,” I find several tools at my disposal to help me write a novel.  I have a Macbook Pro with software like Diary, Scrivener, Mindnode and Pixelmator that help me go from ideas jotted down in my daily Diary to a finished novel complete with a self-designed cover.  I have always been fascinated by the idea that most of the greatest works of literature in history were written with a quill pen, an ink well and some parchment.  Examining a writer’s process in the past can give us instruction for using the amazing tools we have today.

1.  Revision – I’ve heard some of my students say “I don’t have time for revision.”  This is untrue.  A more truthful statement would be “I don’t make time for revision.”  Imagine revising an entire novel before people were able to save it on a hard drive.  I know that Mozart apparently wrote all of his sheet music unrevised from the way he heard it in his head, but did Shakespeare? Dickens? Goethe?  It must have been tedious re-writing entire plays or novels or epic poems.  How much more should we revise since we can save our work almost without effort and come back to it, make digital notes in the margins, get instant help through e-mail, Facebook, or other ways of sharing text.

2.  Research – Our writing ancestors had to get on a horse or walk to a local library, and usually the library was not local.  The amount of information available was limited.  Books were expensive.  Even after the printing press was invented, books were still hard to come by for the general public.  Most of the writers of the past were wealthy because they were the only ones who could stay home and write.  Playwrights like Shakespeare relied upon their wealth of knowledge immediately available, either through schooling or books they could pick up.  Today we have literally the wealth of the entire world’s knowledge at our fingertips, yet writers often choose not to use it.  I spent nearly six months researching how the world could end before writing a post-apocalyptic story.  I wanted the end of the world to seem as realistic as possible, so that even a climatologist would find the events believable.  Understand that most readers today will check your facts.  If you write about something scientific or political or about any other field of study but do not take the time to research for that shred of realism, readers will see through it like so much mylar used to project a hologram of Tupac Shakur.

3.  Quality – If there is one thing that computers have allowed lazy writers to do is to remain lazy writers.  If you don’t believe me, download one of those .99 books on Amazon written by Joe “Author” and you will see the ugly side of self-publishing.  Joe “Author” might defend his book by saying “but my mother loved it”.  No offense to mom, but that does not make it good.  If all of us were to take the care that early writers took in revision, we would not have to revise so much.  Shakespeare revised as we know from the different folios of his work.  “To be, or not to be; aye, there’s the rub” was once “To be or not to be; aye, there’s the point” and “What’s Hecuba to him or he to her” became “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba”.  These revisions, however small, were still revisions.  Writers of the quill (for the most part) were careful when they were writing rough drafts mindful of the economy of fewer mistakes.  The simple way to get quality is to write a detailed outline of your novel first and save yourself the headache of chapters that drift along like ships without sails.

Not many have the gifts of Shakespeare, and some would argue that none possess all of them, but we can gain much perspective from these quill and ink writers and try to utilize the tools given to us to make us better novelists, playwrights, screenwriters and poets.  Take pride in what you are writing.  If you have a great plot, then fill that plot with extended metaphors, powerful imagery, realistic dialogue, and deep symbolism.  Never settle for second best with your ability.  Dig down deep and find that spark that Shakespeare had within you.  The one thing we have that he didn’t is this massive wealth of knowledge that sits at the other end of your router.  Go out and find what you need.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

8 thoughts on “The Quill Pen: What Writers of the Past Can Teach Us

  1. It’s inspiring to do revisions, but inspiring enough to make me run out and buy a quill pen. They’re still arbitrary and have no rhyme or reason to be used in writing. Especially since my “writing” will be digitized anyway. Even in book format will they NOT use my handwriting as nothing more than a manuscript to type out in Helvetica or New Times. Best time to use a quill is when I draw. Meticulous drawing is the only lines appreciated.

    1. Whoops, meant to say “but NOT inspiring enough…” see how inspiring your tale speaks on revision. But NOTHING on quill pens? I’ll stick to ballpoint thanks.

  2. Wow, I’d never thought about what it must have been like writing a novel years ago, without all the aids we have now. Writing IS hard work, but blimey, having to edit with a quill pen and paper! They must have been so determined!


  3. Your articles are always so good! Thanks for sharing…I love that my kids are required to read the classics. I think its good for them. And do revisions. It’s not optional. It took forever to make them understand that even professional paid writers have someone redlining things in their manuscript (just because the teacher wants you to make changes doesn’t mean you’re stupid or they are insulting you).

  4. Excellent post, Roger. Your suggestions are ones that I live by in my own writing – even my poetry. I grew up on the classics, in art, writing and music – and the sheer ability to produce quality work is something that impressed itself firmly on my mind, and what I aspire to in my own work. Thank you for reinforcing that here; it’s much appreciated by this reader! ~ Julie 🙂

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