Monday, February 25, 2008

Technology Killed the Writer

OK, so maybe ‘killed’ is too strong a word, but it got your attention, didn’t it? For the past week, we’ve been talking about computers, technology and the internet and how it’s affected our writing. For most, it’s been a godsend. Computers have sped up the writing process, allowing words to fly off the keyboard at the speed of light. (Well, on a good day and if your muse is cooperating, they do.) Microsoft Word and other programs with their find and replace, cut and paste, and track changes have made editing easier. (Okay, so mechanically it’s easier, not mentally and emotionally--that will never be a painless process for most of us.) For the environmentally conscious, computers have also saved untold numbers of trees, thanks to the fact that we aren’t balling up wads of paper and tossing them into the trashcan every time we write a page of crapola. We just hit the delete button instead. And because of the internet, the expertise of scholars is instantly at our fingertips. We don’t even have to get dressed and leave the house to go to the library for our research anymore. So you might be surprised when I say sometimes I believe technology has actually hurt my writing.

Many writers could not imagine going back to the days of the electric typewriter or even further back, to when all writing was done longhand with pen and paper. While I’m not ancient, I’m old enough to remember the days before there was a computer in every home. In fact, I didn’t boot up my first Mac until I joined the workforce after college. But going back, I remember writing my first book in high school, about a school bus of kids caught in an avalanche and how they survived long enough to be rescued. I worked on it every night before going to bed, writing longhand in a spiral-bound notebook. Then my mom dug out an old typewriter from the basement and I spent days pounding out my masterpiece of young adult fiction. The typewriter was a big manual clunker, the kind you have to listen for the “ding” to do a hard page return. There was no built-in correction tape, so a bottle of White Out was constantly by my side. At this stage, because making changes or corrections was such a pain in the bahookie, I had to make sure the words where perfect in my mind before I pressed my finger down on a single key.

My, how things have changed. Computers have made the writer’s life a lot easier, I can’t argue that. But while my children may believe mommy is physically attached to her laptop, the truth is sometimes I have to run away from all that technology. Some of the culprits are the time-sucking lures of the internet, e-mail and spider solitaire. But even when I’m being good and working on my writing, I find I can spend hours tweaking and editing and never get off the same page. Having the ability to cut and paste or rearrange sentences with a single drag and click are just as much a problem for me, eating away at my precious writing time. Sometimes I’m like a hamster on a wheel, running and running (re: tweaking and polishing) but getting nowhere. That’s when I have to go old school. I flee the 21st century and grab a notebook and pen and go hide out someplace, be it the library or the bookstore or a coffee house, and write the old fashioned way, one barely legible word at a time. Away from the computer, I don’t have the synonym finder to spend five minutes searching for a better word. I don’t have access to the internet to waste thirty minutes checking on a research fact. I just make a note to do it later and keep going. When I do this, I often find I’ve been more productive in my writing in a few hours than I would have been spending all day on the laptop. I’ve discovered that writing longhand, I don’t self-edit as much as I do on the computer. I don’t tweak. I don't polish. Sometimes, I don’t even think. I just write. And most often, that’s when the magic happens.

You may think I’m crazy, but I’m not the only one. There are many current best-selling writers out there who still prefer to write longhand, at least for the first draft--Tracy Chevalier, Jill Barnett, Stephen King, and Susan Wiggs to name a few. Some of them even have a preferred type of paper, a special pen and a particular color of ink that they must use every time or their muse will throw a hissy fit. And remember, this whole romance genre started when one of the greatest novelists of all time, Jane Austen, wrote her masterpiece, Sense and Sensibility, using a goose quill and lampblack ink. She didn’t have the internet. She didn’t have Microsoft Word. She didn’t have spell check. She didn’t have a laser printer. She didn’t have White Out. Instead, she spent hour after hour, dipping and re-dipping that poor dead bird’s feather into the inkpot to give life to her words on paper.

Do I mean we should go back to the days of plucking the barnyard bird bald and sporting black, ink-stained fingers? No. But sometimes the simple act of putting pen to paper beats all the techno-gadgets hands down and every now and then, if you’re lucky, it has the power to set your creative muse free.


  1. I love writing on the computer, but many of my friends go the paper and pen route. Good post!

  2. I still write the first drafts of poems and short stories by longhand. There's a simplicity to the writing by hand process--grab a sheet of paper and a pencil--that's both comforting and invigorating.

  3. Paper still works when there is no computer to be found. I'm with Kirsten on poetry, it's much better on paper. I also do my song lyrics by hand.

  4. I am so glad I don't write long-hand any more. When I try, it just turns into one big huge mess of cross-outs, arrows pointing at other sections of the text, and poorly drawn stick figures!

    Jody W.