Archive for September 15th, 2009

When did I stop writing with a pen? To my chagrin, I realize that I am unable to tell more closely than the nearest five years. But I wonder what the transition to the keyboard has done to my writing.

These days, I compose almost everything at the keyboard. The exceptions are paragraphs that arrive ready-formed in the middle of the night, or when I’m away from home – and even the away-from-home fragments might soon be written with a keyboard if I get the netbook I’ve been eyeing.

I didn’t used to be that way. I learned to touch-type when I was in high school (and a more boring class I never took), but for years I was convinced that I need to write everything in order to do my best work. So far as I was concerned, typewriters, then computer keyboards were only for the final draft.

I even had a theory about why writing everything by hand was necessary. The movements of my fingers and hands, I speculated, were closely connected to the rhythms of my brain. On a keyboard, I couldn’t get into that rhythm. And I had to write, too, not print, because the connections between the letters helped to keep my thoughts logically connected, too. These things were so important that I had to write out a final draft as neatly as possibly, with a minimum of cross outs so that I knew that my thoughts were well-formed.

By contrast, typing into a computer requires discrete movements of the fingers, rather than actions of the entire hand. The letters were disconnected, so I could get no sense of the rhythm of my thoughts. Moreover, the words on screen looked so authoritative that I was less likely to criticize them. I was sure I could never get the same rhythm or precision on a computer as with a pen.

But as I switched from being a university instructor to a technical writer, the amount of writing I had to do increased by five or six times. Often, too, I had no room for both a keyboard and writing paper at my work station. So, by default, the keyboard began to win out.

Even so, I resisted. When I had to figure out a procedure, I generally roughed it out on paper first. I also planned the structure of documents – or at least their main points – on paper. Nor have I ever entirely abandoned such habits. Whenever I am having problem with structure, I am still apt to outline on paper before writing.

But, increasingly, I had less time to write everything longhand and then type it into the computer. I believe I wrote most of my Maximum Linux columns long hand in 2000-01. And some technical writing like the manual for Progeny Debian was written entirely on the computer at the same time that I was writing press releases longhand. But, by 2005, when I returned to journalism, I was relying on the keyboard and reconciled to it.

Yet exactly when in that period I made the switch is impossible to say. By the time I made it, the switch did not seem so major.
Even so, my half-developed ideas about the advantages of writing by hand do not seem completely wrong, even now (although, these days, I wonder if what I was following was not the rhythm of my thoughts but unconscious sub-vocalizing). I had to learn the rhythm of typing in a way that I never had to learn the rhythm of writing; I grew up with writing, and came to typing later in life. For a while, I actually felt tone-deaf when typing because I hadn’t developed an ear for its rhythms.

There are other differences, too. When writing by hand, I seem more precise. Even now, I have a larger vocabulary than when I type, and more precision in word-choice and in the development of ideas. I am conciser, too – I long ago learned that, as fond as I am of conjunctions, one of the first tasks when I edit something I typed is to breakup the compound sentences.

Analyzing the difference, I have to say that I have a much different style when I type compared to when I write – and that, probably, it is an inferior one. That conviction is why I always prefer to print out a finished piece of writing so I can be more critical of it than I can usually be while staring at the perfectly formed letters on the screen (although, in the last couple of years, my on-line editing has improved immensely, probably through sheer practice).

But against these disadvantages, I can say that, for some reason, I am more able to envision the entire structure of long pieces when I am at a keyboard. Perhaps that’s because the discrete movement of fingers is (if you pardon the pun) more digital and therefore encourages analysis.

Just as importantly, the rhythm of typing is always urging me onwards. That makes first drafts easier to do, and increases my overall work speed. If I need to be sure that I go back through a keyboard-written article and eliminate phrases that fit the rhythm more than the sense, at least I get that all-important first draft done easily, so I have something to respond to. By contrast, when I use a pen, I become too exacting, which is probably one reason I wrote very little by hand compared to by keyboard.

Having written occasional bits of poetry, where precision counts, I find that I regret moving away from writing everything by hand. But as a full-time hack, I count myself lucky for having discovered how much easier completing a work is when I use a keyboard. In fact, if not for keyboards, I probably never could have become a professional writer of any sort. If I have lost something by rarely writing by hand (and I think I have), I have also gained much more – nothing less than increased competence and fluidity.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to be nostalgic about writing by hand. Unless (as happened a few months ago) a power outage obliges me to fall back on handwriting so that I can make a deadline, I don’t expect that I will be returning very often to the pen again. I no longer need to.

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