The act of writing

Word processors the only way to write

by Jim Trageser
This article originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 26, 2002.

Hemingway, it is said, wrote all his stories on a manual typewriter — while standing up. Shakespeare, of course, had no choice but to write everything by hand. And as for Twain, Dickens, Tolstoy and the Bronte sisters, well, however they composed their masterpieces, it wasn't in WordPerfect.

And so, being a tradition-minded bunch, many writers today feel that technology is far from an improvement when it comes to their creative muse — they eschew the computer, and continue hammering out stories on their typewriter, or scribbling them in pen and pencil.

For these traditionalists, there exists a belief that the old ways are best; a suspicion that writing created on a computer is something less than a craft.

While I do think every writer has to find what is comfortable for them, what helps them write best, this idea that technology itself is a hindrance to creativity strikes me as a bit silly.

I'll even concede the point that what's best isn't necessarily what's most efficient. As Hemingway pointed out, writing isn't a race.

For some, writing longhand provides a reflective process that allows them to distill their thoughts in a way that results in a better story or article. For others, the ergonomics of a typewriter — or even the audio accompaniment it provides — help create a mood that allows them to get in touch with their creative side.

But that doesn't mean that the word processor isn't equally capable of turning out inspired writing. Not that anything I've written is necessarily inspired, but nearly all of it has been done on a word processor — and that's going back some 22 years.

Now, I realize I was ahead of the curve. Not many writers of my generation (I'm 40) grew up with word processors. But I was 14 or so when my dad built his first home-brew computer, and just 17 when he bought an Atari 400 computer with the AtariWriter word processor and a dot-matrix printer.

I've been hooked since.

When writing, the computer — well, the word processing software — is an extension of me. I can type far faster on a computer than on a typewriter (for several reasons), which means I can get my ideas out in front of me in raw form before I lose them. The only faster way is to dictate them.

The reason I can type faster on a computer than a typewriter is due mainly to the non-permanent nature of a word processing document: Mistakes don't scare me. Typos, grammatical errors, dangling particples — all those screw-ups that would have resulted in an entire page being ripped from the typewriter and tossed into the trash can just don't matter with a word processor.

I can simply type in what thought or string I have in my head, knowing that I can go back and fix it later.

It's a sense of freedom that, for me anyway, allows for a greater creativity on the word processor than in any analog mode.

Professor Harry Polkinhorn — a really sharp literature professor at San Diego State — predicted more than a decade ago that the computer would prove to be a more profound advance in communications than Gutenberg's press. Polkinhorn argued then — in a course I took on language and writing — that the computer presented such a new manner of writing that it would actually change the creative process.

I think he's right.

The ability to move blocks of text around, to manipulate a document, to search for a word to see if you've already used it — all these tools add to a writer's arsenal.

When you have the freedom so simply go with the flow, knowing you can fix the details later, it gives you as a writer that same freedom to explore and improvise that sound recording equipment gave composers. Few contemporary songwriters eschew the tape recorder, because they know now that if they forget the specifics of a passage while trying to write it down, they can go back and rescue it.

The word processor provides the same safety net for the writer of words. I can't imagine writing any other way.

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