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Monday, January 19, 2009

Keyboard or Quill?

The Washington Post features a charming study by Joseph J. Ellis (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary Generation, pictured). It is called The Writing Life, and sub-titled "Why the pen is mightier than the laptop."

I know several authors who swear by the pen. They write their manuscripts in longhand, and Mr. Ellis, it seems, is of the same mind. People, he says, call him old-fashioned, even anachronistic, and strongly recommend that he dump his beloved pens in favor of a laptop.

The spirit is willing, or so he says, but habit prevails. It begins with taking notes in writing as he goes through his research material -- something which no research assistant can do, as there is not a research assistant alive who can pick out the little gems from the mass of manuscript -- the little golden nuggets that are going to breathe vigor into the final book.

That is usual enough. I know from my own experience that there are not many people a historian can trust to find exactly the apt little tidbits needed. But Joseph Ellis then settles down to write the first draft of his manuscript by hand.

The "symmetry between the muscular movement of my hand and the flow of ideas in my head," he says, would be "destroyed by a keyboard," which, poetically he adds, "becomes an alien intruder in the dialogue within myself."

H'm. Does he finish up with scratched-out scribbles, pages torn and pasted in a different order? He doesn't say, but that would be the inevitable state of anything I tried to write by hand. And I would be forced to use a pencil. With an eraser on the end.

So I have to confess it: from the very first word of the very first draft, I am wedded to the computer. The keyboard functions as a smooth conduit between what passes as my brain and the unfolding story, and more often than not as I consult my own research notes my awkward writing baffles me and makes me angry. I abbreviate at whim, and half the time I can't decipher the result. I know without a shade of doubt that if I tried to write the draft, everything would be in the wrong order, and I wouldn't be able to cut and paste to set things right and make the damn thing flow. The keyboard is so much easier.

But then, I was taught to type properly, at the right age, which I believe is a huge advantage. I can touch type, which I notice very few people can do. It always amazes me that in this computer-driven age children and teenagers are not taught to type. Surely it should be a skill as basic as learning to write by hand?


Vanda Symon said...

I wish I could touch type - it would make the connection between my brain and my hands a little more efficient.

I tried to touch type this comment, and had to backspace and correct about 20 times. Maybe I should practice more.

If I wrote my first draft on paper, it would be a god-awful mess and I'd probably lose bits of it. I haven't lost a computer yet.

Carter said...

I wrote a biography back when computers were not yet dreamed of. The sheer labor involved in white-out, cut and paste--literally--was immense. But I still use use the Ellis method for doing research--nothing else works for me.

Now I write drafts on the computer. I touch-type very rapidly, and make lots of mistakes, but the spellchecker helps me catch the typos, and I still read the copy with a beady eye to catch things the checker doesn't. But it's vastly better than using a pen. I wrote a story once propped up in a motel bedroom--one of my favorites among my output--on a yellow lined pad. It worked, but the story was short.

I started using a computer back when they first became available--an Atari with no hard drive--and learned the new stuff as it came along, so I'm much better off than people who have to start learning now and face the enormous complexities of current software. I can see why that would be daunting. But the computer is far better for me.

Incidentally, I use Jarte as my word processor, not Word. Jarte is very simple, and Word is a horrible mess. I can save from Jarte in .doc, .rtf, or plain text, so that's no problem.

Still, chacun a son gout. Every writer should choose the implement that works best for her or him. I do recommend avoiding stone tablets, though--hernia operations are unpleasant.

Heather Frederick said...

I tend to start out writing with a pen and then switch over to my laptop once the ideas start flowing. It's a bit like priming the pump. I can type much faster than I can write (thanks to all those college secretarial jobs and years in a newsroom on deadline!), so eventually the pen becomes a frustration. But it does seem to help me jumpstart the process. Literary training wheels, as it were...

Linda Grant DePauw said...

Another reason to love a laptop

Battle Cries and Lullabies was the first book I wrote using a computer. I even took my notes on a computer. Using the search command I was then able to find in a moment anything in the files while with my earlier books much time was spent trying to locate the 3x5 card with the perfect quotation.

Even though in my younger days I learned calligraphy and wrote all my notes in a sweet Roman hand so that they were always legible, I could never go back again. Of course I am still nostalgic for the old ways which is the reason In Search of Molly Pitcher Is set in the closing years of the twentieth century so my heroine can still do research the old fashioned way.

Aspiring Writer said...

To take a break from the laptop I'll print off my work and sit somewhere else, then edit. Do you think I can even decipher what I've edited? My writing is terrible and it all started back in University days when taking notes in lectures. People call my writing chicken scratchings or Doctor prescriptions...