Computer: "the enemy of careful writing"

Annie Proulx (The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain) seldom gives interviews, so I was pleased to discover this one,,0,3383917.story

even more pleased to find her making an argument I’ve been trying to support for… oh, for about as long as “word processing” has been an unavoidable fact of life. (I don’t remember the exact date, but it has to go back at least thirty years, to when I was in technology studies and a friend in computer science foisted something like an early version of WordStar on me.)

Anyway, Proulx’s comment:

I’ve always liked Proulx’s work. I read Shipping News before I saw the movie, and read many of her short stories – though I somehow missed “Brokeback Mountain” until after the movie came out. And she’s a curmudgeon, an honorific I cherish. And she’s the same age as me, always a strong connection, especially for old people who’ve reached the point where they generally avoid giving advice to the young. It’s not that we don’t know better; it’s that we know you won’t believe us until you get here and find it out for yourselves.

Though by the time you get here, writing by hand may have gone the way of multiplication tables and the passenger pigeon.


News flash: Already happened!

You and Annie are right. You don’t have to be old to know it, you just have to write by hand to know it. Writing at the keyboard is so clearly a shortcut, but it is such an attractive shortcut that it will take more technology, not less, to save writing by hand. Say, elegant digitizing pens with truly reliable handwriting-recognition software…

I suspect I won’t be the only one saying this, but the computer made me a writer. I’m just old enough to have had arguments with my grade school teachers about whether I should be allowed to type assignments. Their skepticism evaporated when the quality of my writing went from clumsy to fluent, because I had a racing brain that was constantly butting up against the constraints of the pencil.

If longhand works for Annie Proulx, good for Annie Proulx.

I love Proulx’s work. If it works for her then it is powerful ju-ju and worth thinking about. I went to a talk by Patrick Gale (Notes at an Exhibition) and he also writes longhand. He even passed around his notebooks with his handwritten first draft. I think it depends on who you are. I type fast and don’t have the same problem of deciphering that I have with my handwriting. Terry Pratchett once said that ‘typing is the same as thinking’, referring to how his Alzheimer’s was slowing him down - and that the at of typing and creating are one in the same.

If it works for him that is also powerful ju-ju and worth thinking about.

Print is the enemy of careful writing. Ask any mediaeval monk.

Bah Humbug


I’m afraid I’m with the computer on this one.

The quality of work I produce long-hand is about 1/10th the quality of what I produce on computer. A session can’t last as long without my hand getting tired and my writing getting awkward. The page ends up looking like a horrible mess of cross-outs and arrows and everything else…

I like the romantic notion of writing long-hand in a notebook, just like I like the notion of reading a book in the sun. In truth, neither live up to the ideal for me.

I couldn’t dream of writing as much as I have and do if I had to write it with a pen.

Back in highschool we got our first computer but I’d still wrote a lot by hand while travelling and during class. I’d type it up later.
But I’d got most of my thoughts out when typing. I learned myself to touch type just so I could type it all up fast, as fast as I could think it up. Right now I really should not write with a pen, unless absolutely necessary. The arthritis in my hand does not appreciate pen-writing (I can manage drawing with pens a lot better than writing, so I do still draw by hand).
All in all, I believe one should pick their best option, the option that makes writing enjoyable (but perhaps some like to suffer for their art, they probably want to go for the other option then).

I agree somewhat with ‘it’s not about the tools’, but not absolutely. Yes, you can write with a 5ct pen, you don’t need a 100 euro one, but having a very cheap 5ct pen that leaks and leaves smudges all over your work and your hands covered with ink, doesn’t really make you want to write that much probably.
You can also write on your computer in a very plain text-editor instead of a 300 euro programme, but saving all your scraps in one big text file might make it a bit more confusing than necessary.
So you get the 15 euro pen, and the $39.95 programme, that make you happy and want to write. :slight_smile:

We’re all different people with different needs to find writing enjoyable, and we owe it to ourselves to find that need. No matter what some famous writer thinks :wink:


Random aside re: pens

Oddly enough I’ve always found the cheap bic crystal to be the best ballpoint out there.

I have this beautiful hardwood pen that my cousin made; it fits my hand perfectly, it’s pleasantly heavy without being an excessive weight - but I have a horrible time finding refills that don’t smudge or clog - and one refill for that pen can cost more than two 12-packs of bic crystals.

Go figure.

This is like Gillette sending you a free super-duper razor in the mail and then making lots of money on the custom blade refills. Clever cousin! (For shame, cousin! For shame!)

If you think about it KB did this to all of us. “Here, try this free for 30 days. Once you are hooked …”

For those of you with no sense of humor [size=125]THIS IS A JOKE[/size]. Keith’s strategy is a model for other businesses.

I use both methods. Some things get written by hand because it’s more convenient at that moment. Other things are done on the computer because that’s more convenient at that moment. Close to a fifty-fifty split, really.

Maybe two-thirds of my first novel was done by hand in notebooks, with very significant work being done between runs as a pizza delivery guy.

I do print it out and do all editing by hand, as I find this a lot easier, and ugly cross-outs and arrows are to be expected… in fact, they are the sole purpose.


The Deliverator!!

…hate it when I miss somethin` that obvious!! :frowning:

Suppose yre feelin all smug now :frowning:

dang right I was!

Rural Colorado, 60 mph down a gravel county road in an old Jeep Cherokee, catchin’ air… 8)

I’m sure you’ve seen this already, but this sums up the whole technology thing for me… … re=related

I think dependence on the “Spell Checker” killed careful writing.


This is actually a more interesting topic than people usually suppose. Background: I took up typing at a very early age by popular request, typed everything, then got a computer and found writing difficult. Took to pens and pencils (fountain pens and woodless pencils; fussy). Reading around it seems that writing instruments may govern what part of the brain is used to write; the bodily mechanics of writing may differ according to the tool you use to write. So writing with a computer IS different from writing with a typewriter which differs from a pen. And so on. It would be interesting actually to test this theory, but it seems plausible and accounts for the fervency of writers’ preferences for pens, pencils, particular typewriters, and software!

Well, I couldn’t disagree more, at least in my case: the computer makes me a better, quicker, yet more careful writer, no doubt about it. But I’ve taught enough writers to know that it’s a hugely subjective enterprise: what works for some won’t for others. I have to produce lots of copy on deadline. Being able to see a draft that at least resembles print is a godsend.

I think it would be highly unlikely that the action itself, the mechanical aspect of how one conveys their thoughts, is substantially altered by the technological artefact they are using. Typing, writing, shorthand, dictation—all of these involve sub-systems of the mind that are highly efficient at what they do and (for most of us) are extremely automatic.

Now, what does make a substantial psychological difference is the Outfit Effect. You feel substantially different; your posture will change; your attitude toward life; even aspects of your personality can subtly shift; all depending on whether you are wearing a formal outfit instead of a sweat-suit. For some writers, a candle and a pen is their formal outfit. For others its a laptop in a coffee shoppe. Others need whiskey. Others cannot stand anything other than their specific brand of manual typewriter. Some need Word. Others need full screen. It’s all just suiting up, and what we suit into is different for every one of us.

Most of the arguments I’ve heard against computers are highly specific to the person (fussing about the particulars of an outfit they don’t like) making the arguments, or they are not even making it in relation to themselves. They blame the grammar check software and so on but then hastily reassure they don’t use these programs. Doesn’t seem like much of an argument then.