By Scott Warner
Copyright © 2008 by Scott Warner, All Rights Reserved
Handwritten or typewritten?
Windows or Mac? Word or Word Perfect? Spell check or dictionary? Sans
serif or serif? To paraphrase Camus, writing is the sum of our choices.
To write your best, it's important to limit some of those choices.
Yogi Berra said, "If you
come to a fork in the road, take it." But it isn't that easy. Social
scientist Barry Schwartz has written in The Paradox of Choice
that today's blizzard of options is making us miserable. Whether salad
dressing, car stereos, or software, too much of a good thing can
immobilize. Once made, a decision is unlikely to pleasantly surprise.
With all the choices we have, it's too easy to imagine a better one.
Writers know all about that
problem. To create means to bring into existence. And when a
writer flips to a new tablet page, feeds a fresh sheet of paper into a
typewriter, or opens a new word processor document, he has practically
infinite choices. A pen stroke or key press has the potential
energy of a brilliant insight, turn of phrase, or poetic image. And
there the writer sits, poised on that all-or-nothing threshold.
Facing that blank page,
we're already at risk for what Randall Garrett once called "writer's
snowblindedness." We are the last people who need more choice.
On the other hand, a
writer's methods in the era of digital composition present
choices that are new. The image of grizzled Papa Hemingway standing up
and two-fingering a Remington is gone, replaced by laptops that respond
instantly to any whim. The task of banging out that all-important
first draft like Kerouac on a weekend bender typing The Subterraneans
has been replaced by endless fiddling with sentences. And the lone
writer trudging to the study to edit a five-pound manuscript tucked
under one arm, blue pencil between lips, has been replaced with
automatic spell checkers, automatic grammar checkers, and version
An inner drive to create is
what makes the writer unique. We all write for different reasons and in
different ways. And this need to write is unlikely to change, no
matter what choices appear.
Most writers have the sense
that starting a path leads to an inevitable destination. But the
modern ease of changing that path along the way presents a problem. The
choice of word processor, font, printer, backup media, or whether
to chuck technology and write in longhand on a legal pad can shift a
writer's mind away from the task at hand.
Editing on the fly makes it
too easy to wonder how much better something can sound (what
Schwartz calls "the cost of opportunity"), keeping a writer from letting
his mind do the work. Computer generated voices from the robotic
Microsoft Sam to the more natural-sounding Cepstral David can literally
echo your writing. Other software tools -- automatic this or that -- can
be distractions or, worse, can keep a writer from genuinely crafting
and shaping words into ideas.
While some choice is good,
too much is bad. Straw, for instance, suggests huts. But too many
building blocks can suggest too many kinds of buildings. It's easy to
forget the building is the main thing. And for a writer, words
are always the building blocks. To remain focused on task in our
electronic age, try limiting your choices up front:
Try writing in longhand.
It's portable, energy efficient, and for some writers more creative
in the sense of drawing, i.e. using the right side of the brain. You
can even use it in the tub (try that with a laptop).
Try pounding the keys of
a manual typewriter two-fingered. If it was good enough for
Hemingway, it's good enough for you.
If composing on a
computer, choose your word processor, font, spacing, naming system,
etc. before you start, and avoid changing it.
Don't let software
dictate your writing. Microsoft isn't the writer -- you are.
Turn off automatic grammar checking and keep a guide such as The
Elements of Style on your desk or in your back pocket.
Don't print a hard copy
of every little revision. Let your mind do the writing and
use the software as a tool.
Make a commitment to
write and focus on creative choices that affect the content and
not the shape of your work.
McLuhan said "the medium is
the message," but for writers the message is always the message.
If choosing how you create is distracting from the act of
creating, that's probably a bad thing. If it's important to make these
choices of form and method, it might be better to do so before starting
the task itself. A plethora of choice can easily distract a writer from
starting, finishing, and (most importantly) submitting a work. Save your
energy for making the important choices in writing that affect the
writing, and you'll go the distance.