Vision: A Resource for Writers

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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 The task of banging out that all-important first draft like Kerouac on a weekend bender typing The Subterraneans has been replaced by endless fiddling with sentences.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 tracking.

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.