Writing online and on paper

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 19, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Yesterday, I visited the Vancouver Pen Shop. The hoarded refills for my favorite pen had run out after a decade. However, to my annoyance, the Very Fine nibs I prefer are no longer being manufactured. They are a victim of the computer age -- apparently, the number of people still using pens has dwindled to the point where a selection of nibs is no longer economical. I regret the loss, because those nibs helped determine how I wrote by hand, which is very different from how I write on the keyboard.

(And no, this will not be one of those laments for lost technology, in case you were wondering.)

Time was when I never would have considered writing on a computer. I wrote all my university essays by hand, and most of my thesis as well. At the time, I was convinced that my clarity of thought was tied to the muscular rhythms of handwriting. As long as the pen kept moving, the continuity of my thoughts would continue to develop. If I stopped, then my entire perception of the structure would come crashing down, and I would have to copy a previous paragraph or two so that I could rediscover the structure through the muscle memory of forming those words. Often, restoring that perception  could take an hour or more.

For the final draft, I would write using a very fine nib, as small and as careful as I could. If I hesitated, I took that as a sign that the wording was not quite right, and would go back and fix it. Only at the end of this process would I turn to the typewriter or the computer.

As a means of producing high quality work, this method was successful enough to take me through university while I paid most of my way with scholarships. However, it took a degree of concentration that was easily disrupted and regained with difficulty. Most of all, it was slow and took at least three drafts before it was ready to type.

Going digital
However, as I wrote my thesis, I started to realize that these work habits would never do -- not if I hoped to finish my degree before I reached the end of my funding. As a result, about two-thirds of the way through my thesis, I bought my first computer.

The way I learned the computer was a series of misadventures in itself. For example, I learned the importance of backup after a lightning strike directly overhead took out the resistors on the motherboard. But, more to the point, what I had learned earlier in briefer experiments was emphasized more strongly than ever: transferring thoughts from the keyboard to the hard drive was a very different experience from transferring them from my pen to paper.

For one thing, I was not only using both hands instead of just my left, but the muscles in my fingers were moving differently than when I gripped a pen. Instead of being a constant series of motions, my writing was a series of separate movements as I pressed the keys.

These changes meant a change in how I accessed my thought processes. I was remoter from them, no longer requiring so deep a concentration. The change was unsettling, but it meant that I could be interrupted more easily -- which my partner appreciated -- and return to work without backtracking a paragraph or two. I still occasionally backtrack, but, these days I only need to go back a sentence and I'm in the groove within minutes. Considering all the distractions on the computer, that's probably just as well.

In fact, going digital seemed to improve my memory. At the keyboard, I could retain my mental sense of structure longer, and was less likely to lose it. This change probably has something to do with the fact that I can see what I type, and the light from the terminal makes it seem more authoritative and significant -- and therefore more worth remembering -- than anything handwritten.

Best of all, almost immediately, I found that I required fewer drafts to produce acceptable work. If anything, the concept of drafts almost disappeared from my work, because text online is so easy to reposition and reword. Instead of writing a draft from the beginning, I am more likely to simply re-read what I have written, revising when the wording or the argument makes me falter as I read.

All these changes added up to a briefer, less frustrating process than writing had ever been on paper. I had less time to grow bored, and I was writing more -- which is always the surest way to improve your style.

The only disturbing aspect of the change was that I found my style changing, as well. At first my sentences were longer, although I had been expecting that after observing other writers, and soon learned to compensate.

More importantly, although my style stayed relatively formal, it was much less formal than what I wrote by hand. Qualifications like "probably" and "apparently" were less common, reserved only for cases of definite doubt rather than being used because of diffidence. My written voice became more forceful, although to me the second hand Yorkshire accent that comes through when I speak remains part of my writing as well.

At first, noticing these changes felt like I had somehow switched bodies without noticing. Eventually, though, I decided that I could not only endure the changes, but actually preferred them. With much less of a transition than I had expected, I quickly settled down to writing on the computer.

Staying at the keyboard
Increasingly, we hear about how people read differently online than on paper. Readers are supposed to read less carefully online, with less retention but more credibility. Probably, it will take years to understand the differences fully -- to answer why, for example,ebooks are levelling off in popularity, and hard copy books are enjoying a resurgence.

However, the question of how people write online is just as interesting and much less studied, or at least reported on. Yet I think it at least as interesting.

Stephen King, as well as some other writers, have recently experimented with writing longhand to see what the differences are. Others speak of the sensuous pleasure of a fine pen or linen paper, lamenting their loss for the keyboard.

However, while I appreciate a quality pen, I am unlikely to experiment with longhand composition, or sigh for the feeling of a pen between my fingerprints. Aside from some lengthy scribbled notes and a poem I wrote on a Palm pilot while flying to Indianapolis, I have never seriously tried to handwrite anything since I made the transition. Nor have I ever wanted to. For me, writing on a computer is unmitigated improvement over my old habits, with no disadvantage that give make me a reason to experiment with alternatives.

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