Tag Archives: writing

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Writing or Typing? It Seems to Matter

Edited notes of Walt Whitman– Library of Congress

Would Shakespeare’s prose scan differently if he had used Word?

In the Preface of his recent 700-page presidential biography Barack Obama observed that writing only works for him if he lays out what he wants to say in longhand. With his natural fluency he notes that “a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.” This is certainly a minority view these days, but this observation should give the rest of us some pause. He may be correct. Those of us who insistently invent our rhetoric at the keyboard should wonder if we have turned ourselves into typesetters first, and conveyors of significant meaning only when we can see past the instant formalism of text in pixels. Compositing in the frame of a word processor is its own satisfying act, but perhaps lets us drift away from the hard work of creating ideas worthy of the attention of others. Would Shakespeare’s prose sound differently if he had the use of Word? And what about Walt Whitman? His crossed-out scribbles seen in early drafts suggest he would have loved the ability to instantly copy, erase and edit.

And then there is the problem that some of us have that we cannot always read what we wrote. We need the help of a word processing program. The President probably did not have to transcribe his words into print. Others surely helped, and probably nudged a few errant nouns or verbs to their rightful places. But his point still stands.


We may not internalize ideas as well if we are typing them out.

One reason the choice of composition in longhand or at the keyboard is interesting is because we have some evidence that students are better notetakers if they are not using their laptops. Indeed, more university professors ban them from their classes, partly because of convincing research done at the Air Force Academy and elsewhere. These early studies suggest that we don’t internalize ideas quite as well when we are keying them in to a digital device.  The effects that play out here are a bit more subtle and complex, but we are generally more engaged when we must put thoughts down on the surface of a page.

I suspect that when we write in longhand, we look to our minds to reword what we have heard. That moment may be key. It means we have engaged with a topic differently than if we drift into a mode that is akin to taking dictation. An idea has gotten its hooks into us anytime we try to reword or simplify it.

Remember typewriters? I’m duty-bound to report that my best class in junior high school was–of all things–typing. My fingers could fly over an old Olivetti with few errors. But copying from the typing manual let my mind drift elsewhere. I had no idea what I was “writing.” Forty-five words a minute was not a problem, but this was a kind of dexterity more more akin to modern game-playing than engaging with ideas.

Now, as I wrap up a book, I have a disquieting reminder from the 44th President that I might have sometimes used my brain more than my mind.

letters in pile 1 e1591899273154

We Can All Use an Editor

Who hasn’t read something, including this blog, only to find a sudden and apparently unplanned descent into verbal mayhem?  Perhaps the author didn’t notice his elbow resting on the keyboard. Or maybe the four-legged member of the family decided to add a few keystrokes.

Creating sentences on paper or in pixels poses lifelong challenges.  Even accomplished writers usually demur if you tell them they are masters of their craft. Most will admit to writing in drafts that can number in the double digits, and most share the almost universal experience of re-reading old material with the nagging feeling that it could have been better. Writing is one skill that is rarely mastered, or so I would like to believe.  Literacy is a lifelong project. Even so, an occasional stray word left in the wrong neighborhood is not the largest problem. Difficulties arise at the other end of the continuum, where what appears “finished” to a novice is only a pale version of what could be.  Early drafts deserve to be thoroughly marked up, preferably by a second set of eyes.

Everyone needs an editor. We should expect to hire one or dragoon a friend into the role.  And why not? Academic presses often send a manuscript out to three experts for review before they green-light a book. Good surgeons often welcome another set of eyes to review scans and x-rays.  Playwrights do workshop readings to discover dead passages or weak second acts.  And advertisers use illustrators to ‘mock up’ storyboards for television commercials before they commit to a full-scale film shoot.  Rare is a  writer like John McPhee, who is so thorough in his research and phrasing that an editor might seem unnecessary.

Everyone needs an editor. Another set of eyes will improve almost any text.

I plead with my students to try out their work on others they know. This is perhaps the single best reason to have a college roommate.  But I still get projects that describe Washington and Jefferson as “too pivotal presidents,” or analyses of “communication problems that defy easy remededeys.”  And woe to folks who count on being bailed out by a computer spell-check program.  My computer was fine with the word “dissent” in the original pull-quote at the top of this piece.

These cases may sound like this need is limited to professionals. But recall the last time you read a family’s holiday letter that revealed more about one of its members than better judgment would allow. Johnny may not want everyone to know that he’s been “challenged” to complete his remedial math course. Such a letter probably should have been vetted by someone else with a more protective instinct.

The need for an outsider’s input is also apparent for missives that come from a manager who says too much or includes too little.  For example, it would be helpful to know the day and time for that important meeting that she has just announced. And every person mentioned in such a piece has the right to expect that their name will be spelled correctly. Smart managers will usually welcome a second pair of eyes, but certainly not all. The most insecure may not appreciate being saved from errors by more literate underlings.

Who hasn’t read this blog only to find passages where the best explanations for the sudden disintegration of a sentence is that the writer experienced an errant brain synapse?  It’s the curse of blogging that pieces are sent into the world too soon, with the equivalent of torn seams, buttons missing and tags still attached.