The Death of Writing

James Fallows points out that not everybody back in 1980 believed the computer would replace the typewriter as a writing implement, and that his prediction that the device would be useful incurred the wrath of, among others, the late David Halberstam. James offered to write some articles on a computer, some on a typewriter, and offer a prize to anyone who could tell the difference. No-one took him up.

I recall Bruce Chatwin saying that he could always tell which books had been written on a word processor and which hadn’t. And, funnily enough, I disagree with James’ assertion that:

As is obvious to everyone now, but as was not obvious to most people then, the “sound” of people’s writing is overwhelmingly their own sound, not that of the ThinkPad or the quill pen or the Number 2 pencil or even, gasp, the Macintosh.

I don’t think the ‘sound’ is the issue. The real difference between the two technologies is that a computer transfers some of the creating process from the head to its RAM. Anyone who has written on a typewriter will know that it’s less painful to compose before committing anything to the page, since the price of correction is so high. So the words, once they come out are much more likely to be the final words one uses. Computers meanwhile, allow indefinite revision, so the composition process takes place on the screen.

 I’m not saying one is better, although I think I probably wrote better when I had a typewriter. I used to take more care over my words; I definitely wrote less, too, which has to have been a good thing. When I joined the BBC in 1987, we only had manual typewriters, and my colleagues looked down their nose at my Canon Typestar, which allowed me to compose a line in the tiny LCD before committing it to the paper. In retrospect, I think they were right: My writing went downhill from then on.

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2 thoughts on “The Death of Writing

  1. I don’t know if you are still around, seeing as the post is a bit dated, but I find your words ring true – all the more today, 4 years after you wrote them. I struggle with this continuous self-correction, self-editing, countless re-writes. I think you are right that it is the lack of composition in our heads before we write which is the problem.
    A lot of what I read today does not actually speak to me. The words don’t jump off the page and into my head and create the story. They somehow seem more cumbersome, the words are heavier than the content. Did you notice that too? Because of this, I have a hard time finding a book which would simply take me away, immersed in the story, without the intrusion of the sound of my brain rattling while de-coding the words on the page – the words into which the story is wrapped.
    I guess people spend a lot of time poring over technique, rather than writing from their heads. That, too can be connected with the technological aspect of our writing. I know for me it is not nearly as satisfactory to write on the computer as it is on paper. However, the art of manual writing is crumbling.
    I went to write a couple letters – actual hand-written ones – and I found myself really struggling trying to try and put my ideas together. They were all over the place. I didn’t know how to start. Isn’t that pathetic? My own deterioration that is so marked by the use of modern technology, makes me wonder whether we are able to read, write, or comprehend the intent of our communication the same way anymore. Whether we ever will be again. And it makes me sad.
    Our attention spans are so short and diffused already anyway.
    Well, before this becomes a novel, I want to thank you for this short but interesting article. I hope you are making a good use of the newest modern gadget, but mostly the one that we need to rely on most – the brain. :)

  2. Thoughtful stuff, Kathy, and thanks for the comment. I think it’s a great idea to try to write on different media (pen, typewriter, dictation, computer) as a way to improve the brain’s ability to compose, given that it is, like everything else in our body, a muscle that needs regular exercise.

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