Writing with Computers Too Easy

By Hugh Ashton

Last week we looked at antiques: quill pens, fountain pens, and typewriters. And so we come to word processors and computers.

The word processor brings obvious advantages to writers. The ease with which you can write and revise, having typing and spelling mistakes corrected as you go, leads to…carelessness. I’m not simply referring to over-reliance on spell-checkers – that’s been covered adequately in other articles* on this site – but to sloppy style and composition.

It’s all too easy, as I have found in my nearly 30 years of using word processing software (I started with WordStar 3.1 on CP/M80 for the archeologists among you), to write using these tools. The obvious advantage is that it is easy to go back and change your words and your mind about what you want to say. But one of the serious disadvantages is that you can write half a sentence, break off and come back to write the other half, which may not match the first half in style, content or overall meaning.

Of course, this is technically possible with any other writing method – but somehow it seemed harder to stop in the middle of a sentence with a pen or a typewriter. In any case, with a typewriter, you felt honor-bound to finish the page. Dropping one piece of writing mid-sentence, taking out the sheet of paper, re-setting margins, etc. and continuing the original on the re-inserted piece of paper usually didn’t work too well.

This ability to stop writing a sentence, do something else, and continue from where you left off without always finishing the thought with which you started can make for very disjointed writing.

The “something else” can be totally unconnected with writing (food breaks and the like) or can be something writing- and computer-related (e.g. answering an e-mail message or Twitter message – in a completely different writing style to the one used in your main writing assignment) or can even be within the same document, going back and revising something that’s already been written.

While writing this piece, I’ve been guilty of all three types of mid-sentence breaks. Can you see them? I hope not, because I do go back and re-read what I have written, matching style and making sure the logic flows neatly from one part to the next.

However, it does seem painfully obvious to me reading some writing (including some of my own past work) that the flow of thought hasn’t been checked, and that the “first fine careless rapture” is the final published product.

It may not be as exciting to polish a diamond as to dig it out of the ground, but unpolished uncut diamonds are not nearly as valuable as their processed counterparts. Take time to polish your gems before putting them on display to the world.

More about word processors next week.

*Spell Check isn’t foolproof

Site, sight, and the spell check syndrome

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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5 Responses to “Writing with Computers Too Easy”

  • Brad K.

    I propose that the tool, the computer, or word processing software, is not the problem.

    The problem is a combination of affluence, of a rich cacophony of interests and distractions in one’s life, and a corresponding dearth of persistence, focus, and attention to the task at hand.

    That, and going cheap – using devices to bring “quality” – correctness, accuracy, suitability, competence and persuasiveness – to a piece of work, rather than investing and relying on mature and talented editing. Yes, computer spell checkers are great, and grammar checkers are capable, if used well, of providing immediate and useful feedback to a writer. But the occasional misused work, improper phrasing, etc. still begs a human understanding to apply a more complete standard.

    Writing in one’s jail cell, or alone in an isolated shack, or huddled amidst poverty or tragedy – distraction is likely less an issue. Should the writer have to isolate himself/herself? In some fashion, I think that is required. Not necessarily physical isolation from distraction – or even mere interruption – but maintaining a perspective takes time to achieve. And time, again, to re-immerse in the story being told.

    Whether art, poetry, prose, mathematics, or meditation, it takes conscious direction to align the thoughts and perceptions to achieve continuity.

    Picture the old-time story teller. A good aural tale might take a couple minutes to create the setting for the story, introduce the actors, express the story, and conclude the story and release the audience. Or it might take five (5) or twenty (20) minutes, at times. The skill of the story includes holding the story, and the audience, through distractions and interruptions. Why should the writer not expect to have to master that skill?

    The reader faces similar distractions and interruptions – noises going on, phone calls or meeting times occurring while reading a piece or a book. Locating the place that reading stopped, perhaps backing up and re-reading a phrase or paragraph or three, and the voice, the tone, the story line can be recaptured, and reading resumed with slight loss of delight, of interest, or of understanding.

    Just as ink, and later the pen, relieved the writer from worry about keeping the writing intact until the piece is read by the reader, modern word processing relieves the writer of much checking of spelling and some grammar, often in a way that in turn instructs the writer, to improve the use of language. If the word processor supports an illusion that writing is “better”, that is unfortunate. As unfortunate as accumulating a stack of paper (or shortened elevator scroll bar) is an illusion that art is being created, rather than just an expression of words and thoughts – that might become a persuasive writing or an entertaining fiction.

    I guess my point is that the true villain is not that word processing makes it easy to handle distractions poorly, to lose the voice or flow of the piece, but failing to acknowledge and respect the hazard that interruptions and distractions impose on creativity.

    TV ads, family, “multitasking” bosses may disregard the impact they have when they interrupt us. But when we take responsibility for being creative, we have to respect those seconds or minutes it takes to organize and immerse ourselves, to direct what we create.

  • Cecily

    In at least 25 years, I don’t think I have ever stopped typing on a computer mid-sentence, and I rarely stop mid paragraph.

    I would be very surprised if it was a common thing to do and so wonder why you assume that it is.

  • Erik

    I, on the other hand, probably haven’t ever written an entire paragraph without stopping.

  • Emma

    I’m impressed with Cecily’s ability to concentrate! I often find I get distracted part way through some writing. Granted, it’s often not “my” fault, but, for example, if the phone rings/someone knocks on my office door, I’m not able to ignore it & keep going.

    On the other hand, I do disable things like email when I’m trying to do something & minimise the chances of interruption.

    I read an article recently on “multitasking” & the fact that most people can’t do it well – I’ve just done a bit of a search & have found http://blogs.computerworld.com/14789/the_multitasking_myth – which wasn’t what I read – but I think is covering the same research!

  • John Soares

    I always finish my sentences, but admit that I’m guilty of occasionally losing focus due to distractions.

    One thing that helps me minimize distractions: no automatic notifications on my computer of incoming e-mail, tweets, etc.

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