Word Processing

The Whatever has a fair share of visitors who are professional writers (and an equally fair share of visitors who could/will be pro writers, when/if the capricious gods of publishing align their stars in the correct configuration), so let me throw this out to y’all:

As most of you know, I’m 35, and I started writing in earnest when I was 14 years old, which, as it happens, is the same time that the original Mac debuted. What this means is that I have never written anything of any appreciable length — anything — that I didn’t write on a computer (or at the very least, a computerized word processor). As a consequence, my writing process has developed with the word creation and editing capabilities of the computer in mind. Indeed, is tied to it to such an extent that the mere thought of trying to write anything of any length — more than a few hundred words — without the aid of a computer fills me with a certain amount of dread and terror.

Nor do I think I’m alone in this — as I said, I’m 35, which ain’t exactly young (not exactly old, either, harumph, harumph, but I’m not, shall we say, any longer in the freshly-spritzed bloom of youth), and there’s an entire generation of writers my age (give or take five years) who also have always used the computer as their primary writing tool. Not to mention the entire generation of adults younger than I, who I assume are aware of typewriters, but may never have seen one in actual professional use.

So, writers: Can you honestly imagine trying to write a full-length book or novel (we’re talking 60,000+ words) without a computer? Or, for those of you alive and publishing in the terrifying days before computers, can you imagine going back to that? I’m simply curious.

As an aside to this, apart from the pure and simple mechanical issues of writing on a computer, I do wonder to how much my writing style is predicated on my writing tool — i.e., to what extent my “voice” is due to working on a computer rather than a typewriter or (eeeeeegh) pen and paper. I suspect it’s a not insignificant amount, although it would be hard to quantify without actually trying to write something like a novel with another writing tool, and I don’t know if my curiosity on the matter extends that far.

58 Comments on “Word Processing”

  1. Well, I’m not published (yet), but I can chime in — I definitely am shaped by the computer, but also find that what I use depends on moment, mood, and what exactly I’m doing. Short stories often start life handwritten. Novel? Not sure what I would do, but can probably say I wouldn’t pull a Neil Gaiman and write out the first draft completely by hand. Maybe parts. As for editing, I definitely can’t imagine not using a word processor. (For the record, I’m 34)

    One thing, though — am I the only one who hates hates HATES the term “word processor?” What a lifeless phrase…

  2. I didn’t start writing in earnest until after high school, when I got my own electric typewriter with erase function. (High tech! Woo hoo!) That was in 1985 or 86. When I started shacking up with my girlfriend in 1991 (She’s now my wife.), I dumped the rattle-trap for her Canon word-processor.

    I’ve tried writing long hand. Can never get far with it. Could probably have mastered the typewriter easily enough, but know I could never write a 60,000 word manuscript long hand. I think I did it once, long before I decided to do this “for real.” The rewrite was done on a Windows 95 Frankenputer, took three weeks less time, and ended up 1/3 longer.

    I need the keys under my fingers. And I need something that looks like print to guage where I am. I’m a spoiled child of the technology revolution, even though I missed the Mac.

    And I’m 38, John, so I understand about the waning youth. (Too young to do, to old to… Well, not for much yet, but I can feel it all coming.)

  3. I started writing longhand and on a typewriter, and actually finished my first novel (juvenilia–Interminable Quest Fantasy, complete with incognito dragon and unthroned queen and Christ figure) longhand in a bunch of those cloth-bound notebooks.

    I didn’t get a computer of my very own until I was a junior in college. (I didn’t exactly grow up middle class.)

    And I still give my drafts one going-over in hardcopy at least–but I now chiefly compose on the computer, and it is infinitely preferable. *INfinitey.* However, I carry a paper notebook with me everywhere and occasionally draft entire scenes in it.

    The chief difference I notice is that the longhand scenes are skeletal, because I know I’ll be typing them and adding bits when I do.

  4. I wrote my first novel (well, actually my fifth novel, but my first *published* one) partly at the computer and partly in longhand. I write most of my stories longhand. I’m working on a new novel now, and expect to do the entire first draft with pen-on-paper, and will do my first round of revision when I type it into the computer.

    I don’t think one form is superior to the other, though. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, typed my first stories on an electric, and switched to a computer in college. (I’m only 28, but my family couldn’t afford to buy me a computer when I was in high school, hence the more low-tech experiences.)

    I think there might be some small qualitative difference for me, between writing longhand and using a computer. I’ve never been able to compose poetry at a computer, for instance, only longhand. I feel closer to the language when I write longhand, so if style is more-than-usually important (as in a poem), longhand is marginally better. In practice, though, I rather doubt a reader could pick out which of my stories had been composed longhand and which on a computer.

    I went to a week-long writing workshop last year with a bunch of neo-pros, and I was the *only* one who didn’t bring some form of computer to write on.

    The main reason I write a lot longhand is because I spend all day at a computer for my dayjob — which is mostly writing and editing — and it’s psychologically useful for me to differentiate the two forms of writing. It’s also easier on my wrists to write longhand after a day spent at the computer.

  5. I’m 37, and I left for college with a shiny new electric typewriter, but at the end of my freshman year of college, I wrote my last paper of the year on a word processor–and got to bed before midnight (a first on a paper-due night), and decided this was the way I wanted to work.

    For a while I used the campus computers as a sort of typewriter with really good correction abilities–wrote a first draft of each paper by longhand, then typed the details in. Been a long time since I could conceive of writing more than a few pages that way, though.

    When I graduated and decided to take my fiction seriously, I purchased a computer with the last of my student loan money. I’m honestly not sure I would have managed to start producing professional level work without it–it would have taken a lot longer, at any rate.

  6. Over the holidays, my wife snapped a picture of the
    Claes Oldenburg sculpture of a giant typewriter eraser in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.


    When she posted her pictures for her chat group to see, there were a number of members of the group that had no idea what it was.

  7. Actually, I write ALL of my longer pieces (the novel I’m working on, long feature stories, long articles, etc) by HAND, on yellow pads of paper, then switch it over to the computer when it’s all edited and proofed. It’s just the way I started doing things, and I’ve kept at it. For shorter pieces (blog entries, quick articles, lists, e-mails, whatever) I type directly into the computer.

    And I say this as a Mac geek, who started using an old Apple SE back around ’86. I’m 39, so I have you by four years John (and don’t fool yourself – you’re old, old, old! Heh…just kidding), and I can’t imagine life without a computer or two in my home. But there’s something comforting and immediate and safe about pen and paper (and typewriters…but that’s another debate!)

  8. I can’t really imagine doing anything creative longhand. It’s not the editing I’d miss; it’s the speed. I can type about 85 WPM. My handwriting is slow, oversized, and so sloppy that even I have trouble making it out sometimes.

  9. Poetry longhand as mentioned by others earlier and for the same reasons.

    All my future unpublished novels on the computer using actual word-processing software. There is no need to fear Word, WordPerfect, or Open Office. I can’t abide these dilettante’s that use notepad like it will somehow protect them from the over-featured MS Office cooties.

    Ironically, I have created settings in the my themes and Word that make the screen look like an old CRT–green text on black screen. It helps me focus and forget the temptation of the web a click away.

  10. being close to
    double the age of many of you
    I bring you the good news
    that not even that
    has to be old_____

    as for writing instruments

    as a kid writer
    I handwrote
    handwriting kept
    getting more and more
    difficult to read

    then I moved up
    technologically speaking:
    the typewriter I first wrote on
    was way before correctible
    or even white-out
    and it was a miserable experience
    (mistakes necessitating re-typing
    whole pages)

    after several decades
    of not writing
    I can only say
    I can scarcely write

    and when
    in my car or out in the world
    I am moved to write something
    on the back of deposit slips
    or in a steno pad
    or on graph paper
    (the latter two my preferred papers)
    I feel stilted and stifled

    can’t imagine
    spending the 5-8 hours a day
    I do, writing
    if I didn’t have my computer

  11. My first word processor was AppleWriter, on the the Apple II+, circa 1982, I think… I didn’t have a printer, though, so I would type & edit on the word processor, and then turn the screen to face the typewriter, and manually re-type the whole damn thing once I had it right. That way, white-out was reserved just for typos…

    I’m not a professional writer, but I do write quite a bit at work, and for the life of me, I don’t see how anyone could stand an environment where one is forced to write so much slower than he thinks.

    My brain gets ahead of me on the computer, and I can type close to 100 wpm. Pen & paper would drive me through a wall…

  12. PJ O’Rourke stubbornly refuses to give up his IBM Selectric, going so far as to comb eBay (most likely on someone else’s computer) to find parts.

    Fortunately for him, they still make liquid paper.

  13. Douglas Fasching wrote:
    “All my future unpublished novels on the computer using actual word-processing software. There is no need to fear Word, WordPerfect, or Open Office. I can’t abide these dilettante’s that use notepad like it will somehow protect them from the over-featured MS Office cooties.”

    Notepad? Those really would be dilettantes. I hope you’re not confusing them with people like me who use real text editors and save as text files for practical and efficient reasons. (CVS version control, portability, and the ability to completely ignore format while I’m writing. I can later render the entire book in any format I like in ten seconds with an XSL-FO template.)

  14. I cannot abide writing in longhand. My first computer was a 386. Bought in 1987. I still own my old typewriter though. It’s a little manual portable I keep for filling out forms when needed. But back to the writing. I know the benefits of composing longhand and transferring to computer. I can be more thoughtful/careful. Sometimes when I’m in a slump sort of period, it forces me to take the time to think through a particular character or plot problem. But mostly I write on computer. It helps me to write fast, and therefore keep ahead of that nagging editor demon who constantly chases accusing me of writing cr*p.

  15. “Harlan Ellison on the subject”

    Pretty much what Ellison says on the the dangers of using a computer for creative work could have equally been said by a fan of fountain pens about the typewriter when it first rolled around, so with all due respect to him, I’m not especially moved.

  16. Completely unpublished except online (I don’t really care if that’s a significant distinction or not) and 23, I can’t imagine writing anything of any real length on a typewriter or by hand.

    I did take a typewriting class in highschool (ah, smallish rural schools), and I hate the damn things. We already had a computer at home by that time, and the typewriter was so much slower, messier and hard to use.

    I find a blank computer screen to be inspiring/daunting the way some people do blank paper, but my handwriting is crappy and slow enough that the idea of whipping out a pen makes me queasy.

    Actually, I’m still finishing up my BA (in Philosophy), and my least favorite part of it is easily essay exams; getting all that thought out by hand rather than via computer is intensely frustrating.

  17. I first started writing fiction when I was 9 or 10, so it was all longhand. I got a cheapo manual typewriter for my 11th birthday, but it really was crap and went back to longhand until I got a ’60s-era Smith-Corona. Banged away on that for years, alternating with the occasional longhand bit.

    Got my first PC in 1992 and, although I’ll frequently start something longhand (and, in a lot of ways, prefer the freedom of longhand), I’ve found that any serious stretch of writing really requires the PC, if for no other reason than I (now) write much more slowly than I type.

  18. I wrote the rough draft for my first book (It isn’t published) in long hand on several thick notepads. I was given a typewriter about a year after that and typed everything I had committed to paper.

    By the time I actually bought a PC, I had written and re-written the danged thing umpteen times(No small task with a typewriter). As I plugged away at the new PC, making edits at random, I couldn’t believe I had ever written anything without one. I thought WordPerfect was an absolute godsend. I have since moved on to Microsoft Word and never looked back.

  19. I would go back to writing by hand before I’d use a manual typewriter again; the keys were so hard to press, you had to remember to throw the platen over, and of course I inevitably typed past the bottom of the page. Oh yes, and got the carbon paper in backwards.

    Writing by hand was my mode for so many years that it wouldn’t be that hard to do it again. (Except for arthritis.)

  20. Didn’t Neal Stephenson write the entire Baroque Cycle longhand, with a fountain pen?

    None of us will never be that hardcore. I don’t even know how to USE a fountain pen.

    Yes, I am a child of the ’80s. The first PC entered our house in 1983, when I was 9. I’ve never known anything but.

    However, I do find that I tend to do most lyric-writing longhand, but for the life of me I have no idea why.


  21. “I don’t even know how to USE a fountain pen.”

    Agreed. Those things mystify me.

  22. Apologies if this discussion is meant only for published writers…

    In high school, I wrote five novels by hand, with EraserMate pens in spiral-bound notebooks. I’d estimate the shortest was in the 50k word range, with the longest maybe 75 or 80k.

    That was the most fun I’ve ever had in twenty years of writing.

    To this day, I usually start fiction projects by hand, and then switch to computer once I think I have a handle on the narrative voice and the protagonist’s situation. Something about writing by hand kick-starts the process very nicely for me when I’m having trouble… which is virtually all the time.

  23. I love fountain pens. I have RSI issues with my hands, and they are so much easier on hands and wrists than ball points or even roller balls, it’s amazing.

    No page pressure. Grand thing.

    Bitch when they leak all through your pants pocket, though.

  24. For the record, I’m considerably younger than you (though not quite young enough to be your child) and I grew up on a typewriter. I can imagine… sort of… writing a novel on one, though I wouldn’t want to if I didn’t have to. I can’t, though, imagine writing one — and especially editing one — longhand. Yuck.

  25. Elizabeth commented: Bitch when they leak all through your pants pocket, though.

    Which is why the folks most notable in the following entry (geeks) took to wearing Pocket Protectors. Because they loved the fountain pen, loved having pens on them at all times (never know when you’ll need it) but didn’t love ink-leakage.

  26. I feel like I’m checking in from an alternate universe. It’s POSSIBLE to write without a computer? News to me.

    Learned to type on an IBM Selectric when it was much easier and cleaner than a Wang or a TRS-80 Model III. So I’m aware of pre-computer technologies, much as I’m aware of going to a barber to have your gall bladder removed. But if I longhand more than a sentence or two, my hand cramps up worse than it does after 12 straight hours keyboarding.

    One interesting thing I’ve noted: I have a widget here for the Mac called Typewriter Keyboard from AlphaOmega software. It gives every keypress a pseudo-Underwood sound. Using it does two things: 1) it slows my typing down by about 30%, and 2) it gives a much more tactile feel to my writing. Your mileage may vary.

    But any lingering affection I had for the typewriter vanished when i switched to the Dvorak keyboard. I’m guessing there are Dvorak typewriters out there, but I’ve never seen one — and they sure as heck didn’t ship standard like it does on modern OSes.

  27. Saw a stack of paper at the Science Fiction Experience in Seattle last week that was the complete, longhand manuscript of some series of three books by a contemporary author whose name escapes me… I can’t recall if it was Neal Stephenson or not… oh yeah, thank you Internet… It was Neal’s Baroque Cycle I do believe.

    I can’t imagine … and then having to pay someone to type it all in…

    How did books ever come to be prior to the personal computer? It boggles the mind.

  28. I wrote two novels longhand while I was in Japan and didn’t have access to a computer–I’m 22, so I’ve grown up with them.

    I gave myself tendonitis that flares up again when I have to handwrite final exams. I’m never going back to longhand again… I think my writing’s gotten significantly better since my first drafts have a little bit of style editing in them.

  29. YMMV to the extreme. I can’t imagine any conclusions to be drawn from this, except that you have to experiment to find what works.

    In brief: learned typing in eighth grade and have typed on dam near every computer from punchcards on up (I’m still waiting for the jack to be installed in the back of my neck so I won’t have to go through the fingers anymore). I’ve written two short stories on the typewriter and 3 1/2 novels on the computer (plus numerous book reviews, blog entries and half-assed ideas).

    Conclusions: Handwriting works more in synch with my thoughts, but it’s tiring both to the fingers and the brain. Typing outraces my style, but I can lay down the story economically (80 percent of the job is getting the stuff down on paper — Pratchett paraphrase). Besides, I don’t have the time during the day to hand write the story. Maybe next year, when the youngest begins first day (and I’ll have the morning and afternoon free).

  30. I started my first novel when I was 8 on a manual typewriter. I didn’t finish it because I took the typewriter apart, along with several old record players and windup alarm clocks. Haven’t written any novels or fixed any alarm clocks since then.

    When I was 14, computers were big and confined to special “machine rooms”, programs were entered on punch cards, and nobody was using the computer as a “word processor.” All the poems I published in my youth were written longhand.

    I wrote the first edition of Writing a UNIX Device Driver using troff on a UNIX workstation either at the office or using the same computer via a dumb terminal over a 1200 baud dialup connection . The second edition I did mostly on a Mac at home, though I did use troff for some stuff.

    There are days I would definitely prefer the flexibility of a text editor and markup language (emacs and troff) over Word. On the whole, I prefer Framemaker on a Mac or a Linux box.

    Can I imagine myself writing a 60,000 word book in longhand? No. But, at least the output of my pen would be compatible across all paper platforms and wouldn’t get garbled every time I upgraded my pen to the newest version. :-)

    Can I imagine myself writing a 60,000 word book using Word? No. And I’ve always had a pretty good imagination. :-)

  31. Well, I’m 35 and did all of my earliest writing on the computer my parents bought when I was in high school. Then I went off to college and wrote all of my papers on an electric typewriter (much to my roommate’s annoyance). After graduating, I went to work in publishing where everyone was still languishing behind the times: computers only appeared on our desks a few weeks before I quit.

    That said, the longest thing I’ve every had to type was my B.A. paper – which isn’t saying much. Still, much as I adore the ease of writing on a computer, I do draft out quite a bit in a spiral notebook; I enjoy the simplicity and the lack of distraction. When I’m working on a computer, I’m far more likely to drift online and procrastinate.

    My real question is would there be less bad writing if it was harder to actually bang out a book? Typing requires a certain amount of thought – a committment to the words – that computers do not. At the very least, maybe there would be fewer doorstops piling up on my to-read list.

  32. Got a few years on you, John, so I will see your longhand/typewriter nightmare (phhhtt – lightweights) and raise you one “remember back before copiers, when if you wanted to send out more than one manuscript copy (or keep one for yourself in case it got lost) you had to retype the whole damned thing each time – unless you had previously typed the whole damned thing with carbon paper. Which, as was pointed out, got put in facing backwards on a regular basis, so that your copy was uselessly imprinted on the back of your original and that page had to be retyped.

    And God forbid you needed to do two or three copies at once. For those who don’t know, you needed to make a sandwich of paper/carbon paper/paper/carbon paper/paper (all in the right direction!), roll all of that bulky mess into the typewriter at once without shifting or misaligning it so that your copies listed drunkenly or ran off the bottom or side of the page, and then type with Bruce Lee Fingers of Doom in order to hit the keys hard enough to make an impression all the way to the last page. If you let up, even a little, by the time the keystroke impression made it to the bottom page, it was just a tad bit darker than that invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence in “National Treasure,” before they heated it.

    And if that happened, you’d have to retype it again.

    Oh, and don’t forget that any typos copied through, too (usually nice and dark, irritatingly enough).

    And then you’d have to retype that, too.

    I can sense that Sherwood, at least, remembers this unGodly state of affairs. Sniviling whiners who bitch whenever their ink cartridge has to sit overnight for the refill to “settle in” need to be taken out at gunpoint and made to triplicate-type GW’s State Of The Union address on a manual with a sticky “e” and a missing leveler foot.

    (Just fyi to the youger generation, that’s where the email notation “cc” comes from – carbon copy. Which, considering the ease with which you can “cc” someone, compared to the hell of actually struggling with carbon copy typing, indicates a particularly warm spot in hell for whoever chose that as the term for the disgustingly easy action of entering a second email address.)

    Okay, I’m all better now. Must be time for my meds.

  33. I wrote all of my first two novels longhand (that’s the first two I actually will let out into the light of day). Now I revise on paper, with new scenes written longhand. I type most of my first drafts, but when things aren’t really in a groove that way, I try writing longhand to shake things up.

    I love fountain pens, too. I try not to be picky about my writing tools, on the theory that I should be able to write in whatever circumstances, but fountain pens are so smooth, and they write faster, and I don’t have to press down very hard with them, so they’re easier on the hand and shoulder.

  34. I’m trying to write a book and I find that I do a combination of writing longhand and on the computer. I learned to type on a typewriter in 10th grade, but took computer science (BASIC and Pascal) in 12th grade and, except for when I typed the church newsletter, have used computers exclusively ever since.

    The church newsletter, for the couple years I typed it, was done with a mimeograph machine, which meant using those awful long blue things that required the nasty-smelling blue correction fluid to patch up holes. The more mistakes you made, the more mistakes you made, because that stuff would get you high in no time.

    I think that writing so much on the computer has made me a little lazy about my accuracy, because it’s so easy to go back and fix something. But that’s made up for by the incredible easiness of editing. In college, I’d write papers in a combination of longhand and computer, starting out with longhand and then, when I got a good idea of what I’d write, shifting to computer. I could abbreviate things in my rush to get good ideas on paper. I have a history degree, so I know all about having to write long essays in blue books and I’m pretty sure that some of my essays would have been much better if I could have typed them than they were written out longhand.

    I type fast, but sometimes, not fast enough to get down all the things I’m thinking about. If I’m plotting out stuff, it’s sometimes better for me to make notes on paper, get it all out of my brain, then start writing.

  35. I’m thirty-two, and the last time I wrote a story in longhand was in second grade- my epic two-page saga about a princess named Penelope Rose. Shortly thereafter, I found my mother’s old Black Beast in the closet. I don’t know what it was- probably not an Underwood because that would be romantnic, but I had to pound the keys to get a letter, and every hour or so it seemed, I had to rewind the ink ribbon.

    Then I found grandma’s Selectric and comandeered that.

    Then my school got Apple ][s.

    Then I got a 386.

    Not only can’t I imagine writing a book longhand, I really just can’t write longhand. Going on vacation was a nightmare because I’d have ideas, I’d write down the ideas, and when I got home, I’d have a notebook full of Msmkeur! KSurksk! Bweebweebwee!

    Not very helpful.

    So I bought an AlphaSmart for travel, I have my regular machine at home, and I frequently have to apologize to clerks when they try to compare my signature on a check to the signature on my driver’s license, because most shop clerks just don’t read Klingon fluently.

  36. Paper & pen for me is very useful for strategy, pictures, concept shapes, & creativity. I carry a spiral notebook to work as a place for my private thoughts (also my security blanket). I have a 3inch binder full (a journal) from the past year. Writing this way is more personal, you spend more time with the material because it is a slower process, more visual, less bound by lines.

    Any bigger writing is done on the computer. No novels as yet for me, but a University Degree and other private musings.

    I type for a living (moving from volume typing to alphanumeric insurance databases), so I’ve been heavily into computers since 1991. Gaming as well, teehee. Wonderful tool, WordPerfect (if you disable automatic editing)! And now printing is no problem, cheap & plentiful.

    On one of the past versions of WordPerfect, my ex-husband & I corrected the kerning. We were helping a friend with the presentation of his first novel.

    I carry in my wallet a quote. “Let the motto of your work be: Think 7 times and draw once and for all time.”

    Now, why would someone live by that mantra? My point is that using computers has definately changed the method of writing, without a doubt.

  37. I’m 40 years old, turned the big number in November of last year, just two weeks after a heart attack. Not that that has anything to do with this, but I’m still trying to come to grips with it so everybody gets to hear about it.


    When I went to college, I didn’t even know how to type. I still remember trying to two-finger peck my way through various college papers and all the allnighters I had to pull.

    So, of course, not knowing how to type, I naturally migrated to journalism as a major and predicated my success on typing. Typical really.

    After working at various newspapers for a decade I migrated into public relations, where I began writing speeches long hand and everything else on the typewriter. Then the first Mac appeared in our shop.

    Since then, it’s nothing but a computer. By now, it’s like my creativity is linked to my fingers moving over a keyboard. I’be had 13 short stories published invarious (low) paying markets over the last couple of years and all of them have been written on the computer. I can’t imagine not using a computer to write now. I find that I think better with my fingers cocked over the keyboard.

    I find that I feel much more free in my writing when I know I can just delete or edit as I’m typing. I get my first and second drafts out of the way at the same time. Love the computer. Just absolutely love it.

  38. John, as you know, I’m perhaps a critical two years older than you. I learned to write in an environment where computers were curiosities, so I did most of my early compositions longhand. By junior year in high school, I had acquired a trusty Commodore 64, so from that point on, I did most of my composition electronically.

    However, during occasional bouts of writer’s block, and especially during college, I would revert to the old pen and ink. Now, 5 books later, I find myself doing that less and less. I’m not afraid of pen and paper, I’m just faster and more comfortable at the keyboard.

    I think the arrival of the laptop was the key moment for me: now I can take my writing with me to coffee shops and libraries, and the last advantage of pen and ink has been lost.

  39. I can imagine it, but prefer not to. I’ve largely lost the ability to write things out longhand. I seem to have developed some kind of keyboard-induced writing dyslexia.

  40. When I was about 11 and at school, we got an English teacher who got us writing stories. Longhand, mine ran to about 7-8000 words. The next year I got a manual typewriter and began work on the proverbial million words of crap (hampered slightly by the typewriter keys snapping from metal fatigue three years later — it was followed by another manual typewriter).

    I only got my first word processor when I was 22. And coincidentally, that’s when I began selling short stories.

    I will confess I’m a computer bunny. (Acquiring an MSc in computer science along the way didn’t hurt.) My preferred writing environment for books is Vim under some flavour of UNIX, with a homebrew macro pre-processor based off of Perl’s POD documentation format … I really can’t cope with Emacs, every time I’ve tried it I’ve had a bad attack of RSI within a week or two. But these days the publishing borg has more or less compelled me to switch to Word under OS/X for reason of compatability. I just need to get the viWord macro suite working properly to be happy again …

  41. Bill: troff is Evil. Been there, worked with that, got the scars to prove it. We have the technology to do better. Semantic markup rocks. (Documentation holy wars: film at eleven.)

    I really don’t like Microsoft Word, even in the OS/X incarnation which sucketh less than some others, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Apple’s rumoured iWork package is like. But honestly, the killer requirements (aside from hierarchical styles and comfortable key bindings) are the ability to mangle text and compatability with what everyone else is doing. What I really hate about Word isn’t the application but the evil EVIL proprietary file formats. And what I like about it is the neat-o graphical diff and changebars and annotations, for bouncing manuscripts back and forth with an editor (human variety).

  42. Charlie:

    Of course troff is evil. Only on certain days Word can make a person long for a lesser evil – possibly even chisels and stone tablets.

    Finally I use my real name in posting a comment and get mistaken for someone named Bill. Just goes to prove how fleeting “fame” is in the UNIX community.

    Off to make up a new identity and buy some pens.

  43. At the very least, I have to have a decent typewriter. I learned how to touch-type when I was 10 years old and took to it immediately because I could finally write fast enough to keep up with my flow of thoughts.

    About the only thing I use paper and pencil for these days is to jot down very rough notes on concepts and ideas. If I’m doing writing for a technical subject or a roleplaying project, I then move to a text editor (Notepad is okay, but I prefer UltraEdit or vi) to rough out an outline. I’ll then paste the outline into the appropriate template in Word, apply styles, and start fleshing everything in. For fiction, I usually break different chapters into different files. For non-fiction and roleplaying, I try to fill in at least a rough draft of all sections before I start editing, but now that I’ve learned about revision tracking, comments, and Outline mode in Word, I’ll never go back to editing with anything else.

    I think that Harlan had a valid points but lost himself again (as he is wont to do) in the dulcet tones of his own voice:

    Using word processors does encourage writers who don’t have a lot of self-discipline. Feature-rich software like Word make it very easy to waste your time hand-kerning letter pairs and playing with formatting, and novice writers don’t always understand that formatting just isn’t that important to the vast majority of your manuscript. Getting the words down on paper is far more important than making them look pretty. You need to work on finding the right tools and habits to reinforce good discipline.

    I can recall several long, complicated recipes I did for my upcoming technical book from O’Reilly using UltraEdit, even though O’Reilly gives its authors an incredibly sophisticated and powerful Word template with all the styles you need built-in. It was just too much to have to stop and worry about which style to use for each method and property I was mentioning. By using a less sophisticated tool, I concentrated on the phase I needed to worry about — getting the text written. Once I did that, I could paste it in and spend a few minutes style painting and editing. It helped me produce text that was more consistent and of higher quality than when I did it all in Word.

    For fiction, I have an incredibly simple Word template that I use; it lays the page out pre-set for manuscript format. I don’t even have to think about styles or formatting; it’s all handled for me. I can just write.

    But that’s me. You all are different. The key that Harlan misses is that people need to try different things and find what works for them. You want your tools to reinforce your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses. No one tool (or set of tools) will work the same for any artist or craftsman.

  44. Reverse the numbers in your age and you have mine. I started writing in the IBM Selectric age, where it was whizzy and geeky to have little Selectric balls with different fonts…

    But I always “hated” the typewriter as a composition tool. I wrote first drafts longhand — yes, that included my first few novels. In longhand, I could cross things out, delete (by X-ing out), insert new material (via marginal notes) and move things around (by drawing lines and arrows). None of which I could do while the sheet was in the typewriter.

    Then, in ’85, I got my first computer (a Macintosh… and I still write on a Mac…). To me, writing on a computer has all the good qualities and advantages of writing longhand, with the advantage that everything looks nice and neat the whole time and I don’t have to retype the whole manuscript at the end. My ‘voice’ is the same on a computer as it is writing longhand; when I’ve composed on a typewriter… well, *that’s* when I hear a slightly different voice in my prose.

  45. Writing Utensils

    Over at Whatever John Scalzi wonders how writing tools affect his style. It’s something I’ve pondered myself, as I’m very much in love with my own writing tools. I do wonder to how much my writing style is predicated on…

  46. What we write with…

    I’m about half a generation behind John Scalzi (10 years), but I still completely identify with his discussion at Whatever about the changes some people have seen and the stability others of us have enjoyed in terms of writing and wordprocessing in hi…

  47. Here’s my question: for all of you folks that wrote 50,000-word novels long hand, did you actually take the time to go back & count the words?

    Love it or hate it, at least MSWord gives you a word count at the touch of a button…

  48. Wow, a wonderful question, and I can honestly say I have quite simply been a writer all my life (some college published, etc) and I ABSOLUTELY love to create at the keyboard (it’s what I do) but I can also honestly say I love the idea of a pad and nice pen (can’t get enough of them) and just going for it.

    The thing for me is how I start a project is how I will finish the creation process, of course it gets put into manageable and recognizeable form for consumption by the world at large, but for me, to start it on paper, I WANT to see it through its infant stages in that same medium, guess I am one of the weird ones, I could write a novel longhand, it would go quicker by computer, but hey.

    Hmm my voice I would like to think, has been shaped down through the years by my chices in life and the life I have lived and people I have known…and of course the access to increasingly more powerful tools has helped to shape that, so it is as a matter of fact that the medium is as connected to my own voice and style, as it were, as the other elements. I am 34 by the way.

  49. Clifford Stoll, when he was writing the first draft of _Silicon Snake Oil_, used longhand, typewriter and word processor on alternate days. He said that he found the best people stories were drafted in longhand, the most clear, logical, concise passages were drafted on a typewriter, and he got the most words written when using the word processor.

    I seem to recall Connie Willis saying at a panel at one Worldcon or another that she writes her first drafts longhand and revises while typing them in a word processor. Actually, I seem to recall hearing/reading several other pro authors say much the same thing, though I can’t remember exactly which ones they were.

    I wrote a few stories longhand when very young, but started using a computer in 1987, when I was 14 (word processors at first; later Emacs), and started seriously writing short fiction in 1989 – I still haven’t attempted a novel yet. I often write first drafts and story ideas in paper notebooks, though. Still unpublished except in fanzines.

  50. I started out on manual typewriters in HS, then started using electric ones in the AF. (My lowest ASVAB test was in admin, so naturally I ended up in an orderly room.)

    Thought computers had potential, so I bought an Osborne 1 in 1982 (with WordStar – WOOOHOOO!) and never looked back… except when I absolutely had to use a typewriter for something. And since I was in the AF Reserve from ’89 to ’02, there was plenty of opportunity to use those outmoded pieces of… whatever.

    I’ve been working on a novel for the last 20+ years, on the computer, in fits and starts. I couldn’t imagine trying to do it longhand (as in Melville’s “White Jacket”, written longhand in 1850, which I just finished reading as a nice ancillary piece to Patrick O’Brien’s tales) or on a typewriter – computers and word processing make things SO much easier!

    And for all those who sneer at Microsoft products? Hey, some folks swear by them, some swear at them – but we’d all be a lot worse off if we didn’t have them at all.


  51. On Word Processing

    John Scalzi is a writer of my generation, professionally published in one of my chosen genres (Science Fiction) and self-published in another (Blogging). Not everyone yet considers blogging to be a genre, but at least I’m on safe ground to…

  52. RE: “longhand as in Melville’s “White Jacket”, written longhand in 1850″

    Yeah, but I have it on good authority that Melville had Bartleby the Scrivener write it for him :-)

  53. A writer and his tools.

    I read an interesting post on Tobias S. Buckwell’s blog about the relationship between a writer and his tools of the trade. I’m 21, and I’ve been seriously writing (as in not just for fun or as a hobby) since…

  54. I enjoy writing longhand. It works for me, and I advise everyone to do what works of them. Forget about those poor misguided people who readily touts the merits of writing fiction on their computers. Unless you’ve been swayed over to the dark side.

  55. I’m amazed. Pages and pages of comments and nobody uses LaTeX. Like plain text, it’s amenable to version control and simple editors. It produces better formatted cleaner output than any number of more expensive “word processing” packages. LaTeX: Let the software handle the formatting and concern yourself with the content.

  56. LaTeX? Hell, no. When I’m writing, I’m handing off to someone else to do layout and formatting; I’m just writing content with minimal structuring. I don’t want to deal with typesetting.

    If I were working on documents that were going to be the final output, then maybe I might look at LaTeX (assuming that distinctive look was appropriate for the finished product). But I’m producing intermediate copy; I don’t need the LaTeX toolset.

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