21st-century writing technology has undoubtedly made writing more convenient—but is it actually holding us back? One writer investigates.
I’m an analog girl in a digital world. I like old things and old style. I used a rotary-dial phone until the march of progress threatened to crush us both. My car just celebrated its 24th birthday. I like canvas sneakers, gin martinis and homemade afghans.
But I’m a writer in contemporary times, and I’ve adapted to new technologies. Frankly, most of it has been a blur. I do remember, though, sitting alone at night in an office building sometime in the 1980s, watching my boss’s printer slowly excrete 200 pages of random ASCII characters. For all I knew, the computer was trying to tell us something. I sent the pages to the tech guys at headquarters for analysis. They still haven’t gotten back to me.
Fast-forward to now, when miniature microphones and voice-to-text software literally enable us to write as fast as we can talk. The next phase is nearly upon us, where a machine will write my novels for me—and no doubt publish them, collect royalties and spend the money on nice things for itself.
But I feel it’s time to ask: Is more tech necessarily an improvement? Is faster really better than slower? Is the destination more important than the journey?
With those questions in mind, I took it upon myself to investigate. To re-immerse myself in the materials and sensations I used to enjoy so oft en—and also to experiment with even older methods—I spent a weekend working on my current novel using an assortment of technology that originated between the building of the Sphinx and the opening night of My Fair Lady.
On Saturday morning I settled down at my writing table, a mug of coffee at my side and a wood-cased pencil in my hand. I chose a Blackwing 602, known for its smooth core and fragrant cedar casing. (I’d decided to skip inscribing words on stone or wet clay tablets and start with the next writing technology most closely related to those: graphite.)
Pencil sharpening is an act of beginning. You sit down, you gather yourself, you sharpen. You feel and hear the sharpener working, and you smell that fresh wood. You behold your newly exposed graphite. If the point is sharp, you feel brief anxiety over whether the microscopic, conical top section will break off as you touch it to paper.
I enjoy the deliberateness of the pencil experience. As you write, the point degrades to whatever degree of dullness you feel like tolerating. You rotate the point to take advantage of the wear pattern—every rotation offers a sharper edge.
When you write with a pencil, you are, in a very real sense, drawing. You’re laying down the two-dimensional images of words. You can write little or big; with light pressure or heavy; you can print carefully or race along in whatever version of cursive is yours.
You can erase mistakes! But if you’re on a tear, you can just strike through with vigor and keep going. Or you can flurry down a satisfying storm of obliterating zigzags. The re-sharpening pause is a balm. While sharpening, you have a chance to look up, change the focal length of your gaze, quit thinking for a moment and use your hands differently.
I wrote about 1,000 words with the Blackwing, savoring its straightforward sturdiness. You don’t have to baby a pencil. You can leave it lying around, you can even lose it without too much grief. You can write with it in a canoe or on a mountain ledge, or upside-down while lying in bed. No worries about ink, mechanisms, batteries.
Mid-morning, I skipped ahead in time and unholstered my trusty plastic Pentel automatic with a .7 mm lead, in the relatively soft and bold 2B grade I like. The obvious advantage of the mechanical pencil is no sharpening, no bother. You click a button or twist the barrel to advance your lead, and you can write fast and precise. The writing experience is less varied, though. That’s the price you pay.
With any pencil, one must bring some pressure to bear, which puts wear and tear on you. My writing elbow got sore after a few hours of pencil work.
After lunch I turned to a group of instruments you have to dip in ink, that marvelous liquid humans first concocted in Neolithic times. Hollow reeds served as writing tools in ancient Egypt, China and the Middle East. They’re still used for drawing and special calligraphy.
I’d found a reed pen in my art box, so I started with that. It was a 7-inch-long wand about a half-inch in diameter and cut to a quill-like point. I opened a bottle of black Noodler’s ink, dipped the reed in and started writing. I blobbed too much ink down at first, then got the hang of making bold strokes.
Writing with a quill didn’t go much better. I’d found a large feather during a walk a few years ago and saved it. Now, following an online tutorial, I made a writing point from its shaft. Like the reed, the quill emitted an ugly blot before scratchily producing a contiguous line. After about 10 words, it ran dry. I reloaded and kept going, but the work was slow and vexing. Thinking about the fact that Shakespeare wrote all of his plays with such an implement made me nearly sick with pity. But life was slower then, and I think everybody had more patience.
For my evening writing I used a steel-dip pen, instrument of choice for many a scrivener during the 19th century when mass production made steel nibs reliable and affordable. As soon as I got going with it, I perceived what a gigantic technical leap forward it was. I used a plastic holder and a Speedball C-4 italic nib, made of two pieces of metal that form a tiny ink reservoir using surface tension. I could write half a page before having to re-dip, and OMG how almost beautiful my lumpish handwriting looked! My writing output went with gushing, pleasurable speed compared with any prior method.
I wrote appreciatively, all evening, with the supremely lightweight dip pen, with almost no hand/elbow fatigue.
Sunday morning, I started in with a fountain pen, which gives you the best of the bottled-ink world without the hassle and hazard of the open inkwell. For this session I used my small Pelikan Souveran and some brown ink. With its deliciously smooth nib and warm acetate barrel, the fine pen wrote like the wind. My breathing slowed down, my body relaxed and I wrote for pages and pages without needing to refill.
After an hour, I switched to my inexpensive plastic Lamy Safari, the body in sprightly neon-yellow. That writing experience was just as enjoyable. Smooth enough, easy to hold and just plain fun to wham down words with.
Later in the morning I picked up my Parker Jotter, that ubiquitous midcentury-modern item found in millions of desk drawers around the world. The ballpoint pen, popularized between the World Wars, is pretty much the ultimate in ink-based writing convenience. Inexpensive, idiot-proof, uniform. I wrote a few hundred words. The experience was serviceable but bland—on the order of the mechanical pencil.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon, I turned to my boulderweight 1926 Underwood typewriter. I’d acquired it for a performance of Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” with a local symphony orchestra. (My usual role is timpanist.) On stage, the machine was wonderfully loud, with a supremely authoritative carriage return that put forth the perfect zzzip!
So yeah, as a percussion instrument and mechanical marvel it was great. But to actually write with? Dear God. I measured the travel of the keys: an inch and a half, as opposed to the one millimeter of my computer tablet’s keypad. You have to ram the keys down that entire inchand- a-half to get a good impression from the ribbon onto the paper. I found myself pounding out words as if playing a Rachmaninoff finale to the back row. The clack, the zip, the rhythm, the ding! The whole world knows you’re writing! I tried to gain strength from the smell of the machine oil and the thunder of the keys, but my upper body just ran out of gas. I barely made it through 240 words—about one full page in typeset.
I must say, though, I loved the retro-funk results. Each letter displayed its own pattern of wear, its own fractional difference in alignment, its own little personality. A manuscript written on a typewriter such as this seems almost like a living thing. On Sunday evening, my experiment complete, I pondered (weak and weary) these questions:
WHY EVEN PLAY AROUND WITH OLD-SCHOOL TECH?
Because it challenges and encourages our hands, eyes and brain with diverse tools. People are different! Some of us work better by going slowly and deliberately, some by blasting out words at a blistering pace. My ideas flowed the best (and I felt the best) when using the pencil, the steel-dip pen and the fountain pens. That steel-nib dip pen was truly a revelation.
WILL VINTAGE WRITING TECHNOLOGY EVER DISAPPEAR?
I have a good friend who is blind and enjoys all the modern assistance of audiobooks, microphones and optical-characterrecognition soft ware. Assuming that Braille must now be obsolete, I asked him recently if he uses it anymore. Surprisingly, he said he uses Braille tools all the time: for quick notes to himself as well as longer things he wants to take along and read back silently when he’s out and about. That resonated. Although I can speak notes into my phone, I prefer writing things down, and I’m never without a notebook, pen and pencil in my purse.
WHY WRITE LONG PIECES WITH OUTMODED TECH WHEN, MOST LIKELY, YOU’LL END UP TYPING IT INTO A DIGITAL DOCUMENT (OR PAYING SOMEONE ELSE TO DO IT) ANYWAY?
The payoff for me is this: When I type my handwritten draft into the computer—say, every 10 or 20 pages—I do a very natural-feeling first edit and revisions, thus outputting a true draft-and-a-half, as I like to think of it. Labor-intensive. But fruitful. There’s no denying, for sheer efficiency and volume of work, nothing surpasses modern computer and wordprocessing soft ware. Those things keep getting better and better: Where once WordPerfect was the living end, it now makes you want to slam your face on a brick. We’re all indebted to Microsoft Word and similar soft ware for making our process incredibly easy.
WHAT ABOUT REVISION AND EDITING?
Today’s tech wins. One might print out a manuscript and do an edit by hand (yay, pencil), to get that on-paper visual sense of things. But for the final product, there’s nothing like deleting and inserting with up-to-theminute soft ware.
IS TODAY’S WORD-PROCESSED LITERATURE BETTER THAN THE PAINSTAKINGLY WRITTEN AND REVISED LITERATURE OF YESTERYEAR?
I cannot see anybody making the case that it is. There’s more of it, certainly, and new tech is hugely responsible. I don’t think anybody ought to assassinate their computer. But now and then, be sure to stop and smell the cedar. You’ll be richer for the experience—and your writing might just reflect that.
• Old-school technology frees you from the internet. No temptation to check the news or social media. You can enjoy a quiet, peaceful environment while you create. • Simple, manual tech is generally durable and reliable.
• There is something metaphysical about employing a wood-cased pencil or a bottle of ink: As you use it, you lose it. The object has a lifespan.
• Paper matters. Cheap paper, with its high wood-pulp content and hence rougher surface, causes ink to feather and bleed. During these tests I alternated between an inexpensive retro-style notebook and a crazy-expensive premium pad. The difference in performance and writing pleasure was marked. Everything wrote smoother on the premium pad. Dang.
• Just as a drawing of, say, a bowl of fruit might look more alive than the thing itself, so do all these methods make writing seem more alive than the virtual, perfectly formed letters on a screen. Hence manual writing tech itself can inspire creativity. You can even—my gosh!—doodle in the margins.
• The fits and starts of early work—making notes, being thoughtful and meditative—particularly favor hasslefree tools: pencil or ballpoint pen and paper.
• When writing by hand, cuddle up sideways to your table. That way you don’t have to lean forward, and you can rest your whole forearm comfortably on the table.
• There’s something about a nib or fountain pen that’s encouraging. Your words flow, for sure, but it’s almost like the instrument wants you to do well.
• When you use classic writing tech, you’re experiencing a bit of history. You are writing as our legendary heroes wrote, and you’re dissolving the time gap between you and them.
• Pages produced by analog tech are susceptible to fire, flood, earthquake. So, if they’re not thrown away after they’ve served their purpose, they need protection.
• When you’re enjoying the physical process of writing, it’s hard for the little bitch or bastard on your shoulder to convince you to lose heart and quit.
• Studies have been done about the benefits of writing by hand versus electronically. Seems the physical experience of crafting letters and words releases more creativity molecules. Something like that. Hey, if it works, it works.
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