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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Word Processing: The Barbarian Savior!

The Slate Culture Gabfest this week spends some time talking about the history of writing on word processors (like Word, or like the blogger web tool I'm typing in right now), and the whole conversation (with helpful links on the Slate page) is well worth checking out.
What really captured my imagination was the lengthy discussion the podcast members had on the actual process of writing. How did anyone ever write a whole book longhand? Does writing with a word processor help you cut corners?
The Brother WP-75, which I drove carts. pushed wheelchairs and wrangled
unaccompanied minors all summer to buy. 
I've straddled the line. In early high school I wrote papers and stories longhand. When I was in high school I had a home computer to write papers on, and by the time I got to college I had actually worked all summer to save up for a Brother WP 75 word processor, which for the young was basically a printer with a keyboard and a single piece of software for writing documents. It was essentially a smart typewriter. I wrote my first book on a Mac, and my next several books on PCs using Word Perfect.
At the time there was a lot of talk about what word processing would do to writing. A lot of this talk came in the form of sour admonishments from other writers, so you heard all the same hand-wringing, but the biggest fear was this:
Writing on a word processor would make writers lazy, because a good writer types his pages, and then re-types them from the top, changing them along the way. Over and over again. And we like it. Word processing seduces you into sticking with something close to your first draft because it already looks pretty. There's a little bit of truth to this-- a first draft of anything really does look decent even if it reads terribly-- but it turns out for most of us that in fact we toss entire paragraphs all the time. Basically if you're a conscientious editor you'll be one whether you're typing, handwriting or using a computer.
And yet, and yet: I remember once I had to re-type about 40,000 words of a book I'd printed but could not retrieve the data from, and I really did enjoy re-drafting the sentences from the top as I went. But I wouldn't do it on purpose.
There was another fear, more obliquely spoken: that using a word processor, because it produced what to the naked eye appeared to be an acceptable manuscript, would allow too many unqualified people into the field of writing.
To this: first, f*** off, snobs. But second, reality tells us differently anyway; editors are pretty good at tossing bad writing after reading a single page. Heck, they toss almost all writing that way.
Check out the Slate Podcast and links!

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