Skip to content

Writing methods - pen vs computer

There was a discussion on Today (Radio 4) a couple of weeks ago about writing methods, something that fascinates writers endlessly. Ian Rankin said he used a computer; someone else (I forget who) wrote in longhand. There have been questions about this for much longer than computers have been around, though in the past it was typewriters that were in the frame.

There still seems to be a belief that 'real' writers prefer the pen, and I can understand why. Writing with a pen preserves something of the mystique of writing; you feel you are using a craft that goes back into the distant past, and are literally shaping what you write with your bare hands. You are in a continuous line of development that goes back through quill pens to clay tablets and the stylus. Mechanical methods are a decisive break with that tradition.

Nevertheless, I've always felt the opposite. Perhaps it's because I subconsciously associate using the pen with punishment. When I was at school minor infringements of the rules were punished by the imposition of writing out a number of lines (on specially commissioned blue paper, as it happens. Major infractions were punished by beating, of course.) Anyway, whatever the reason, I welcomed the typewriter as providing a relief from drudgery.

My first book, a novel, was in fact first written in longhand because I didn't have a typewriter, but when I'd finished the first draft I bought one and never looked back; all my subseqent writing was done directly on the machine. So taking to the computer was a logical development from that. I revise a lot and with the typewriter I found myself endlessly copying out pages simply to correct minor errors or infelicities. The computer freed me from that necessity.

Rankin said he uses the computer more or less like a typewriter and doesn't transpose blocks of text. I go the whole hog and move stuff around, delete and reinstate it, all the time. But I don't use a word processor; I prefer a text editor, vim, which focuses my mind on the text and not its appearance. If I need to think about how it will look when printed I transfer the text to LyX, which is described as a document processor rather than a word processor - not the same thing at all.

It is alleged, probably with justice, that many people are tempted by the computer to write far too much and that this affects their writing adversely. Others must judge whether this is true for me, of course, but my impression is that, if anything, the use of the computer has probably improved my writing. I certainly have no temptation to logorrhoea: if anything I probably write too briefly rather than too profusely.

There are limits, though. I can't imagine myself taking the logical next step of dictating to the computer rather than typing at the keyboard, which I gather P.D. James has done. That would definitely be a step too far for me.

A final thought: if I were addicted to longhand I'd find myself in a quandary now: arthritis in my thumbs has made writing by hand so painful that most of the time I can hardly do it.


No Trackbacks


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

John Floyd on :

When the hands can no longer manage long spells at the keyboard and the eyes have trouble with the high contrast computer screen, perhaps then voice to text applications will seem an attractive alternative?

Anthony Campbell on :

Yes, perhaps, but I don't think it will do one's writing style any favours.

Add Comment

Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.
Form options