Writing on the computer

A writer using the computer must have the resistance to temptation of a desert saint. Computers make every approach to writing well—through research, revision, or rhetoric—so smooth that you can spend as long as you please working, without ever writing anything. Worse, a writer may attempt to mix them with writing.

1. Revising while writing seems innocent, even wise—what is wrong with writing one perfect paragraph after another? Nothing, for each paragraph; but something for the whole, when each paragraph is disconnected from the next and might be as good if re-shuffled.

2. Research while writing has the effect you would expect in enlisting a Panel of Experts to stare over your shoulder as you write. This kind of writing is like driving the Interstates—you need never be lost, and you need never discover anything. You may travel forever and never go anywhere.

3. Thinking about writing, and listening to what other writers have to say about it, are good. But rules are proved in use, not in argument; you learn them to break them, and break them to prove them by the exception. If you must stop in mid-sentence to check a rule, then either you do not understand it, or you do not need it—likelier the latter. On the computer, you must both resist the temptation, and ignore harassment. Spelling is important enough to check after, but not important enough to stop for; and it is no better for a computer to interrupt you, to object to your spellings or grammar, than for a stranger to look over your shoulder and do the same.

Computers are either too convenient or too inconvenient. The keyboard, with practice, can be used without thinking. It then becomes the sluice through which a flood of raw language is carried onto the screen, mixed with whatever debris or waste happens to be lying on the mind. But first—and something else always comes first on the computer. Turn it on, wait, log on, wait, start the word processor, wait, open your file, wait, write—no, wait. Choose a template, a font—what format did they need this in again—no, the margins are wrong—save it, write—no, wait. It crashed. Start over.

These waits are more than wasteful. Handwriting has its interruptions—running out of ink, blunting the lead—but the computer sets its own pace, of impetus and urgency. This is most dangerous to those most experienced with computers. Those who start young on computers have a rapport with them, not because they can keep up with them, but because they reflexively slow down to match them; those who come to computers in adulthood are impatient with them, not because they are stiff and brittle-minded with age, but because they lack this ability to synchronize themselves with computers. This synchrony is one reason why many find books hard to read on screen: a book has its own rhythm of attention which clashes with a computer's. And often in what is written on the computer you find a uniform rhythm formed by log-ons, command lines, queries, entries, games, chats, clicks and double-clicks.

Writers who would ever experience inspiration should beware computers. Even writers of prose, aiming to avoid the poetical, should aspire to be poets in the sense which is above meter or line breaks. It is obvious that poets and computers make bad couples—poets are from Xanadu; computers are from Porlock.

Computer files suffer a natural attrition which backing up alone may not solve. A file may easily be forgotten, or confused with another. The document format will become obsolete; the backup software will become obsolete; even the backup hardware will become obsolete. The price you pay for the weightlessness of computer files is that nothing holds them down; unless you hold on to them continuously, they drift away from you unnoticed. I do write some things on computers—less than paragraphs which I see close enough to entirely in my head that what method I use to get it down does not matter; and things that I want to sound dictated. But as a rule of thumb, I never trust a computer with anything that I might possibly need more than five years from now.

I admit that none of these reasons are proofs. Each is only circumstantial evidence. I cannot call witnesses, because I cannot write the same thing twice to compare. I could only re-write what I had written before. You can never start over; what you have done, even forgotten, weighs on what you may do. Though problematic, writing well on the computer is possible; I would not have it thought that someone who writes on the computer therefore must be a bad writer. And if some can find the self-discipline to write well on the computer, what excuse do I have not to do the same? How dare I admit to (let alone argue for) such eccentricity and self-indulgence? But I have a last plea.

What I write first on paper is all my own. Notes that I write by hand I rarely have to look at again: the act of writing so reinforces the memory that the written words are only a backup. Reading over an essay written by hand, I remember what I was thinking at each step; reading over a fiction, I remember the feeling I began with and how everything therein relates to it. This is true even of looking at a typed copy.

But what I write first on the computer is not my own. I know that I wrote it only because I recognize my style. I have no connection to it. It is through but not of me; it is mine but not my own. I do not mean that it is received through inspiration. Rather, reading it is like reading something in a dream—there because of me, but not mine.