Modes of writing change, but the approach should remain the same

by Beacon Staff • November 10, 2011

strongBy: Morgan Baker, Beacon Columnist/strong

I’ve been writing forever. Even before I knew I wanted to be a writer, I was writing. I wrote bad short stories in elementary school and high school, and only took college courses if papers were required instead of exams. Researching and writing gave me a high. I hated sitting in a room with a blue book, being tested on what I had retained during the semester, which usually wasn’t as much as it should have been.

Even though I’ve written for almost a half century, I don’t always feel I have a grasp on the process. Staring at a blank screen sends me into fits of desperation and panic. Why, I wonder, did I ever want to be a writer? Could there be any other jobs out there to switch into at my advanced years? To calm my nerves, I remind myself of my past successes. I have done this before — starting with nothing and ending with a finished product of which I can be proud.

As I’ve aged, however, my writing process has grown and changed, partly from experience and partly because of technology. When I started writing, I stared at blank pieces of paper in typewriters and notebooks — not computer screens.

Not only did I write with pencil and paper in elementary school, I hand-wrote many of my papers in high school and college as well. Teachers only required typed papers for finals. Typing was a big deal. It was time consuming and not everyone knew how to do it.

As a fast typist, which I was, you could make decent money typing other people’s papers. I capitalized on that in college, and later in grad school. I put myself through Emerson’s graduate program as a temp — moving from office to office as a secretary, until I was hired on part-time for an architectural firm.

You’d be hard-pressed today to find anyone in elementary school, let alone college, who doesn’t know their way around a keyboard. They might not know the preferred method for holding their hands and what keys to hit with what fingers, but almost everyone can word process.

Writing by hand and by the typewriter was slow, allowing writers time to mull ideas over in their heads.  When I started out, I would type up a whole draft, read it through, out loud, mark it up and then type the whole thing again with its edits. I even physically cut up copies of my drafts with scissors and moved paragraphs around on the floor before retyping. This, to say the least, took a lot of time.

Computers changed the idea of drafts. My first computer was a PCJr with thermal paper — a Christmas gift from my father when I was in graduate school. Not only did the paper curl when it came out of the printer, the print faded with time. But I began to edit on a screen and didn’t have to use whiteout.

Every time I open a document today, I edit part of it. If I don’t like the sound of a sentence or a word, I simply delete what I’ve written and write over it. I rarely print out a draft to edit. I couldn’t tell you how many drafts any of my articles or essays go through. There’s no permanent record of all the different versions I’ve written.

Computers have made writing more accessible, faster, and have streamlined the process. I can erase a thought in a second — but with this comes a hefty responsibility. Writers need to be careful about what they put on the page because their thoughts can get ahead of them.  Writers must be disciplined and go back and carefully look at what they’ve said to make sure they’re not just rambling. They should make sure their work is worth a reader’s time and effort.

While technology has made the actual writing physically easier, it has also created way more methods to procrastinate.  Before, when I was stuck on a thought, I only had the TV, phone, and stereo to distract me.  Now I have email, Facebook, iTunes, and YouTube. That doesn’t even take into account the time I spend stalking people’s profiles and status updates, or the time I wander around my house picking up my dogs’ toys. The only thing that’s stayed the same is sitting down and staring into space.

Technology has also provided writers with more platforms to showcase their writing. Back in the day, writers were dependent on editors for publishing their work. Now writers can write blogs and self-publish their books. They ought to be even more disciplined about reading out loud and making sure their work is error-proofed. Eagerness to post is no excuse for sloppiness.

While it’s great there are so many opportunities out there for writers, the problem with making these platforms so available is just that — anyone can avail themselves of them. There is no policeman at the door making sure the work is worth showcasing. Similarly, there is no way for readers to figure out which work is worth their time and which they shouldn’t bother with. The market is saturated with writing and most of it is free. Writers are giving away their work, yet another problem with these platforms.

With the advent of the web, there’s this notion that the faster you write and get your material out there, the better — not so.

There are advantages to slowing down once in a while. Both young and experienced writers need to take advantage of writing with a pen or pencil and a pad of paper. I give my students that opportunity in class. You make a different connection to your brain when you write longhand. Your brain has time to process what you’re working on and doesn’t have to move at the rapid pace it moves at when you’re working on a computer.

I love the computer, and how it allows me to write faster than I can think sometimes, but I’m sad there won’t be drafts of writers’ work for us to study in the future. There’s a great lesson to be had by looking at the drafts writers go through in their revision process. It’s fun to see how writers edited their work before they considered it finished.

Students need to know that even though they may not see evidence of their favorite writers writing draft after draft, all writers write multiple drafts.  Writers probably make more changes to their drafts now that it’s so easy to do so. Student writers need to remember that no matter what utensil they use, rewriting and drafting is the key to making a final product a worthwhile one.

emMorgan Baker is a professor of writing, literature, and publishing, a freelance writer, and a Beacon columnist. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications. Baker can be reached at morgan_baker@emerson.edu/em