Technology: Help Or Hindrance To Writers?

My brother is texting me from Colorado about the election. There are approximately 800 more pressing things I should be doing, but I go back and forth with him about the vote on whether to legalize weed in his state. Between texts, I try to respond to an email but my keyboard has decided that it hates the letters G, T, B, and N, making it impossible for me to tell anyone “no” or even “maybe.”

“It’s got to be a short in the keyboard,” my brother texts. This is no good. I have a column (this one) due stat. I tell him so, because he is a computer guru and should therefore be able to fix any technological problem despite being 1,400 miles away. “What’s your column on?” he asks.

“Technology, and whether it’s helping or hurting our productivity. The irony is not lost on me.” I am ripping letters off the keyboard and shooting pressurized air into every crevice. The sound terrifies my cat, who leaps across my office, leaving a gash down my arm. I am bleeding like an emo kid. USB cords are tangled all over my desk as I search for another functional keyboard. My phone buzzes as my brother texts advice. Others are asking where I’m watching election results. For the thousandth time, I find myself pining for a quiet room with nothing in it but a desk, a typewriter or notebook, and maybe an Irish coffee.

Many believe that Satan is the father of lies, but I'd argue that the title might go to the internet.

I wish I were making all this up. I’m not. My love/hate relationship with technology often bends toward the “hate” end of that scale, but let’s be honest: If there were no benefits to the computer age, I would actually be using a notebook rather than looking for a replacement keyboard right now. I feel like one of those people who threatens to move to Canada if their candidate isn’t elected, then backtracks because it’s, you know, pretty cold up there.

The question remains: Do modern conveniences and the internet make us more productive as writers or just more distracted? Solow's Productivity Paradox (named for Nobel Laureate/economist Robert Solow) says, "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics." Let's figure out whether it's true. It’s laptop vs. typewriter, internet vs. card catalog, analog vs. digital, screen-induced eye strain vs. pen-induced hand cramp…a battle to the death.

 

Factor: Access to information

Back in my day, if you wanted to know how many people a year are killed by hippos or how fast you’d have to be in order to outrun one, you’d have to walk through the snow, up the mountain to a building called a library. Once there, you’d need to stick your face into an actual card catalog and call upon your intimate knowledge of the Dewey decimal system in order to find the answers. If you wanted to interview an expert for some aspect of the book you were writing, you’d have to track down his or her phone number, dial it using a spinning disc with holes in it, and make an appointment. Today, you can sit in the comfort of your office and use Google to find instant answers to damn near any question or to find the contact details for almost anyone. This more efficient way of accessing information significantly shortens our research time and leaves us with more time for actual writing.

So the point goes to: Computers

 

Factor: Accurate information

The vast resources at our fingertips are useful, to be sure, but they're also fraught with peril. Many believe that Satan is the father of lies, but I'd argue that the title might go to the internet. Going back to the question of how many folks die via hippo each year—an issue that's relevant to each of our lives—we find answers ranging from "probably none" to "200 to 300" to "780" to "2,900 in Africa alone" to "12045 if my math is correct" to "8094058 human injuries over the span of one hippos [sic] life." The library card catalog might not have been the most convenient method of finding information, but by God, you could be assured that the answers you found within its dusty drawers were not provided by the 15-year-old pothead jackass who lives next door.

So the point goes to: Typewriters

 

Factor: Education and resources

It's possible to find a local group of writers you can regularly meet with face-to-face to workshop material, gather inspiration, and help each other meet goals. Of course it is. But what if you don't live in a city buzzing with literary energy? Maybe you live in a small town, an igloo, or some place where you have to risk being one of the 8094058 people attacked by hippos each year in order to get to your village. Then what? Internet to the rescue.

Online writers workshops and writing courses like the ones offered here on LitReactor can be a huge boost to productivity. I know what you're thinking: "Yeah, but you write for LitReactor, so you're biased." I see why you'd say that, but let me be totally straight with you: I don't contribute to LitReactor for prestige (blog posts are not the path to fame), for money (I started as a volunteer who didn't make a penny), or for lack of anything else to do (just ask my poor editors how far behind I get). I do it because after I'd stopped working at the magazine I was editing, I did nothing but sit around and talk about how I was going to write some short stories, going to write a novel, going to get some stuff published. Talk, talk, talk. Then I stumbled across the site, took a few courses, read some craft essays, stopped talking, and started writing. I write columns like this one because I feel like I owe these guys a little something for being the thing that finally helped me put some words on the page. There are more online support groups, workshops, educational courses, contests, and resources than ever right now and even if you don't live in a remote igloo, you'd be silly not to take advantage them.

So the point goes to: Computers

 

Factor: Ease of use

Things my typewriter never said to me: "This is an application downloaded from the internet. Are you sure you want to open it?" "An update is available. Would you like to download it now?" "How about now?" "Now?" "A virus has been detected." "Incorrect password. Please try again."

Things my typewriter never forced me to endure: The spinning rainbow beach ball of death, the blue screen of death, crash reports, hard drive crashes, shorted-out keyboards, lost work caused by power outages.

Point: Typewriters

 

Factor: Self-publishing options

Self-publishing isn't new. Ben Franklin self-published Poor Richard's Almanac. Thomas Paine self-published Common Sense. Mark Twain self-published Huckleberry Finn. What is new is the relative simplicity and affordability of self-publishing. Gone are the days when you needed a boat-load of cash, a buddy with a printing press, and a few thousand dead trees to get your book to the masses. That's not to say the process is flawless or without its challenges, just that—much like crossing the Andes—it's a bit easier today than it was a century ago. There are no shortage of self-publishing companies and platforms for writers who want to make their own way.
 
Point: Computers
 

Factor: Creativity and flow

How much time do you spend marketing your work online, managing social media profiles, answering emails, updating your websites, or using online tools to promote your readings or events? If you're like most authors, the answer is more than an hour a week. In some cases, WAY more than an hour a week. Pre-interwebz, you might have spent that time reading, daydreaming in the park, scribbling in a notebook, or brainstorming plot twists...you know, things that invite the muse to hang out with you. (You also might have spent it watching Price Is Right or tentacle porn, but let's pretend that's not the case.)

So not only has the digital age gobbled up time that you might've spent fostering creativity, every notification of new email, tweet, or Facebook message prevents you from getting "in the zone" and interrupts your flow of thoughts. Dave Eggers put it this way in an interview with The Guardian: "Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you’re called back to the surface every couple of minutes by an email, you can’t ever get back down. I have a great friend who became a Twitterer and he says he hasn’t written anything for a year."

Point: Typewriters

 

Factor: Revisions

For those too young to remember, Wite-Out—or "Liquid Paper" if you want to sound less like you're discussing a severe snowstorm or Aryan field trip—was a gloopy white liquid used to paint over mistakes you made while typing. (You could also use it in conjunction with those little round stickers that reinforced the holes in loose-leaf paper to give yourself a redneck French manicure, but that's a tip for another day.) No matter how careful you were, it would always end up smeared all over the page and across your face because no one was ever patient enough to wait for it to fully dry before trying to type another letter over the error. If you were using a notebook rather than a typewriter, there'd be scribbles and cross-outs where you'd made mistakes with your pen, or eraser debris in the margins of the pages where you'd made mistakes with a pencil.  The advantage to these primitive and ridiculous methods of error correction was that it was much less tempting to rewrite each sentence fourteen times before moving forward with the story you were working on. So you kids with your word processing fanciness and backspace keys, get off of my lawn.

Still, the point goes to: Computers

 

Factor: Distractibility and procrastination

We have come to the ultimate argument against modern conveniences...the idea that for every minute technology shaves off our research and revision time, it devours at least ten with unnecessary emails, social media distractions, and the ever-present siren call of auto-tuned memes and cat pictures. The cold white stare of a blank page is terrifying. Miniature puppies in teacups, less so. Sitting at an internet-connected computer, a writer's barrier to procrastination is less of a barrier and more of a fragile gossamer veil. There are ways around it: creating a not-to-do list as well as a to-do list ("I will not check Facebook until 1pm"), disconnecting your internet completely, or using programs like Leechblock for Firefox, StayFocused for Chrome, SelfControl, RescueTime, or Freedom. Still, there's no Reddit or Buzzfeed button on a typewriter.

Point: Typewriters


The final score? Computers, 4. Typewriters, 4.

Looks like it's up to you to break the tie. (I, um, did that on purpose.) Think about it and tell us the truth: Would you get more actual writing done sitting at a desk with nothing but a typewriter or notebook, or in a modern office with an internet-connected computer?

Image of Monkeys with Typewriters: How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories
Author: Scarlett Thomas
Price:
Publisher: Canongate UK (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 488 pages
Kimberly Turner

Column by Kimberly Turner

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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Comments

Cait Spivey's picture
Cait Spivey from Portland, OR is reading I Don't, a Contrarian History of Marriage by Susan Squire November 8, 2012 - 9:34am

Typewriter, definitely. I'm supposed to be writing right now, in fact. 

Dennis's picture
Admin
Dennis from Los Angeles is reading The Outsider by Stephen King November 8, 2012 - 9:36am

Great article, Kim.  I laughed out loud multiple times at this, and agree with everything you said. When I need to get serious writing done, I usually go to a coffee shop and quit out every app but my writing software.  And I'll sometimes even disconnect from the store's WiFi.  It's the only thing that works for me.

David Aaron Fendley's picture
David Aaron Fendley November 8, 2012 - 9:46am

Distractions are the biggest problem I have with engaging writing. That being said, I'm doing more writing on my iPad and am enjoying it. The singular task approach helps keep me focused, though there is still the temptation to flip to another app.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 8, 2012 - 10:52am

Is it really bad I got distracted reading this?

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade November 8, 2012 - 10:55am

When shopping for a portable word processor, I decided that since the notebook I'm using right now and a portable word processor were the same price (@ $200), I'd be a smart shopper and buy the "better deal" ("better tool" - more for your money). 

But, the job for which I was "tool shopping" was writing. And I'm way too distracted by this computer's capabilities. I'm still regreting my decision....

If I'd bought that portable word processor, I'd have written more. 

I did buy a vintage Olympia manual typewriter for $1 from a garage sale a couple of months ago. I suppose that would be my portable word processor...except for the need for paper and the fact that it weighs 15 pounds...

Great article. I think I may end up buying that $200 word processor anyways. Girlfriend and daughters are constantly swiping my two laptops, anyway...(I have two computers and yet that's not enough! Just like if we had 2 1/2 bathrooms...I'd still be shut out of them, too...).

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books November 8, 2012 - 11:03am

You know, I think I'd still get more done on the computer. When I get stuck, I take a few minutes to read something unrelated on the internet, check my email, etc. I get a quick and easy brain break without leaving my workstation and opening myself up to a world of distractions. That W icon stares at me, and when I feel like I've got a clear head, I just close the browser and click on the W.

When I wrote everything longhand, getting stuck meant I left the house, or opened a book--leading to hours lost "clearing my head" instead of 10-20 minutes.

matches_malone's picture
matches_malone is reading Steppenwolf November 8, 2012 - 3:57pm

As someone with a PhD in procrastinating, I would say that computers are the greatest evil. They distract, constantly bother with updates, and the lure of social media is too great to get anything done (just ask me, I'm roughly 10,000 words behind my goal for nano and have spent the last two days switching between gmail, facebook, and tumblr).

That said, my typewriter has jammed and the ribbon is constantly running out of ink, so the computer is the more practical and efficient option of the two. Now if I could only turn off my Wi-fi...

fport's picture
fport from Canada is reading The World Until Yesterday - Jared Diamond November 8, 2012 - 7:32pm

It's all about discipline actually. Either you are ready to write or you are not. I've read in several places now, that it takes @ 21 days to form a habit. I need to get up at 4 ayem sharp. That at my advanced age means getting  into bed at 8 pm and sleeping. I do this five nights a week as regular as clockwork. Summer or winter. Quitting smoking was a cold turkey event, a month later I was done with it totally - that was 25 years ago.

The computer is a source of distractions. I don't have some wimpy thing either. I have a workstation. To the uninitiated that means a dual xeon, 24Gb RAM, dual GPU GFX card, 6Tb of HD's and 4900x1600 pixels of screen in three parts. People often groan and say, what do you do with all that, I answer, anything I please.

But when I sit down to research or write this baby hums. There is no wheezing, nothing slows down to rest or pause. Scrivener for Windows is my latest tool which I am breaking in slowly, it comes highly rated and a buddy formatted his book handily with the mac version, he swears by it. Does anyone know how to make a font the default for everything. I've been through the damn thing a dozen times and the answer is not jumping out at me, is it a windows thing?

Anyway, I'm firmly in the COMPUTER camp, there are just too many advantages from backup, revision, rewriting, researching, multiple draft keeping, corrections. But like everything else in this world, when you want to do something you have to commit. Time. Effort. Concentration. Focus. That's my thoughts on the matter

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David November 10, 2012 - 8:16pm

I loved my typewriter. I was as easily distracted with it as I am my laptop.

 

I love having information, pictures, and ideas at my finger-tips with my computer. Example: How much does a Russian MRV warhead weigh? I need to know if you can put one in a Toyota Land Cruiser, and how many guys are needed to lift it. Janes's Defense Weekly's reference books are in the library 20 miles away. Federation of Atomic Scientists is on the net.

The lone old-school resource never to be replaced is the public library. Wandering the stacks if the best cure for writer's block. Old newspapers on Micro-Film are a window on the past unequaled by the internet (so far).

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 10, 2012 - 10:10pm

I'm pen and paper myself, although for the first time I am forcing myself to write a book on a computer. It feels odd.

@Marc Ferris - A computer in the house saves a ton of time, I just know for me (and I think many who try) it might go better to have it in the next room.

machinemoney's picture
machinemoney from Arkansas is reading He Still Speaks December 26, 2012 - 3:15pm

While I prefer pen and paper, I often resort to my netbook for most of my random journaling. Though, I recently purchased a late 70's model Smith Corona Galaxie 12 typewriter for five bucks at a thrift shop. It needs some repairs, but I'm looking forward to doing some writing without the convenience of internet entertainment to disturb me.