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10 Famous Writers Who Don't Use Modern Tech to Create
February 21, 2014 12:55 AM   Subscribe

10 Famous Writers Who Don't Use Modern Tech to Create

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posted by Evilspork (100 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
"These are the pens I'm going to write Grindhouse with."

There is an advertisement for Apple computer in here somewhere.

I get that taking pen to paper is a bad ass way of writing. It takes some old school mental muscles to be able to do a large part of the editing in your head produce a more or less final paragraphs and chapters. I feel fortunate when I am able to complete the message on a birthday card and it's easy to be jealous of a guy like Bill Clinton who wrote out his draft memoirs in longhand.

But I don't think it works this way for too many people and it's a lot easier to edit - and share - using a word processor and it would seem to me that as a tool for creativity most people are better off with modern tech and the more of it the better.
posted by three blind mice at 1:11 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Well I never use modern tech to create famous writers. I do it the old fashioned way: sexual reproduction, and then many years of poor parenting, creating a desire in my children to escape the horrors of their stifling home environment by retreating to the safe, fantasy world of books, eventually resulting in shocking but brilliant biographical account(s) of dealing with a monsterous father who tried to crush their imaginative talents. That's the plan anyway - you might wanna check all good book stores 25 years from now to see how it worked out. Wish me luck!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 1:34 AM on February 21 [78 favorites]


I'd argue that a computer using WordStar is still pretty modern. I doubt that this is sufficient explanation for GRRM's writing speed. Actually, I much rather doubt that any novel writer would get a reasonable benefit due to switching from WordStar to Word 2020. If not the exact opposite, which is why a rather large amount of people one wouldn't consider luddites stick to weapons from a more civilized age.

If you've got some time to spare, ask some older journalists about XyWrite.
posted by pseudocode at 1:34 AM on February 21 [7 favorites]


I am typing this list out by hand:

Quentin Tarantino
George R.R. Martin
Joyce Carol Oates
Neil Gaiman
Amy Tan
Tom Wolfe
George Clooney
Danielle Steel
Jhumpa Lahiri
P.J. O'Rourke

I mean come on, given the absolute obsession with most writers about the velleities of their craft, this is the best Mashable can do?!

The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers
posted by chavenet at 1:40 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


I don't think the tools used are a sign of anything except the writer's rituals for writing. Many writers seem to rely on having things "just so" to get in a writing mood, which makes this kind of interesting, if you like or hate one of the writers (Tarantino seems to me like the kind of person to throw things around, which is safer with a pen and notebook), but not really meaningful.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:52 AM on February 21


There was a vogue among the NaNoWriMo folks for awhile for these little laptop-sized things that were basically just a keyboard and a little screen of text. I forget what they were called, but they were, I think, sub-$100. On Googling: Alphasmarts. I think there's an appeal to working on a device where you cannot in an instant alt-tab away to Wikipedia.

But I cannot envision writing that much longhand. I can't do more than a paragraph before I'm entirely illegible. I fantasize about being able to write like that because it seems terribly romantic, but I can't.
posted by Sequence at 1:52 AM on February 21


I get that taking pen to paper is a bad ass way of writing. It takes some old school mental muscles to be able to do a large part of the editing in your head produce a more or less final paragraphs and chapters.

Yes, although if you write in notebooks on one side of the page and on every other line, you can do almost as much re-editing as you would with one of these pesky new "word- processor" machines. You end up with a very messy first draft full of repeatedly crossed out insertions, with large brackets, circles, and lots of arrows, etc, but it does work.

But really great authors probably do roll out near-final text, the way JS Bach could sit down and improvise a perfect fugue that most of us would be planning on graph paper for a week beforehand, or the way Michaelangelo could paint large swathes of the Sistine Chapel freehand without prior drawing (I haven't got time to waste on painting).

Wasn't it one of the trials for people who wanted to be Druids that they had to spend a night in a tank of water with only their nose above the surface, and in the morning have twenty perfect stanzas on a subject given just before they submerged?
posted by Segundus at 1:54 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


John McPhee uses a computer, but he uses ancient software and an elaborate process that's well worth a read.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 2:20 AM on February 21 [6 favorites]


But really great authors probably do roll out near-final text

I read that Thomas Mann used to write one page of completed prose per day
posted by thelonius at 2:43 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Hmm, to each his own. For me when it comes to creative writing it makes more sense to use paper when trying to make something from nothing. It can be dissected, sure, but I'll leave that for scientists to write a paper about. Then I'll take it and cut it up to write a story around it because why not.

Computers are great for editing though.
posted by whorl at 2:44 AM on February 21


George R. R. Martin uses WordStar on DOS!! Okay, now I like him again. I'm sure he'll kill off someone great though and reverse that polarity.
posted by JHarris at 2:50 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


JHarris: "George R. R. Martin uses WordStar on DOS!! Okay, now I like him again."

Well, it's kind of appropriate, he writes medieval fantasy, after all.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:56 AM on February 21 [10 favorites]


Word has gotten worse and worse for writing anything, even 300 words in a blogpost. I'll use wordpad for the editability but don't want a bunch of animated cartoons in my face.
posted by infini at 3:19 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


A lot of writers use longhand for a first draft and then use typing up their prose as a first pass at editing.
posted by NoraReed at 3:25 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


Of course there are matters of contemplation time and privacy, I've often wondered if the process of creating writing with an implement like a pen or a brush connects differently with the brain than tapping keys.

Also, I'm short on time, but believe Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison would qualify...
posted by childofTethys at 3:35 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


The smell of the paper, the feel of great pen in your hand, the sound it makes as it travels across the paper. One can physically cross things out, your hand travels down the page, your body shifts. You are not an abstract level away from the writing, as when typing on the keyboard, but literally applying your own motion and energy to make marks on paper and will something into existence.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:39 AM on February 21 [6 favorites]


I have two journals I bought for cheap at Borders (RIP) that contain my entire dissertation, in longhand, along with about 6000 variations on "FUCK! Why is this so fucking hard?! GAAAAAH. I should have been an actuary." Of course, then I LaTeXed it up and tweaked a bunch of the proofs afterwards. But the first draft of the whole thing was pen on paper.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:40 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


I cherish any opportunity to work with anything that isn't a computer, personally. I'm bored shitless by computers after spending so much time on them over the last 15 years. My notebooks also don't harass me with popup messages, or assume that, because I wrote about ham hocks, I want to see ads for black-eyed peas.
posted by thelonius at 3:42 AM on February 21 [10 favorites]


It is not that I hate the technology. What I hate is them telling me that I am not entitled to work at the level of technology that best serves my purpose. Form follows function. If writing something creative is best served in your venue by using a quill pen, standing up at a lectern, then you do it. If it works best using a Pentium, then you do that. I operate at a level where I can best produce material using a manual typewriter. It fits my need. I get pleasure out of it. I get no pleasure from using a computer.

-Harlan Ellison
posted by Splunge at 3:45 AM on February 21 [7 favorites]


I remember things better if I write them down by hand, and so my many to-do lists and the like get that treatment. Similarly, if I want to really think through something, I hand write my through it.

And when it comes time to type – and there's a fair bit of typing in my life ... – I go straight to good ole Scrivener. Word is a miserable experience for getting things down; Scrivener ain't.
posted by barnacles at 3:47 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


I would be terrified to write a work as big as a novel without periodic off-site backups. Although I guess that you could Xerox the hand written pages and mail the copies somewhere every day.
posted by octothorpe at 3:54 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Such romantic nonsense. Ptui. Use what works, for you. Selectric? Charming! If you love using it, enjoy it. It feels lovely, and the impact of head on paper is sensual. But that doesn't make the writing or the writer one bit better than someone else who prefers Wordstar (hip hip HORAY for Wordstar! I still miss it), or someone who uses a more modern program, or a fountain pen on expensive paper (puh-lease), or scratching it out with a burnt stick on some old timbers.
posted by Goofyy at 4:01 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


I do all of my writing on clay tablets in Babylonian cuneiform. I hope someday to be able to read it.
posted by graymouser at 4:16 AM on February 21 [16 favorites]


I am a computational biologist, and I use fairly sophisticated technology to do my work.

Most of my manuscripts and grant applications start written on paper, longhand. I find it easier to get the ideas out of my head that way.
posted by grouse at 4:22 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


I use WordPerfect. That's almost Stone Age.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:34 AM on February 21


I dictate to Bulstrode, the amanuensis my parents hired when I was a lad. He still has some years in him, I think.

Mr. Vessel Automatic is a tosser.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 4:36 AM on February 21 [9 favorites]


IBM Model M keyboard. Linux. Emacs or vim. No network connection.

The perfect writing and editing environment.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:47 AM on February 21 [6 favorites]


That is oddly inspiring.
posted by zardoz at 4:51 AM on February 21


I can't read my own writing anymore. If I were to start writing long hand, the first thing I'd need to do is relearn how to print again. So I'm pretty much stuck using modern tech at this point.

I don't mind MS Word. 2013 is pretty plain looking and unobtrusive leaving you with an empty page and a cursor awaiting input.
posted by birdherder at 4:54 AM on February 21


octothorpe: "I would be terrified to write a work as big as a novel without periodic off-site backups. Although I guess that you could Xerox the hand written pages and mail the copies somewhere every day."

As an undergrad, I photocopied field notes for an archaeologist for this purpose (though not every day--they'd start photocopying when they returned from the field). One for the office, one for the lab, one for home. There wasn't a copy sent to collaborators on the other side of the world on the grounds that when the entire region was devastated by a massive earthquake and all three copies were destroyed simultaneously, the field notes were probably not going to seem that important.
posted by hoyland at 5:17 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Iirc, James Ellroy writes his books longhand as well.
posted by jonmc at 5:21 AM on February 21


It takes some old school mental muscles to be able to do a large part of the editing in your head produce a more or less final paragraphs and chapters.

I doubt the first drafts of novels these writers are talking about are "more or less final."

Also, what pseudocode said about GRR Martin. WordStar -- WordStar! -- is the worst of both worlds, to my mind. It lacks the visceral advantage of writing something new by hand, thougtfully and hesitantly, and is at the same time such a primitive and clunky mark-up pre-wysiwyg way of wrangling on-screen text that it lacks all the easy transparency of contemporary word proc programs...

To use WS in this day and age is a deliberate act of self-flagellation.

My initial reaction to the FPP link was that the author of this listicle doesn't know much about writers if they think it's unusual for a prose writer to write a first draft by hand. I think it's actually fairly common to start longhand and type a revised second draft into the computer and polish for publication from there.

Honestly, the GRRM WordStar bit was way more startling than any of the novelists who write drafts by hand.

Word has gotten worse and worse for writing anything, even 300 words in a blogpost. I'll use wordpad for the editability but don't want a bunch of animated cartoons in my face.

I use Word 2010 every day of the week for work, somewhat less frequently but still regularly for my personal writing, and I have no idea what you're talking about. The days of the paperclippy thing are long gone, if that's what you're alluding to. I actually think the current version of Word is better than the 10 years ago version.
posted by aught at 5:24 AM on February 21


I encode all my comments on strands of DNA before posting them. Not because it's efficient or romantic but because I really dislike the bactreia I store them on.

I do think some authors should be sentenced to write only on manual typewriters for all drafts. I bet we'd have fewer 10 800-page book series full of meandering plotting and bloated prose with this plan. Of course, I also think that if George Martin had to face being punched hard every time he wrote a killing, Westeros would settle down a bit.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:25 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


I would be terrified to write a work as big as a novel without periodic off-site backups.

They probably don't even sell carbon paper anymore, do they?
posted by aught at 5:27 AM on February 21


I would be terrified to write a work as big as a novel without periodic off-site backups.

Scan the pages! Keep it old/new school!
posted by Decani at 5:31 AM on February 21


I just think about that scene at the end of Wonder Boys (both the novel and the movie) with the pages of the giant novel flying everywhere.
posted by octothorpe at 5:32 AM on February 21


You know who else likes typewriters?

That's right, this guy!
posted by tommasz at 5:32 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


It lacks the visceral advantage of writing something new by hand, thougtfully and hesitantly, and is at the same time such a primitive and clunky mark-up pre-wysiwyg way of wrangling on-screen text that it lacks all the easy transparency of contemporary word proc programs...

What kind of WYSI(sorta-kinda)WYG markup would a novelist need? Highlighting every scene in pink where you think there's not enough incest?

Most of the time you need quick navigation (e.g. keyboard shortcuts), maybe some kind of annotations (and "don't print a line that starts with a dot" ain't that bad) and a stable environment. Keyboard macros don't hurt, either (F3 -> insert "boiled leather").

Note that a lot of the modern "distraction-free" editors that are all the rage (esp. on iPads and the like) strangely look a lot like the text mode editors of old, possibly with less garish colors.
posted by pseudocode at 5:33 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


he said he'd love to keep using typewriters, but "you can't keep typewriters going today -- you have to take the ribbons back to be re-inked. There's a horrible search to try to find missing parts."

What's he doing, tossing his typewriter out the window from time to time? I got a drawer full of ribbons at home; they're not hard to get. And my fleet of old typewriters never loses parts.
posted by JanetLand at 5:41 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


They forgot Jonathan Franzen. He uses an antique quill that is dipped in India ink salvaged from a 1500's shipwreck.
posted by reenum at 5:41 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


Margaret Atwood writes her first drafts in longhand.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:46 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Neal Stephenson wrote The Baroque Cycle in long hand which didn't keep him from being painfully long-winded.
posted by octothorpe at 6:01 AM on February 21


Clooney even uses the old-timey technology of a manservant to type up his longhand!
posted by Beardman at 6:04 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


I can only imagine how bloated QT's work would be if he did use a computer.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:30 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


George R. R. Martin IS old-fashioned - he still has a livejournal account.
posted by signalandnoise at 6:30 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Oh. I forgot git! I love you, revision control!
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:51 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


I think people ought to write with what works. I write with a pencil, an impeccably maintained Swiss manual typewriter, an Alphasmart 3000, and, when I have to, a fucking computer, but when I'm rich and famous, I'm going to do all my first drafts on an impeccably maintained Swiss manual typewriter, mark them up with a red pencil, then key them into an impeccably maintained Kaypro II that some lovely technical fellow has somehow wired up for me so that I can store my documents to an SD card for more broadly accessible access instead of a clonky 35 year-old 5.25 floppy drive.

I prefer the latter solution because (A) my perfect writing environment is a dark, quiet room with two candles burning on either side of my writing device and music screaming into my ears through a pair of huge old AKG studio headphones, (B) I have the disease of internet, which, for someone with attention problems, is like giving a heroin addict a truckload of needles and one million dollars in cash, and (C) I think ease and convenience have jointly ruined editing and revision, because one no longer needs to go through that pesky stage of actually reading one's entire book before shitting it directly into the mouth of a publisher, and further because digital writing is weightless, and therefore there's no drive whatsoever for concision. Lathe of Heaven is 175 pages long, but contains multitudes.

Distraction-free writing apps are a step, I suppose, but I find that they embody a false sort of simplicity, floating on a dark, deep sea of possibilities that you, as a person suffering from the internet, must singlehandedly manage. For those without the disease, it's probably easier, but having a nearly infinite library within arm's reach is a tragedy for me.

I do always laugh at the complaints about how hard it is to keep using a manual typewriter. Yeah, those ribbons are sooo hard to find that I have to climb onto my bicycle, ride four minutes to the Office Supply store, and buy them, or—and I know this one is difficult—one needs to spend five minutes online, and buy them. Virtually every manual typewriter still in service uses the exact same half-inch nylon ribbon, either in all black (for twice the use, by switching from your black setting to red) or black/red. Maintenance is knowing what to oil and what not to oil (NEVER NEVER NEVER oil the basket) and not bashing your typewriter around like a kid's dolly.
posted by sonascope at 6:55 AM on February 21 [9 favorites]


I'm not a novelist, but I do have to write a lot for work, and for anything important I always start with pen and paper. Even if it's just a basic outline, pen and paper work much better for my initial process, and when things are really complicated I'll do the full first draft on paper. Computers are fantastic for editing, but especially as documents get long composition on a computer gets too linear and the screen is too small (I have dual monitors, but that's still way more limited than my actual desktop). Sometimes you want to cover your desk with pages and look at how things relate, or you want to be able to instantly flip back to an earlier page without either spinning a scroll wheel or ctrl-f for a remembered phrase; it's also less intrusive to my initial writing process to just draw a arrows and stars and marginalia of things to fix later than it is to do the actual selecting and moving of text or whatever.

And a pad of paper never signals incoming email or offers a "quick" break to check some things online.

As someone who used to hate Word, though, I'd agree with the comment above that the current version is fine and unintrusive. I suspect that it spelling and grammar suggestions lead to flatter writing -- I've had perfectly fine sentences flagged by the grammar checker many times -- but that's easy to turn off and I'm sure that 99 percent of the time it's catching actual errors.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:57 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


I started writing on computers -- the first Mac came out my Freshman year of high school -- and the idea of writing anything longer than a short poem by hand fills me with existential terror. I just can't imagine how people do it.

But, to the point of Harlan Ellison, what works works, and you'd be foolish to do what doesn't work for you. So if longhand works, use longhand. If a typewriter works, use a typewriter. Right now, I use a computer and Word or Google Docs. Works for me, so that's how I write. Some people swear by Scrivener, which I find an incomprehensible program, but hey, if they like it, good for them.
posted by jscalzi at 7:22 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


I think people ought to write with what works.

Totally disagree. I write on a keybordd, snd I yhink tharrtt iut realky mak-ah fuck it, maybe you have a poitn.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:23 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


I suspect that it spelling and grammar suggestions lead to flatter writing

Of course, Word would have caught that kind of dumb mistake, so score one for Word and zero for me.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:43 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


I would be terrified to write a work as big as a novel without periodic off-site backups.

It's probably not as much of an issue anymore with autosave and stuff like Dropbox, but until recently I can completely appreciate someone who felt "safer" using a typewriter than a computer and word processor for a significant piece of writing.

When you hit the key and type a letter onto a page in a typewriter, that letter is now on that piece of paper. Short of destroying the paper, it's there. There's no remembering to press 'save', or having the power go out and losing a bunch of work, or having a disk go bad, or any of the other myriad perils of the early PC age. Any of those things could happen, it seemed, much more easily than your house burning down and taking a manuscript box with it. (And you could always stick paper in a fire safe if you were concerned; I think Stephen King mentions at some point having a gun safe in his writing office where he stores unpublished manuscripts and drafts at the end of the day.)

It's only pretty recently that digital storage has gotten to the point where it's probably safer to have something in electronic format on your computer, backed up every few seconds to a datacenter somewhere (with all the previous versions saved as well), than to have a stack of paper.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:48 AM on February 21


Writing sounds dangerously nouveau and fadish, I make sure everything is kept as a memorized oral account.
posted by The Whelk at 7:52 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Carbon paper exists, my community mediation center stocks it because it's an easy way to create a copy of a confidential agreement that is hand-written.

Also, handwritten items can be scanned for preservation, or for George Clooney's manservant to transcribe...
posted by childofTethys at 7:54 AM on February 21


Lies. We all know P.J. O'Rourke writes with a fountain pen dipped in blood he buys from the desperate local unemployed. He describes it as "doing his bit for the unfortunate".
posted by benito.strauss at 8:04 AM on February 21


Gaiman's pen of choice: a Lamy 2000 fountain pen--an awesome writing instrument!

I can see, to an extent, why so many writers might use pen and ink, an old school typewriter, or even a DOS word processor: all of these tools make it very hard to multitask. While there was the hipster trend of "distraction free writing environments," they all seemed absurdly easy to override--you might have been saved a bunch of beeps, but if you felt the need to see what's happening on twitter, command-tab (or alt-tab) is all you needed to do.

When writing with a pen, it's a lot harder to cheat. Yes, if the laptop is right over your notebook, you can glance at it, but to do anything, you have to put the pen down, which is a serious context shift. While it's been years since I used a typewriter, I suspect the same phenomenon applies. I know many first drafts of blog posts originate in a notebook with a fountain pen.

So, for writing, my first choice tends to be a fountain pen. When I need to convert the ink into bits (or things that live all-electric), I favor EMACS (even if I think RMS has "pompous ass" far in his review mirror).
posted by MrGuilt at 8:05 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


I would be terrified to write a work as big as a novel without periodic off-site backups.

Wasn't it losing a MS on a not-backed-up hard drive that sent Neal Stephenson back to writing drafts longhand? Maybe I am confusing him with someone else, but would have sworn I remember reading that he had to re-write one of his books (Cryptonomicon?) from scratch. (And then later said it actually resulted in a better book.) A couple quick Googles don't turn anything up, though all the people summarizing the plots of his books in reviews complicate key word searches (draft, hard drive, manuscript). Oh well.
posted by aught at 8:27 AM on February 21


Pen and paper also helps, as someone said above, when the framing and context are not linear. A roughly sketched diagram or mindmap is often teh first step in the synthesis phase before the actual writing of anything which tends to come much later.
posted by infini at 8:43 AM on February 21


And yes, a Lamy is what I own, I've had one their fountain pens since 1977.
posted by infini at 8:44 AM on February 21


They forgot Jonathan Franzen. He uses an antique quill that is dipped in India ink salvaged from a 1500's shipwreck.

I bet he also wears a fedora while he writes.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:45 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


I'd say sports, boredom and age have far more to do with GRRM's writing speed then any bit of technology.
posted by happyroach at 8:51 AM on February 21


Of course, we'd all go back to pen and paper if this sort of thing goes viral.

Writing The Snowden Files: 'The paragraph began to self-delete'

posted by infini at 8:54 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Second the Lamy love (with J. Herbin ink).

I usually write in ink one day and transcribe/revise the stuff the next day on the computer. The first draft comes fast and loose, and the second one is more detailed. I like the fact that I can get away from the screen from time to time, and that I don't have to lug a computer around to work.
posted by Omon Ra at 8:56 AM on February 21


For legal writing I just dump it into LibreOffice and walk away, screaming and filthy. For writing I care about I use WriteRoom. Pen and paper would be a bad idea, since even I can barely read my English handwriting.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:20 AM on February 21


Anyone under 40 (or even 50) on this list? Then it's not very surprising. Find me a list of famous twenty-somethings that aren't writing their next self published best selling novel on their phones and then I'd be surprised.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:23 AM on February 21


I'm just hitting 50 and it does seem like I've always been right at the pivot point of the generations being comfortable with computers. When I went to college, I was the only one of my friends who owned a computer (C64) and was thought a bit of a weirdo for being into that stuff. I remember a friend asking me if I really wanted to sit in front of a screen my whole life.

A lot of people my age seem to use computers but don't really like them and only do it begrudgingly.

My wife is only five years younger but in terms of technology, it really seems like she's from a much younger generation.
posted by octothorpe at 9:52 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Because the gods have not as yet gifted us with
Either the novel or the brailler, clever Homer
Has been reduced to composing epic poéms
Through the use of stock epithets and other
Formulae to fill out lines of hexametric
Periods -- it's easier to memorize them.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:53 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


I favor EMACS (even if I think RMS has "pompous ass" far in his review mirror).

RMS doesn't really code anymore, and Emacs is now maintained by Stefan Monnier and Yidong Chen, who always seem quite civil in any writings I've seen. The speed of Emacs development seems to have increased in recent years as well. It took 10 years to go from Emacs 20 to Emacs 22, but only five to go to Emacs 24.
posted by grouse at 9:54 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


Wendell Berry also writes entirely in longhand, as far as I've ever known.

I like writing longhand and do it quite a bit for field notes and outlines, but I'm amazed that people can do it consistently without killing their hands and wrists. All it takes for me is a good hour of longhand and I'm ready to chop my arm off.
posted by still bill at 9:56 AM on February 21


Surprised that Paul Auster isn't on this list, since writing with pen and paper has bled into his narrative fiction.
posted by pxe2000 at 10:06 AM on February 21


You know who else likes typewriters?

me. Ever since I was fourteen -- forty years ago now. Indeed, the reason I started typing (as opposed to longhanding it) was I'd decided I wouldn't be taken seriously as a writer if I couldn't type using all my fingers.

But jump ahead ten years and I was already cutting and pasting my stuff, moving this paragraph to here, getting rid of these three paragraphs altogether (but not throwing them out, just dumping them into my REJECT folder).

And so on. The transition to a word processor (in 1987 as I recall) was inevitable and easy. Don't know about a phone though. I sort of need that eight or ten inch spread of keys to work with any speed, and speed is the thing -- having the words take form almost as fast as I'm thinking them (faster than I could say them sometimes I'm pretty sure).

Though I do still write longhand regularly (in my journal), and even pull out my old Smith-Corona manual (ie: non-electric) typewriter every now and then ... when I'm getting too bogged down in something, not getting to the end of it. It's also good for when I get spikes of tendonitis. Something about having to really pound those keys to get words to show up on paper, working the muscles. I highly recommend it.
posted by philip-random at 10:07 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


Of course, when I become a raging overnight success, I intend to deny that I do any writing on a typewriter, in order to keep prices down until I've purchased enough spares. I still wish I'd bought more Hermes manual portables for backup before goddamn McMurtry thanked his 3000 in his award speech and rendered them forever elevated in price, even for the shitty square plastic French ones.
posted by sonascope at 10:13 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Talking about typewriters v. word processors always reminds me of David Gerrold's words in his book about writing the Trouble with Tribbles episode of Star Trek:

"...in 1966 I met my first love. An IBM Selectric Typewriter. Such Beauty! Such Grace! Such a Joy to Behold! And it typed nice too. The only reason I mention that fact is that the IBM Selectric was such a superior machine to the ten-year-old Smith-Corona portable it had replaced that my output zoomed up from six pages per eight hours of sweating to thirty pages—and no sweat at all! Imagine that! A machine that could produce five times as much shit. Just what the world needed."
posted by JanetLand at 10:13 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


And he goes on from there: "More important though, the Selectric’s efficiency made it possible for me to get my ideas down onto the paper with a minimum of physical effort. The typewriter had ceased to be an obstacle between me and the paper. I tried to explain this once to a (would-be) playwright who still wrote his manuscripts longhand (I shudder to think of it), but he couldn’t cope with the idea that an efficient typewriter is a valuable working tool. Oh, well—try to explain your first love to someone else, they just won’t understand."
posted by JanetLand at 10:16 AM on February 21


> Wendell Berry also writes entirely in longhand, as far as I've ever known

And then, famously, his wife does all the typing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:25 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


>Surprised that Paul Auster isn't on this list, since writing with pen and paper has bled into his narrative fiction.

From a 2003 interview in Paris Review:
I’ve always written by hand. Mostly with a fountain pen, but sometimes with a pencil—especially for corrections. If I could write directly on a typewriter or a computer, I would do it. But keyboards have always intimidated me. I’ve never been able to think clearly with my fingers in that position. A pen is a much more primitive instrument. You feel that the words are coming out of your body and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had that tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.
posted by aught at 10:34 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Wendell Berry also writes entirely in longhand

Well, yeah, he's Wendell Berry, "poet-farmer" and self-proclaimed luddite.

(On preview, also, what the corpse in the library said, which is mentioned in my link too.)
posted by aught at 10:40 AM on February 21


I keep thinking about the book I want to write when I retire -- if I ever do. I have liked writing on computers since their early days, as I write slowly with many revisions, and because I like seeing the way the paragraphs look on the page.

But for a book, I know in my heart I'd want an IBM Selectric (shout out to janetland!), a machine I haven't used much since the 1980s. I love the way the keys sound striking the page with a Selectric, the ability to back up and dump a misplaced word or comma without losing the train of thought, and the pages piling up beside the machine, ripe for careful editing.

The great thing about typewriters, too, as people have noted, is that there is nothing going on but you and the page. No matter how inobtrusive the app or word processing program, the temptation to be distracted and check, e.g., the blue, is just too great.

For me, though, pen/cil and paper is never going to be in the cards. Not since I got my one and only flunk, a "U" for unsatisfactory, in 4th grade. No one, including me, really can read my handwriting. And I am not a fan of the way the look of the words changes from the handwritten page to the typewritten one.

Also, not going Danielle Steele's unwashed-for-two-to-three-weeks route. No wonder she writes such basically disgusting books.
posted by bearwife at 11:10 AM on February 21


Joe Hill writes longhand as well. Here’s his advice for staying away from the timesuck that is the Interwebs.

When I started trying to write a novel it began on a manual typewriter. It’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Slow to key, impossible to change misspellings or punctuation errors, and the constant changing of ribbons and paper. There are plenty of reasons that the typewriter has died and all of them good. Switching to a computer was a dream come true.

I have ADHD and even with no Internet, I can find distractions aplenty until putting one letter after another takes hold. Even then an interruption or outside distraction can ruin my day. If I get into hyperfocus mode I can remain locked in. But writing on something with no Internet is not a solution.

I had a novel that I thought was actually pretty good. Solid characters, prose that worked, and a plot that moved forward on a consistent basis. I was editing it when our computer’s hard drive died and I discovered that what I thought was the backup version on another PC was only half the book. For three years I tried to recreate those missing chapters and I utterly failed. Now everything is backed up on two PCs, a laptop, and three external hard drives. I am not fucking around.

The fantasy book I’m working on now got its start when I worked at a publishing company. In long meetings or training sessions, I would worldbuild and outline chapters into a notebook. Writing in longhand I found it was hard to keep pace with my thoughts. Those outlines have some very bad handwriting. But they gave me everything I needed to craft what I think is a believable world and a twisted plot. But to really write it, I needed to go back to a computer.

The version of Word that is on Office 365 is the best yet. Grammar corrections are not too intrusive, the animated paperclip is long gone, and I can burn words at a furious pace on it.

I write best in the afternoon, burning stick after stick of red Nag Champa and music blaring. I have a man cave with hundreds of books, a stereo system fed by my computer, and the Great Goblin standing on one of my bookshelf speakers. It’s about as good as a writing environment as I can think of and most days it works. It got me through writing book one and well into book two (in this genre, you gotta have three). Now if I could only figure out how to write a fucking query letter that won’t fail.
posted by Ber at 11:19 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


But that doesn't make the writing or the writer one bit better than someone else who prefers Wordstar (hip hip HORAY for Wordstar! I still miss it), or someone who uses a more modern program, or a fountain pen on expensive paper (puh-lease), or scratching it out with a burnt stick on some old timbers.

I missed the part where they said it did.

I actually think the current version of Word is better than the 10 years ago version.

Wow, that’s quite the enthusiastic Microsoft endorsement. Could the bar get any lower?

Find me a list of famous twenty-somethings that aren't writing their next self published best selling novel on their phones and then I'd be surprised.

I often don’t have a lot of hope for the future either.
posted by bongo_x at 11:44 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


From the Wikipedia page on WordStar:

WordStar was the program of choice for conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., who used the software to write very many works, including his last book. This was noted by his son, Christopher Buckley, who wrote of the almost comical loyalty and affection his father had shown for WordStar, which he had installed into every new computer he purchased despite the technical difficulty of such an endeavor as the program became increasingly outdated and incompatible with newer computers. He said of WordStar, "I'm told there are better programs, but I'm also told there are better alphabets." Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer continues to use a customized version of WordStar for DOS to write his novels, as does George R. R. Martin.

Despite its age, it's notable that WordStar is still under copyright, and legal copies are very hard to find.
posted by JHarris at 11:44 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


>I actually think the current version of Word is better than the 10 years ago version.

Wow, that’s quite the enthusiastic Microsoft endorsement. Could the bar get any lower?


I don't feel the same about most Adobe apps I need to use so it actually is saying something.

Find me a list of famous twenty-somethings that aren't writing their next self published best selling novel on their phones and then I'd be surprised.

Find me a novel that was written on a smartphone that's worth reading and I'd be surprised.
posted by aught at 12:18 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]


I have heard from more than one eyewitness author-friend that YA author Lauren Oliver writes much of her books on her smartphone.
posted by changeling at 12:52 PM on February 21


I write a paper first draft in pencil because I love sharpening pencils. Instead of taking a break to piss around on the internet, I take a moment to relax and put a point on it. It's like a goddamn metaphor for my thought process or something.

Also I sometimes space out and draw animals fucking in the margins, and that's A-OK too.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 3:16 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]


This makes me want to try out WordStar. Or maybe dig out the old, old Commodore 64 word processor I used to use back in the day, The Write Stuff from Busy Bee Software.
posted by JHarris at 3:29 PM on February 21


(Not as old as WordStar, though. I actually used that in the late 90s.)
posted by JHarris at 3:30 PM on February 21


This is making me miss ST Writer.

"One reason I like ST Writer is that I don't have to take my hands off the keyboard and pet the mouse. I don't miss the GEM environment because all the AtariWriter commands are already deeply ingrained in my cerebrum. Besides, things like multiple windows confuse my simple mind, and I get lost trying to figure which window I should be in, or how I got to the one where I am."
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 3:39 PM on February 21


>If you've got some time to spare, ask some older journalists about XyWrite.

True story: I last fired up XyWrite at work in 2006. You don't have to be that old.

I loved it, though. So DOS-sy and clean. And the way it gave you the length of your story in inches!

I think if I tried to write a novel in longhand it would devolve into increasingly elaborate doodles.
posted by purpleclover at 8:16 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]


I have basically no writing "process" for either creative stuff or for work, but it's only relatively recently that I've started learning how to actually write on paper. So far, I like taking notes and drawing out diagrams and lists that way. Committing something original or creative in ink on paper, though, scares me shitless. Especially on the first page of a new journal.

As is usually the case with weird mental blocks, I think my upbringing is to blame. When I was a tyke I didn't have much going on in my frontal lobe (I still don't, really, but I drink a lot of coffee now). But I went to a very strict Catholic school. One of my teachers only wrote longhand with a ruler under her pen. Once in 3rd or 4th grade, I got a letter grade knocked off an assignment because the nun who graded it said I should have colored in my illustrations with pen strokes that were all aligned parallel to one another, so that you wouldn't be able to see the individual lines. I got detention once for touching my pencil before the teacher had said it was time. I got a lot of points off for crossing things out too messily and for losing notebooks partway through the year. That kind of place.

Anyway, I couldn't wait to get home and get on the computer because there, I could delete things, rearrange them, experiment, and play as much as I wanted. Want to invert the two halves of a paragraph? Easy! No need for complicated circles and arrows. Plus, of course, my typing is way faster than my handwriting. And while I actually really like the physical artifact of a nice journal, instead of inspiring me to take myself seriously, it completely shuts off the tap because I still feel guilty if I mess it up too much.

So while I completely get going with the tools that work for you and I would still love to be able to work with paper because I do actually eventually get sick of computers (not something I would have predicted based on my childhood), I still use a text editor, or Wordpad, or an AlphaSmart (I had one in high school and it was awesome! No idea what became of it, though). Sometimes the new ways are the best.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:21 PM on February 21


also vi forever SUCK IT HATERS I'M OUT :wq
posted by en forme de poire at 11:21 PM on February 21 [3 favorites]


The only writing I do longhand is in a journal and letters to people. Part of the reason is I can type a lot faster than I can write, and can get things down a lot easier. Part of the reason is it is so much easier to edit. And part of the reason is I get writers cramp very easily.
posted by Megami at 1:00 AM on February 22


I keep thinking I should go back to writing longhand. I plan stuff out, take notes and work out structure and ideas on paper -- arrows and bullet points and big loopy diagrams -- but i wind up on the keyboard when I write.

Freedom and other internet blockers are key. And I still miss Wordperfect: losing it was the only blow when switching to Mac.
posted by jrochest at 1:56 AM on February 22


It's interesting to me how the passage of time has changed my relationship with writing tools.

When I was a kid, I had trouble with handwriting, because my penmanship was an unreadable mess and I was so tightly wound that I clutched a pencil with a clenched death claw grip that turned writing into a wrestling match with cramping, and because I have a cognitive hitch that makes swift writing by pencil chaotic in that the data transmission rate is so insanely high that I just got a flood of characters with each word, often in no particular order. Even now, when I write quickly, i end up trying to itewr rwite wiret write a word starting at the wrong place within the word, then going back to erase, which causes a backup in the anstrcipti— tans— scriptst— transcription process that tightens my death claw and makes me grind my teeth.

My sensible mother bought me a typewriter at our school's multi-family yard sale, and it was a tool that let my writing catch up to the whirling storm cloud of my brain, though my clenched perfectionism made editing a frustration of scissors and mucilage. It got me through that phase of school, sort of, and it holds pride of place in my apartment, though I've come to recognize that it was not a particularly good tool—just a well-situated one.

When the impetus became obvious that we fine citizens of the world were suddenly meant to become typographers and produce publication-ready work for our lousy essays for middle school, I started bicycling down to my dad's office to write on the Adler Satellites used to type in the label field on microfiche masters, burning Ko-Rec-Type by the bushel. When I could, I'd use a Selectric, and when my dad was unwise enough to leave his office unlocked at night, I could set up on the absolutely fucking gorgeous Selectric Composer that held court on the typewriter return of his swoopy formica-eighties desk, and for a time, my class assignments were often questioned as being copies straight from a book because they were fully justified, and you just couldn't do that then.

I wrote on our first Apple, using AppleWrite 1.0, and on my dad's "laptop," a seven hundred pound Kaypro built to atomic testing standards, and then on my Commodore 64, using a word processing programmed that I typed in from a magazine and then saved to my sloooooooooow egg-shaped Datasette, then zapped out on a variety of increasingly legible dot matrix printers.

In my horrid adulthood, though, once I'd been expelled from school for roughing up my gym teacher over a homophobic slur and become a delivery boy for pizza, District documents, and such, I started writing on the divine typewriter, and that's still what I do. I put on some music that catches me in exactly the right emotional and cosmic space, and I listen to it over and over and over as I tell myself a story. Pizzas are delivered, and I'm writing, microfilms are duplicated and indexed and I'm writing, college happens and I'm writing, digital imaging happens and I'm writing, then carpentry and then art and then facility management, and the song plays on and the words spool, and I sit down to boil it all out of the storm clouds and—

Somewhere in the mix, the speed of transcription, and particularly the addiction to ease and comfort, stopped mattering as much as the removal of more serious obstacles, and I returned to the place where I started, because the typewriter can neither tempt nor interrupt me, except when it fails to work properly, and I can make almost anything work properly, just shy of a relationship or a career, and so I can sit, plug my ears into a little music player that's small enough I can almost accidentally inhale it, and start to unspool.

I don't care that my stimakes mistakes and reconsidered lexical word choices are all either struck out with dashes from the typewriter or crossed out with a red pencil against the curved platen as I see an error rolling up with the swing of the carriage return. When I'm feeling vain, in that sort of cultivated vanity that an insecure writer needs to keep the stories flowing, I like to think that, one day, when I've bankrupted myself building a Potemkin Village of tiny houses in West Virginia and buying increasingly absurd Italian motorcycles, I can put up my red-inked manuscripts on Ebay to raise enough money to keep myself in scarves and locally made organic goat camembert.

On the computer, I have to pretend that editing is impossible, or I'll do what I've done with the book I finished in 2005 and have yet to submit because I've edited and edited edited and edited edited and edited edited and edited edited and edited edited and edited edited and edited edited and edited edited and edited edited and edited until it's all just word salad to me, nonsensical and ultimately depressing, because Scaggsville could be good if I'd just learn to unclench the death claw, unbind the expectations, and let it just be what it is.

So I try to type like I'm typing in a realm that denies my inner editor. I've returned, via a little adaptor, to the original clackety monstrous keyboard from my father's Macintosh II from 1988, and I've returned to the original draft of my poor book, wiser, I hope, after a decade of failure, and the computer is a typewriter, because I've printed that old work out and started at it with a red pencil, and soon enough, I will retype it in its entirety, not out of some sort of hipster's instinct for retroactive authenticity, but because quality requires effort, even in the age of mechanical reproduction, and I will read every word aloud, too, because the spoken word reveals the lies that ease and convenience tell.

The tool that is best is the one with which you produce your best work.

This is different for everyone, but recognizing yours is important.
posted by sonascope at 7:30 AM on February 22 [9 favorites]


I am 58 years old, and most of my current novel (just starting work on the 2nd draft) was written on my phone. Mostly with a Bluetooth keyboard, but still...on my phone.

aught, Stephenson goes into some detail on having a manuscript simply disappear from his Mac laptop in his essay "In The Beginning Was The Command Line...". I know it resulted in him switching from Mac to Linux, and don't remember which book was involved, but the essay is a great meditation on the saleability of operating systems and the implications of mediated experience.

His handwritten manuscript for one of the Baroque Cycle books was on display at the SF Museum in Seattle several years ago (may still be). It's really tall.
posted by lhauser at 8:59 AM on February 22


I don't know ... writing is editing. Anything that makes editing easier makes writing
better. Computer cut-and-paste is like the penicillin of editing.

No?
posted by Chitownfats at 7:54 PM on February 22


Sometimes being forced to retype everything can help the prose, at least for me.

Being able to move scenes and the like around is super helpful though.
posted by NoraReed at 10:40 PM on February 22


I don't know ... writing is editing. Anything that makes editing easier makes writing better. Computer cut-and-paste is like the penicillin of editing.

Ease makes ease, not quality, which is why microwaving a Hot Pocket does not produce results equivalent to the work of a fine chef.
posted by sonascope at 5:19 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Part of the reason is I can type a lot faster than I can write, and can get things down a lot easier.

If you are a really good, literary writer and you are going to turn out a page or two a day, speed of writing is really not the limiting factor. I know there’s rewriting etc. in there, but if you turn out less than a hundred words an hour on average, any writing technology will work, so it’s just a matter of what works for you.

Longhand does have the advantage of the direct physical connection between the pen and the output, but it can be fetishized like anything else. It’s not the technology, it’s the result.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 5:12 PM on February 23


"Speed of writing" in terms of pages per day and "speed of writing" in terms of ability to transcribe what you're thinking don't have much to do with each other, though, because many people write mostly in punctuated bursts and then pause while they're re-reading it, thinking it over, re-cutting, re-editing, etc. So I can still totally see how you could find the speed of longhand annoying and laborious even if it doesn't make a huge difference at the end of the day. It's like biking vs. walking; when you're used to biking, walking the same route can feel so slow it feels like you're on drugs, even if you have enough time in the end to get where you're going without a big rush. This is a big reason I hated doing essay tests in high school and college. I agree that it's the result that matters.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:04 PM on February 24


"For novels, I like the whole first and second draft feeling, and the act of making paper dirty,"

I can very much relate to Gaiman's statement here - for me, personally writing (at least at the 1st/2nd draft stage) is as much a physical thing as a mental thing.

Also this: "I write at odd times." Notebooks make this far easier to do than a laptop does. If nothing else, if you're a writer like me it's easier going on anyone you happen to be sharing a bed with if they're only subjected to the sounds of you scribbling in a notebook rather than those of a laptop booting up.
posted by lorelei_ at 3:09 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]


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