Sunday, October 19, 2008

Comparative analysis of writing methods, and the editing thereof

With NaNoWriMo upon us, as well as the winter months when I tend to write anyway for lack of anything better to do, I've been even more obsessed than usual with the contemplation of writing and all the accoutrements thereof. Aren't we all? The equipment of writing, I must confess, is one of the biggest draws for me. Writing tools of all kinds have always held fascination for me. There are, of course, many more than I have outlined below, and many more subsets of the ones I do have listed, but these are just my own scratch thoughts.

Pen and paper:

Pros: Convenience is the biggest one. I can write with pen and paper anywhere, and it's the most portable method. might be tied with the Neo for the most portable, since I don't like writing on pages much smaller than letter size, and the Neo is about that size. But I'm more comfortable with whipping out a legal pad at work to fit in ten minutes or so of writing. I could probably do the same with the Neo at lunch, but then I would be overtly writing. I'm kind of secretive about my life as a fiction writer; the notepad lets me keep my anonymity.

I also like playing with different pen types and different colors of ink. Granted, this may be a con rather than a pro. It can be a real distraction: "I can't possibly write during lunch, because I left the pen with the purple ink at home, and this blue ink is booooring!"

Cons: Not many, actually. I have a hard copy of all I've written, usually in a nice tidy notebook I can reference for years to come. Nothing can happen to that copy unless it gets torched or flooded, and both seem pretty unlikely. One con is that I have about a bazillion stockpiled notebooks and way more ink than I'll ever use, and this causes guilt. Every so often I frantically write by hand for a few weeks just in order to kill off some of that paper that's staring at me reproachfully from several shelves throughout the house.

It's also slower than other methods. I *have* finished handwritten NaNoWriMos, so there's no doubt in my mind that one can produce a great deal of text by hand. But it's not the easiest method. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, except for quantity over quality word races....

The biggest con, true for all straight-to-paper writing methods, is that I can't move words around or stick in a paragraph if I forgot one, at least not without lots of arrows and crossing out of words. This does mean, however, that I can't waste time with moving a sentence, moving it back, taking it out, wishing afterward that I remembered the exact phrase 'cause I need it now, etc., etc. I can always rearrange things when entering them onto the computer.

The typewriter:

Pros: It's the most enjoyable method of writing from a sensory standpoint. I know that sounds really weird, but other lovers of typewriters will understand. It's the sound, the smell, the feel of the keys under your fingers. Writing with a pen has some of the same aspects, of course: I love the feel of a good fountain pen and the way the ink flows, the smell of ballpoint ink and the way the pages turn puffy and curl up as you write on them. But typewriters still have an edge. Typewritten pages are also generally more legible: some pages may be more typo-laden than others, but it's still uniform printed text, unaffected by mood or tiredness like handwriting can be.

Cons: portability! My favorite typewriters are the two standards, and they're not moving from one room to another, let alone to a write-in or coffee house. Another big one for me is the difficulty of keeping typed pages organized. This is as the forefront of my mind right now, because I'm working yet again on a story from a few years ago. Last time I worked on it, I was just getting into the typers, and I wrote up a few chapters on the SM9. I didn't file those pages carefully, and now they're gone. Thanks to fellow typecaster mpclemens, I've started playing with Circa notebooks, and I think I may move toward getting the whole system and keeping a Circa notebook for all of my writing in the future. The nice thing about 'em, as I see it, is that I could mix my various writing methods in one place, so I could type at home, take the Neo or writing paper if I write at work or a coffee house, and still put all the pages in one big book. Then I could move inactive stories to 3-ring binders when I was done, for future reference.

My prose is typically choppier when I write on the typewriter than when I write by hand. Not sure why this is. I have fewer run-on sentences, which is good...but sometimes my writing gets a bit staccato.

One final con: these are machines, and as such, they are capable of breaking down. A well built Olympia is unlikely to suddenly just stop working, but it could happen, and it's hard to find repair people anymore. It isn't a con I've come across with typewriters that were working when I got them, but I still have a slight misgiving about all things mechanical. At least with typewriters, they don't take any of your hard won text with them if they do develop a hitch.

Alphasmart Neo:

Pros: Lots! It's lightweight and portable, does nothing but write (no distractions, except maybe playing with text size and the word count), has a wonderfully fast keyboard and insane battery life. I haven't yet found reason to doubt the 700 hour figure Alphasmart tosses around. It really does last almost forever. It's also incredibly durable. Dropped it off the table? No big'll laugh at such treatment. And it holds something like 200 pages of single-spaced text. Try lugging *that* around with you.

I've tucked mine into my bag to take on trips, lugged it on bicycle outings in case I wanted to stop along the way and get in a few words, dragged it to coffee houses and park benches. It really is a marvelous little invention.

Cons: for one, it's odd. It looks, as so many have said, rather like a Speak and Spell in a dark green business suit. People do ask about it. And when they do, although I do have a tendency to go all fan-girl concerning the thing, I also have to confess that its sole purpose is as a writing machine. And, as I've said, I'm rather secretive about the whole writing hobby thing. Also, the very clear screen with its nice big print makes me feel as though everyone is reading over my shoulder. Actually, I feel that way even when writing in notebooks in public, but this definitely compounds that feeling. I have trouble writing on it in public unless and until I get into my writing enough that I'm not as aware of those around me.

It will also bother my wrists after awhile. Considering how many people have Neos and don't have any such difficulties, my guess is that this is as much my fault as its. I think I tend not to hold my hands in the right position when I'm using it, particularly because the flat, fast keyboard lets me get away with being sloppy. I'm going to do some experimentation in that field and see what happens.

A con that also applies to the computer, and any other digital writing device: when I'm handwriting, I will often find a few words or a phrase in a scrapped portion of writing and revise it for use elsewhere. Because those words are on paper, they're immortalized, even if I didn't use them where I intended. On the Neo or the computer, the delete key wipes them out for good. I can't recycle; and honestly, I do recycle a lot, given the opportunity. Even years later. Kind of makes me sad thinking of all the fine words I've vaporized over the years when doing digital writing.

One final con: because I can write so quickly on the Neo -- almost as fast as I can think -- my writing can end up being a lot more wordy and convoluted than it should be.

The computer:

Pros: well, there are computers everywhere. And it means I don't have to transfer the words in any way. I *can* write on the computer. I've finished two NaNoWriMos on the computer. But I don't think it's the best method *for me*, personally. I get bogged down in adjectives, and in playing with word rearranging, even more so than on the Neo. And I am one of the most easily distracted people ever. I am a fantabulous procrastinator. I can sit down at the computer intending to write, but...hey, I'll just play a game of Bookworm first. Oh, and check the NaNoWriMo Technology forum, and see what's going on in the Typewriter Brigade thread, and anything to do with fountain pens. Hey, speaking of the Typewriter Brigade, I wonder what's up on Strikethru and in the rest of the blogsphere...and the next thing I know, it's past bedtime and I've done no writing.

Cons: OK, so I kind of covered that above. Did I mention I'm easily distracted?

Thoughts on the writing process and editing:
writing by hand and then typing into the computer likely produces my best writing. I think I've done more of it than most other methods, so this may not be a fair test. I will say this: text I have written by hand usually just needs a little rearranging for clarity, sometimes a bit of fill. It tends to be much less wordy (in a good way), and the dialog works better--it's more natural. I also tend to be more engaged with the story if I hand write. I walk around with my own words echoing in my head, thinking about the next sentence or the next scene. I can picture my words on the paper, and think about how I could rephrase that one sentence on rewrite. I'm inside the words in a way that is much harder to accomplish with other methods.

The typewriter may be the most fun. The Neo is the fastest--I can churn out prodigious quantities of text on that little guy. And the computer is the final editor, in any case. Though, speaking of editing, I should add one more thought: one thing I like about the paper methods is that I have a clearer idea of which portions of the story have been edited and which still need polishing. On the computer, unless I change the font color as I go, it's harder to keep track of which pages have been worked up and corrected. If I at least print and mark up the pages, I have a better idea of where I've been and what I haven't yet touched. It's easier to keep hold of the concept of a draft. I think that's very important in producing quality writing. Without that, it's all too tempting to call a shaggy, sloppy mess of words complete, just because they're all kind of in order in one computer file.

NOTE: I typed most of this on the Neo. I'll blame it for the wordiness. ;-)


Mike Speegle said...

I have the same problem with writing on computers. I have a tendency to go way overboard with verbosity. Typewriters bring out my inner concise-ness.

Strikethru said...

Nice comparisons. I've been meaning to weigh the pros and cons in my own head like this... in my case, I would add to the cons of handwriting, speed and hand cramps, for those of us out of the practice of writing a lot by hand. Oh, and legibility-- I'm terrible!

Paper hoarding IS a real affliction, isn't it? :-)

Elizabeth H. said...

I constantly attempt to set paper-buying moratoriums for myself, but they never seem to stick.... There isn't a room in the house without at least one or two blank books or notepads or loose leaf paper of some kind. I'm more or less the paper-acquiring equivalent of a crazy cat lady, I'm afraid.

Regarding handwriting legibility, I tend to be a bit of a broken record on the subject, but for anyone who wants to work on handwriting legibility, I highly, highly recommend Write Now. It helped me a lot. My handwriting still isn't pretty, but with a modicum of effort, it's legible (to me) now, even when I write quickly. I should scan some comparisons one of these days. It's rather astounding.