Our Tools Dictate the Way We Think

The tools we use for writing change what we have to say. While most of the time I write in front of a computer, I also spend a lot of time writing long hand.

I use a fountain pen and a legal pad — an echo, perhaps, of reading about an author who did just that when I was still in high school. I’ve had an obsession with fountain pens for longer than that. I remember my dad letting me use his pen when I was you — a massive pen that I could barely write with, let alone write in cursive.

But, obsessions aside, I’ve noticed some major differences between the words I write with a pen and those I write on a computer. The self-editing process is one of the most obvious changes: on a computer, it’s practical to keep going back to the previous line and making changes. I shape my sentences, add transitions, and even eliminate repeated words all through the process of writing.

Making changes when writing by hand is far more difficult, so I tend to just write. I tell myself that when I type up a particular project I can edit it then. It’s more of an ideal way to write — it’s easier to get into the flow of the process and press on.

I like to say that I don’t get writer’s block. Wanting to eat keeps me motivated and moving forward. The reality is, of course, more complicated: I can’t afford writer’s block, so I build approaches into my day that keep my brain rolling. I write on my legal pads first, getting myself in the flow of writing. I essentially prime the pump so there are already words coming out before I start working on the computer. I rarely handwrite anything for a client, but getting to work on something I enjoy first seems to help even more, so I don’t worry about my topic first thing.

Part of the reason I keep client work to the computer is that I’ve noticed some key differences between my style on paper and on screen. I’m more willing to describe my own experiences away from the screen — a part of me feels that paper is less judgmental. But even my sentence structure varies: when I write on a computer, my sad addiction to parentheticals and appositives becomes evident. On paper, I use them much less often. I prefer simple sentence structures, perhaps because they are easier to construct when you don’t have the option of self-editing. I do have a tendency towards colons when writing by hand.

Word choice is another place where my writing diverges, though perhaps not for the reasons you think. When I work on my computer, I have a piece of software called TextExpander turned on. There are certain words and phrases that I don’t want to appear in my writing, mostly because I overuse them. When I type those words, TextExpander ‘expands’ them into glaring reminders to avoid using those verboten word choices. Of course, there is no way to automatically delete words when writing by hand. I do sometimes notice that I’m spelling out a word that Text Expander will take me to task on. I’ve got an anti-authority streak a mile wide, so I generally take pleasure in writing those words all the way out

Science has demonstrated that we think differently with a pen in our hands than with our fingers on a keyboard. That’s why students with learning disabilities, like dyslexia, are often handed a laptop. One is not better than the other — they’re just different options. And for anyone doing creative work, having those options is useful. When you re trying to create and there’s a problem, having a way to entirely switch the way you think about your work — perhaps just by taking a few steps — is invaluable.

I see a tendency in many fields to teach only computer-based skills — usually because working through a computer is so much faster. But the underlying skills are valuable. Even in computer programming, being able to step back and write out some pseudo-code can be a useful skill. Sink some time into doing your work the old hard way. You may be surprised by the results.

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