The Physical Act of Writing, or Is Longhand Always Best?

Posted by on Jul 22, 2007 in Writing | No Comments

A few people have told me now that I should write longhand, at least for the first draft of something. Here’s why I mostly won’t be doing that.

The rationale behind the advice on longhand writing seems mostly to be based on the immediacy and sensuality of the writing act when done with a pen and paper. More practically, it’s also said that it’s easier to resist the temptation of editing, so you keep going and avoid rewriting the same sentence over and over.

Firstly, on the sensuality and immediacy. Now, I know that writing with a pen can feel beautiful, can be a beautiful experience. I’m personally fond of using a Sheaffer White Spot fountain pen with Parker ink on a smooth, clean Rhodia notepad. The way the ink glistens wet as it’s laid down on the glossy surface of the paper, and dries to a clean-edged firm blackness on the page, the way the nib glides across the surface with just enough slick friction to let you know that you’re leaving that trail of loops and lines, truth and lies. So don’t get me wrong. It’s beautiful.

But I’m a child of the computer age. My father bought me a ZX81 when I was perhaps nine years old, and I remember the textured surface of its membrane keyboard and the tiny-yet-just-enough-feeling of the keypad keys pushing into the cheap black plastic surround. I remember fixing its stuck-in DELETE button with one of those spring-and-rubber-sucker children’s toys just as well as I remember the black plastic screw-on caps of the strangely long fountain pens that they issued us with at school to practice writing with after we’d graduated from pencils.

I remember every keyboard I’ve ever used, from the big positive feel of the Acorn Electron with its Acorn-beige keyboard to the professional clicking switches of the IBM PS/2 we had in the Computer Studies class at Ilford County High School. I remember wondering what the funny little bumps were on the “F” and “J” — or sometimes the “D” and “K” — long before I learned to touch-type. At Warwick, I remember appreciating the subtlety of the yellow ADM 3e terminal keyboards from the undergraduate common room, whose home keys were just a little more curved in than the others. It was a nice touch, literally, performing the same function as those little bumps but without feeling unpleasant to your fingertips.

And the screens, oh, I remember the screens, too. The green glow and straightforward easy-read font of the ADM 3e, and the nasty orangeness of the Wyse terminals. The stark clear flatness of the totally monochome Sun workstations, just plain black and white and with no shades of grey, but with fonts beautifully rendered on the first X machines I ever used. The comparative softness of the NCD X terminals having those same fonts rendered on their colour screens.

I remember the early days, the days you could count the pixels in the letters, the days where if your eyes could cope with it and you had a monitor rather than a TV, you’d put your BBC micro (again, a good, full-size keyboard with a no-nonsense action, designed for years of abuse in the UK school system) into MODE 0, and maybe even force it up to 132-characters using the narrow font. It’d probably kill your eyes to do it today, but back then it was cool.

And now, here we are at the other end of the technology curve, and I’m typing on the oddly flat MacBook keyboard and watching the antialiased lettering appearing in MarsEdit in a font so smooth and easy on the eye that it’s a work of art, a work of art and technology combined in that amazing way that so few companies aside from Apple seem ever to have managed.

I remember the Acorn Archimedes keyboard that I first learned to touch-type on, first spending hours doing exercises, led by a simple program on the screen, and then vowing not to look at the keyboard as I typed my 50,000 word dissertation for my third year project at Warwick. I still surprise people by finishing whatever sentence I’m writing as I turn round and start talking to them when they come up to my desk to ask me something.

I remember keyboards with keys in odd places, the way people forever seem to be moving the hash around on me until it finally disappeared altogether on the Macs I’ve recently bought, replaced by some odd keyboard combination, even though the hash is used about a billion times more often by everyone than that weird little § symbol that sits happily there with a key to itself, bemusing everyone with its uselessness.

I remember function keys that do bizarre things, I remember the BREAK key of Acorn machines, the STOP‑A combination of Sun Workstations that would drop you straight back to the console prompt, the famous ctrl-alt-del of Windows, the way you suddenly had to hold down the eject key for a second or two to get it to work after an OS X update that scared everyone by making them think that their CD was stuck in the drive.

And it’s all as beautiful to me as that pen laying down the ink in its slowly-drying curves of blackness on the sheen of the white, feint-ruled paper. Typing now and thinking about the act of typing evokes so many memories, of childhood bedrooms, of the clicking of the keys that used to annoy my mum while I was playing Elite, pretending to be a space trader combating pirates and Thargoids. The feel of the brown fabric chairs of the undergrad common room that you might push together and grab some sleep on once you’d battered some piece of code into submission in the green glare of a 3e, or at least finished off wasting an evening talking on Cheeseplant’s House. The disgusting taste of the Berkeley Menthols I used to smoke at the time. The keyboard of the first PC I bought, and how Mike, who sold it to me, was so horrified by its plastic wobbly action after he used it for a while that he replaced it for a good one without me even saying anything.

Typing this, now, in Oppo on Park Street with Depeche Mode on the stereo and the MacBook in my lap reminds me of how Keith — with whom I shared a house in Stivichall, Coventry after I graduated — would type with feet up on the dining room table we used for a desk, keyboard in the lap and the screen displaying big clear Linux conole fonts, shaded from the sun by the permanently-pulled heavy blue curtains of the patio doors. I remember mimicking this posture semi-consciously a decade later, having finally moved to a bluetooth keyboard when I bought my first iMac, leaning back in my big blue office chair, feet on the desk, keyboard on my thighs, no wires necessary.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have far more history with keyboards than I do with pens. I can type well, and I enjoy it, and I find it every bit as sensual and immediate as a fountain pen. I have a good grasp of the astonishing amount of work that is done by a computer in the modern era every time you push a key, and I’m stunned by the immediacy that letters in well-rendered fonts appear on my screen, mathematically scaled, sub-pixel hinted, designed and evolved and programmed for ease on my eye, every time I just push some of these buttons in front of me, with their ergonomically- and anthropometrically-designed feeling and action. I can only guess at the number of man-years that have gone into the craftsmanship of programming to make something so complicated look so simple and so beautiful at the same time.

And as for the editing, well. I’m a very undisciplined person, but I can cope with writing things down without worrying too much about the editing. On paper, I go back and cross things out about as often as I hit the backspace key on my various keyboards. I find that sitting and writing without editing is just as easy, and just as difficult, with a keyboard as with a pen. But when I’ve done it with a keyboard, then when I’ve finished I can count my words, back up my writing, sit it somewhere safe where I can dig it back out, copy it, and work it into a second draft without typing the whole thing up again from scratch.

And if it’s just plain good enough for purpose in its first draft state, maybe I’ll just push a button and send it to my blog.

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