Friday, December 9, 2011

Yes, Computer, I really want to spell it that way

I'm at an age where I've been able to see great changes in the technology of writing. I wrote first in longhand on paper, and typed my finished manuscripts on a manual typewriter. Then, briefly, I used an electric typewriter. Then a word processor. Then a computer. Then I went from just revising on the computer to composing on it as well. And all this change didn't occur over a huge span of time. We're talking two-three decades, max.

For most of the time, I could put what I wanted on the page wherever I wanted it. I could add things, cut and paste, rearrange, insert, delete. I could write things just as they occurred to me, sticking them wherever I thought they belonged.

But something has happened in recent years. Word-processing software has gotten "smarter." I put "smarter" in quotes because to me it's code for "annoyingly aggressive and overbearing." It drives me crazy when I want to type "(c)" and my computer changes it to a copyright symbol, and I have to spend 20 minutes hunting for a way to undo that. Or when I type "pH" and the computer changes it to "Ph." Or when I put the word "coulda" in a character's mouth, and the computer flags it as not a word. Most of all, I hate it when I'm making a list and the computer puts the bullets or the numbers where it wants instead of where I want. And don't get me started on the crazy changes that happen when I cut and paste from one file to another.

Many of these features can be turned off, but I'm also annoyed that I have to do that, that they're all turned on by default and I have to click through menus and help pages for hours to figure out how to give me the sweet blank canvas that I really want. All of those changes interfere with my writing; they don't enhance it.

My understanding is that for e-publishing, you have to use certain features of word-processing programs in certain ways, or the formatting gets messed up. It makes me wonder if writers will (or maybe if they already do) change the way they write. When you can't write anything you want anywhere on a page any way you want, what does that do to the way you create? With writing, I always put the content on the page first, and format it at the end. But word-processing programs want us to format everything up front, and know exactly where we want to make paragraph breaks in advance, and so forth.

Don't get me wrong--word processing has made revision, especially cutting and pasting, a million times easier than it was when the typewriter was my main tool. But then I think the software hit a peak of maximum usefulness and started sliding down the other side.

What do you think? Does the technology you use affect the way you write?


  1. Oh, wow, I know exactly what you're talking about! I've had these thoughts many times, especially when I've tried formatting things for printing. Word THINKS it knows what I want to do, but little does it know...

    I think a lot of technology does this, sadly - reaches a peak, like kid's toys. Those ones from the 80's that my mom still has at her house from when I was a kid and now my daughter plays with them, too. Yeah, those last forever. The cheap "better" ones with all the bells and whistles these days - those break in like a month. Lovely.

  2. Michelle: Yes, there's a point where new features are beneficial, and then after that a point where they're just ... extra.

  3. One of the first things I did when I started writing in MS Word was find out how to turn off all the annoying red and green squiggly lines and the auto correction nonsense.

    I've sometimes pondered whether or not I would have the energy to revise a manuscript a dozen times if I had to do it the old-fashioned way. It really would slow things down considerably and I'm not sure my patience would last. So I'm hugely grateful for this tool, annoying as it can be at times (let's not even talk about hard drive crashes).

  4. Angelina: I did revise the old-fashioned way once upon a time. It involved a lot of crossing out, and arrows to move text this way and that!