Writers have promoted their favorite writing tools – each of which is different – for as long as I’ve been in the business, and probably all the way back to when the writers working on clay tablets sneered at that new-fangled papyrus stuff imported from Egypt. To some extent, it’s purely a status thing. If the guys with the clay tablets can convince people that their way is “better,” then at the least, they get looked up to as “real” writers. At best, their work will sell better or be more admired or last longer, or they’ll have an easier time finding a patron who is impressed with (and willing to fund) their supposedly-more-authentic work.
These days, though, there’s more to it than that. There’s still plenty of snobbery on display, from the folks who swear that nobody could possibly write anything decent without using a fountain pen to those who swear by the latest high-tech writing software that integrates playlists and Pinterest photos to help inspire each chapter, while tracking word count, productivity, and readability levels and generating a storyboard for each viewpoint character. But there are two things that both sides of the argument seem to leave out.
The first is that people are known to have three different modes of receiving and processing information: visual, aural, and kinesthetic. Everybody uses all three modes to some extent, but usually one is primary. For most of us, that’s the visual one. Those computer programs are good at that; they let you see lots of text and integrate photos, or do diagrams and storyboards that help visualize the story in different ways.
Computers also have a lot to offer those who like the aural mode – there are speech-to-text programs (and text-to-speech, if you want a flat computer rendition of your prose), and lots of places that will help you organize a play list of music that “fits” whatever you happen to be writing. If you want something simpler, there are hand-held recorders that you can dictate to, then download and transcribe.
But computers aren’t that great for those who are strongly kinesthetic. Keyboards have moved to a lighter and lighter touch, in the interest of speeding up touch-typing; the carriage return is long gone, along with rolling paper into a typewriter. What’s left is pen and paper, which impart a lot more physicality to the act of writing than any other currently available method.
Most of the paper-and-pen writers I’ve run into don’t think about it this way, but…they wax rhapsodic about the feel of a fountain pen gliding across a sheet of heavy, watermarked paper. They debate the advantages of ball-points compared to roller balls, fountain pens versus dipping pens: is it better to be able to keep going without having to stop when you’re on a roll, or do you get better results when you’re forced to stop every so often to re-ink the pen?
It’s no surprise that different writers have different favorite methods of production. It’s also no surprise that you hear a subset of editors and writers complain that computers have made writing “too easy” – the ability to keep changing and rearranging things with little effort makes for poorer quality work, they claim.
Having done some time teaching writing classes, I can attest to the fact that there are students out there whose stories suffer from “workshop burn” – that is, they’ve been rewritten and revised so many times that they’re like silver plate that’s been polished down to the copper. However, I don’t think that this is an inevitable result of using a word processing program; after all, I had fifteen students in that class, and only one had a story that plainly exhibited workshop burn. I think this problem is a function of a particular type of personality – the people who do this would try to do it even if they were working with chisels and stone tablets. The computer certainly enables them to take things to an extreme, but that’s not really the computer’s fault.
What all this boils down to is that when somebody says they work better with pen in hand, or music playing, or total quiet, it is probably quite true…for them. Persuading them to do something different, just because that’s what works for you, is probably a bad idea (unless what they are doing is manifestly not working for them, in which case “try something else” is the obvious solution).
I should also point out that many of us use different tools at different points in the process. Some writers handwrite their first draft, then type it into their computer for revision. I compose at the computer, but I frequently use pen-and-paper to diagram my plots and character relationships. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.
Which brings me to the second thing that gets left out of the argument:
None of the tools of writing will do the writing for you. Not the computer, not the electric typewriter, not the Bic pen, not a quill dipped in ink, not a brush painting on papyrus or silk, not a chisel on a stone slab. All the tools can do is to make the process work a little better, a little more easily, for you.
And while I don’t know even one writer who wouldn’t be exceedingly glad to discover a way of making their personal writing process a little bit easier, there comes a point of diminishing returns. Or no return at all. If you are a strongly kinesthetic writer, you might find writing a bit more fun or productive if you switch from a computer to handwriting with pen and paper. Spending six months testing every brand of fountain pen on the market to find the one with the perfect touch is unlikely to be worth the effort, especially if you are using it as a Writing Avoidance Technique. (If it’s something you’re doing in your spare, non-writing time, for fun, go for it.)