Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Message is Also the Medium

On his blog today, literary agent Nathan Bransford asks a question -- how does technology affect writing style? And I recall a conversation I had with a university English professor in a writing class, circa 1985.

I was in a masters program, and the course on writing was an elective. (For what it's worth, I received a B in the class -- the professor didn't like the way I wrote -- it wasn't literary enough.) And we were having a discussion in class about writing tools. The year before, I had received my first computer at work -- an IBM desktop (I think it was the IBM 286). And I found myself puzzled by something -- I wrote differently depending on what tool I was using. I mentioned this, and the professor was absolutely fascinated. I was fascinated, too -- it was the only thing I said that semester that he actually paid attention to.

Now you would think that an IBM Selectric (with correcto-type) is not radically different from a desktop word processor. But I found myself writing in different ways. I was more precise and slower on the typewriter. I was more "stream of consciousness" on the computer.

Then came the most startling discovery. I was writing a lot of of speeches at the time, and the writing requires you to write for the ear as opposed to the eye (makes sense -- speeches are supposed to be heard, at least first). For certain kinds of speeches, and sections of speeches, I was frustrated with both the typewriter and the computer, especially when it came to writing the more soaring, more emotional stuff as opposed to the more analytical. Both the typewriter and the computer didn't lend themselves to that, for some inexplicable reason.

One day I walked away from both tools, and sat in a conference room and wrote an emotional section of a speech -- by hand, on paper, with a pen. And it worked better than either the typewriter or the computer. In fact, it worked phenomenally well. The particular speech ended up blowing people's socks off when they heard it given by an executive in Denver.

I still do this today, with all kinds of writing. If I need to employ emotion and empathy, I write it out on paper with a pen. Then I type it on the computer. And it works.

I can't claim to understand why it works. It just does.

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