The problem: You’re looking at it!
In some ways, computers with word processors are the best writing invention ever. Until quite recently, writers wrote by hand. Imagine War and Peace, written out in longhand. Or A Tale of Two Cities. (You can still see some of Dickens’ original drafts and corrections here.) Now imagine being the printer, setting out each line of type, letter by letter, while trying to read some barely decipherable scrawl …
A lot later, typewriters came along, which simplified the process to a degree. The scratching of a nib was replaced by a mechanical clackety-clack and the end of each line was prefaced by warning bell, at which point the writer hit a lever to advance the paper a few millimetres and physically throw the carriage back to its starting point. (The origin, by the way, of that obtuse term Carriage Return.)
There were still problems with typewriters. Making corrections was awkward. So was making copies. In the days before photocopiers, carbon paper was the only way to go; tissue-thin stuff that you interleaved between your pages. If you struck each key firmly enough, you could get three or even four copies simultaneously, although readability disappeared rapidly with depth and just handling the stuff left you looking like you’d been fingerprinted by the police.
Word processors emerged in the 1960s as an offshoot of the computer revolution. (The term “word processing” was one of the New York Times buzz words of 1971.) They really were a revolution. You could cut and paste paragraphs without a glue pot, move things around without having to renumber all your pages, and even search and replace text. What’s more, you always had a copy on file and could print out a pristine draft (on your dot-matrix printer) any time you liked.
There were still problems though. Screens were green and the only character set on them was monospace. While a whole range of fancy printout formats were available, before graphical user interfaces and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) displays, you had to add strings of arcane control characters to layouts, and the only way to check you had exactly what you wanted was to actually print the document.
In the early ‘90s, I was the project manager responsible for putting PCs in the Wellington City Council. We had a budget of just under a million dollars, and after we’d selected a vendor, set up the servers and sorted out an implementation and training regime, we selected a pilot group to see how things would go in real life. We chose the council secretaries, a dozen or so women who did all the typing (as it was called in those days) for senior managers and councillors. They were no slouches when it came to word processing. They’d been using 80-character wide DEC terminals for years – along with all those arcane character codes – but were new to GUI interfaces.
I sat at the back of the classroom, observing, while one of the trainers introduced them to Word, a screen image beamed on to a whiteboard so they could all see it in action. They were clearly impressed. Then one of them asked, ‘What about doing columns?’
‘No problem,’ the trainer said. ‘Just select some text, click here, click there and choose the number of columns you want.’
In an instant the text reformatted into three perfect columns and there were gasps of astonishment around the room. It was the first time I’d seen people left speechless by the way technology can turn a complex task into a trivial one.
And that pretty much brings us up to date. There have been some modest improvements since the first GUI word processors, and I really wouldn’t be without one, but the problem for writers is that computer word I mentioned earlier. They’re just another program on your computer, one of many, probably running simultaneously. If Dickens or Dostoevsky wanted to check the latest news or tomorrow’s weather, they’d have to send out for a copy of the newspaper. All we have to do is flick to another window. Easy. And horribly distracting!
Have you ever walked into a room intent on doing something, then forgotten what it was when you got there? It’s a common experience and apparently has an evolutionary explanation. To our brains, changing rooms is equivalent to a sudden change in our environment and it causes our attention to be reset. Are there any threats here? Food sources? Friends or foes? Our previous mental state is overridden – at least temporarily.
Now consider research dating back as far as 1927 that shows humans are rubbish at multi-tasking. Each time you swap tasks on your computer, your brain does a mini reset. Each reset might only take a fraction of a second, but it can add up to 40% loss of efficiency. At that’s just mundane office tasks, not the peculiar focus and concentration that creative writing seems to demand.
People who claim to be good at multi-tasking are really just fooling themselves. All they’re actually doing is several things at once, poorly.
Think about that next time your email program pings to say you’ve got a message or you flip over to check Facebook or text messages on your phone.
The solution: You know this already
Yep, it’s simple: shut it down or turn it off.
If you want to send and receive emails, fine, do that. Browse the web? Go right ahead. Play a quick game of Solitaire? No problem. But if you want to write, properly and well, shut everything off but your word processor. Hell, even disconnect from the internet if really can’t trust yourself not to take a peek at Twitter or Facebook. And shut off your mobile phone too. If you’re really so important that you absolutely have to be available 24/7, you should probably focus on that role and come back to writing later.
Seriously, will the world stop turning if you can’t be reached for an hour?
And shut off your word processor’s built-in distractions too – its grammar and its spell checker. You can do all that stuff later. It’s not writing! Get your story out first in all its rough glory. Only writing is writing.
But I see this all the time – hell, I do it myself! My brain goes, Would Victorians have used the term pickpocket? Look it up. It won’t take a second. So I do. Online Etymology shows the word dates back to the 1590s, became a verb in the 1670s, and was had its origins in the term “pick-purse” from the late fourteenth century. Fascinating stuff, but it’s not actually writing.
Remember, only writing is writing.
Now shut off your browser and get back to work!
I wrote the first draft of this novel in six weeks, starting from a blank screen. (Here’s where I’d got to after 30 days.) It was rough and needed a lot more work, but that was so much easier once I had the thing in front of me.