Does the physical task of writing shape our words?

These thirty-six miseries of reading and writing in 1806, penned by the pseudonymous Mssrs. Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive, are (like most anything written two hundred years ago) a mix of the familiar and the archaic. The first will, I expect, be true as long as there are writers and readers:

1. Reading over a passage in an author, for the hundredth time, without coming an inch nearer to the meaning of it at the last reading than at the first; — then passing over it in despair, but without being able to enjoy the rest of the book from the painful consciousness of your own real or supposed stupidity.

But many of the complaints remind me that writing, especially, used to be a complexly physical affair, one that required the writer to engage with physical objects and his own surroundings in a way that made him subject to their own natures and demands, and not merely to his own — and slowed him down as a result. Here are just a few of the indignities I did not have to suffer in writing this blog post:

24. Emptying the ink glass (by mistake for the sand glass) on a paper which you have just written out fairly — and then widening the mischief, by applying restive blotting paper….

27. In sealing a letter – the wax in so very melting a mood, as frequently to leave a burning kiss on your hand, instead of the paper: — next, when you have applied the seal, and all, at last, seems well over — said wax voluntarily “rendering up its trust,” the moment after it has undertaken it….

33. Writing, on the coldest day in the year, in the coldest room in the house, by a fire which has sworn not to burn; and so, perpetually dropping your full pen upon your paper, out of the five icicles with which you vainly endeavour to hold it….

At first these complaints inspire amusement, maybe, and some combination of gratitude and feelings of superiority that we have better means of writing today. We have Open Office, and WordPress, and at a minimum the very nice fountain pen with which I initially drafted the main ideas of this essay. But being someone who writes both ways, by hand with a fountain pen and with various “text editors” on a computer, I wonder to what extent our means really are better. They’re more convenient, certainly, but do convenient means necessarily produce better ends, or even ultimately save time? And, specifically, how does the physical process of writing (or relative lack thereof) change not only the way we write but what the reader sees?

Think of all the physical requirements of writing two centuries ago, and of all the things that could go wrong. On a cold morning the ink might freeze and need to be warmed before use. The pen might need to be sharpened, as might the knife with which to sharpen it. The quill runs out of ink after every several words and must be dipped. The nib might scratch and pull, nothing like the smooth action of a rollerball or a good fountain pen, and the ink might spot and spatter. The ink dried more slowly then, slower even than calligraphy ink now, and one had to be careful not to smear it. To write left-handed was almost surely to make a mess, so children learned to use their right hands regardless of biological inclination. To blot and dry the extra ink required a sprinkling of sand, which was not cheap enough to be disposable but was gathered after use and returned to its pot. The envelope was not self-sealing — there was no envelope! Paper was folded and shut with wax melted by the flame of a candle and dripped onto the seam, at risk of burning one’s fingers or dripping errantly, and then sealed, perhaps, with a decorative stamp.

The time and physical effort involved in writing, not to mention the cost of paper, put a premium on a good first draft. Revise, revise, we tell our students, but writers did not formerly make such a fetish of editing, because they couldn’t afford to. A few months back I read a fascinating article on the history of editing, in which the author made just that point, but I’m afraid I can’t find it any longer. In the days before typewriters, she argued, writers made marginal notes or scratched out sentences but rarely rewrote wholesale; typing made editing easier and thus more expected, and of course the age of word processors has only increased our ability (and therefore our perceived need) to edit.

But I wonder whether all this editing has actually made writing better. Certainly it’s made it different, I think by changing both the mental processes involved and the product. I can speak best for my own: When writing an essay or some piece of history I rarely write linearly at all, but think onto the page, or rather onto the screen. Were paper and ink necessary and expensive I’d have to think out my words more carefully in advance — as I find I do, in fact, when I’m writing in a notebook with a fountain pen. I find as a result that I am more attuned to individual words and the flow of a phrase or sentence from one word to the next, because I’m forced to write it more nearly as it will be read, and because I can’t entirely delete them, and so I can’t entirely forget them. But it’s hard, because I am used, in effect, to outsourcing my working memory to the virtual page. I type nearly as fast as I think, but I think considerably faster than I can write, and as the argument races ahead I have to keep the whole together in my mind while at the same time granting consideration to the wording of a single part.

Much nineteenth-century writing has a conversational sprawl about it; it reads as though it had been dictated, which in a sense it was, if to the writer’s own hand. That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily; it’s only a matter of taste. When I draft an essay by computer I build up an argument from ideas and phrases and sentences that I fit together like pieces of a puzzle. When I draft an essay by hand, a different sort of structure emerges, a more speculative one, in which I raise questions and then answer them or follow them up with further questions before arriving at what I think might be my point. I produce lengthy parentheticals as they occur to me rather than reworking a paragraph to fit them in more organically. I often (like many or most writers) learn what I think only by writing it, but when I type, I delete and rewrite almost as quickly as I figure it out. If I didn’t have that luxury, I’d leave the trail of my thinking for the reader to follow rather than refining it into a neat argument, the way a traditional woodworker might leave visible scribe lines and overcuts on his dovetails.

overcuts and scribe lines on dovetails

I don’t think the result is necessarily unpleasant; it reminds me precisely of essays written a couple hundred years ago, essays perhaps slightly better than mediocre, in which I’m forced to follow the author round the barn and pond before we reach the front door. It’s friendlier and less forceful if certainly more time-consuming. The question for the reader is whether he wants the man to get to the point so he can get on with his life — or is willing to sit down by the fire and enjoy a conversation. All this editing, then: does it make for less patient readers? Are we blaming the internet for our inability to read long works when we ought to be blaming the typewriter?

I wonder, too, whether the physical mediation of hand writing might force, or at least encourage, a more thorough comprehension of one’s own thoughts that we otherwise, today, have to encourage through discipline and editing. The slowness of the process and the myriad tiny interruptions offer time for reflection, but that isn’t what I mean. Rather I’m thinking of the actual physical effort, the fact that it requires a physical effort to get words onto the page. Some research suggests that, contrary to designers’ intuition, hard-to-read fonts actually promote comprehension and recall, because they require the reader to slow down. Might similar effort in writing force the writer to get his head around what he’s trying to say?

And, finally, I’m thinking of an analogue to Matthew Crawford’s argument in Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford argues that working with machines, confronting and solving the inescapably real problems of physical objects and systems, forces us to get out of our own heads and to be less narcissistic: we cannot simply wish the problems away. I can’t do that excellent book justice here; you should go and read it yourself. But what if something similar holds for writing? Might forcing the writer to confront, as part of the very act of writing, the real world of physical objects, make him potentially less narcissistic? On a typical day at the computer my writing is practically effortless, and when a problem arises — a hard drive crash or a failed software update — it’s merely baffling, not solvable like icy ink or a dull nib. If our words couldn’t flow so effortlessly into the world, might we be less inclined to think that our ideas could effortlessly reshape it?

If you were looking for a neat conclusion, well, I wrote most of this out with a fountain pen on a legal pad, so you’re not going to get it. All I have are questions that lead to more questions. I’m convinced that tools shape not only the craft but also the craftsman, even when — especially when? — those tools seem transparent to the process of creation. But it isn’t always clear how. It bears more consideration, I think.

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