When it comes to finding the right words, it’s all about process.
In the preface of his recent 700-page presidential biography, A Promised Land, Barack Obama notes that writing only works for him if he lays out what he wants to say in longhand. With his natural fluency he states that “a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.”
This is certainly a minority view these days, but having a good writer declare this point should give the rest of us some pause. He may be correct. Those of us who insistently invent our rhetoric at the keyboard should wonder if we have turned ourselves into typesetters first, and conveyors of significant meaning second, only when we can see past the instant formalism that text in pixels gives us.
Composing in the frame of a word processor is its own satisfying act, but perhaps lets us drift away from the hard work of creating ideas worthy of the attention of others. Would Shakespeare’s prose sound differently if he’d had Microsoft Word? And what about Walt Whitman? The crossed-out scribbles seen in his early drafts suggest he would have loved the ability to instantly copy, erase, and edit.
And then there is the problem that some of us cannot always read what we wrote. The President probably did not have to handwrite and transcribe his words to a computer; others surely helped and perhaps nudged a few errant nouns or verbs into their rightful places. But his point about handwriting still stands.
There is some evidence, including a study out of the United States Air Force Academy, that suggests we don’t internalize ideas quite as well when we are typing them out. The effects that play out here are subtle and complex, but generally we are more engaged when we must put thoughts down on the surface of a page. Some university professors ban laptops from their classrooms, partly because of the convincing research that students are better note takers if they are not using their laptops.
I suspect that when we write in longhand, we look to our minds to reword what we have heard. That moment may be key. It means we have engaged with a topic in a way that allows us to drift into a mode that is akin to taking dictation. An idea has gotten its hooks into us any time we try to reword or simplify it.
Remember typewriters? I’m duty-bound to report that my best class in junior high school was, of all things, typing. My fingers could fly over an old Olivetti with few errors. But copying from the typing manual let my mind drift elsewhere. I had no idea what I was “writing.” Forty-five words a minute was no problem, but this was a dexterity more analogous to modern game-playing than engaging with ideas.
As I wrapped the writing of my own book, I had a disquieting reminder from the 44th President that I might have sometimes used my brain more than my mind.
– Gary Woodward is a professor of communication studies emeritus at TCNJ and the author of The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens, which he wrote on a computer.