Better Writing Begins with the Right Tools

Woman using computer in the 1970s
The cutting edge technology of 1970s

I have a theory that for writers, digital writing tools are just as influential as the mason’s choice of a particular compass or square.

Historian Lon Shelby wrote extensively about the building practices of the medieval masons behind the creation of such cathedrals as Chartres, iconic buildings that owe their creation and execution to the specific tools masons adopted for measurement and layout. “[U]ntil the history of their tools is adequately described,” Shelby writes, “the achievements of medieval masons cannot be properly evaluted from a technological point of view.” Shelby locates the geometry of these iconic buildings in the specific types of compass and square that masons had access to in the medieval era.

In her biweekly column “The Digital Voyage,” Alexandra Samuel investigates the key psychological, social, and practical challenges of migrating to an online world. Reach her on Twitter @awsamuel.

Is it really so different for current-day scribes? It’s not hard to goad writers into drawing virtual blood by asking them to expound on the relative merits of Ulysses and Bear, Markdown and rich text, or Microsoft Word vs Google Docs. And who isn’t a writer these days? From academics and students to corporate bloggers and analysts, there are few professionals who don’t spend at least some of their time cranking out paragraphs. Email alone ensures that most of us distribute more words per day than our grandparents might have sent forth in a year.

For all the time we spend cranking out words at a keyboard, however, we rarely stop to ask how all that keyboard time affects the way we write and communicate. It’s not just the keyboard that shapes our prose, of course; far more influential is the software in which we do our writing. That’s why it pays to think about what we want from our writing tools: not just as individual writers and communicators, but as readers and human beings with a stake in the ongoing evolution of our written culture.

The impact of our writing environment is on my mind because my writing process has just been transformed by Scrivener, an writing application I purchased several years ago but have only begun to properly use. I am a bit of a software junkie, so there’s nothing unusual about me trying out a new app as part of my endless quest for productivity perfection, or returning to an app I’ve tinkered with in order to take it for a more dedicated spin. I regularly cycle through new email clients, task managers, note-taking applications, data analysis tools, and image editors.

For clues about the potential impact of a purpose-built writing tool, just look back a few decades to the emergence of the word processor.

Writing software is more essential and intimate than any of these, because writing is thinking. How we structure the writing process shapes not only how we articulate our ideas to the world, but also, how we work through those ideas ourselves. The digital environment in which we do that work may feel crucial to those of us who earn a living through our writing, but this environment should matter to anyone who does significant amounts of writing for work or leisure.

If you’ve been using the same writing software for years and years, as I have, it’s easy to stop thinking about the impact your tools have on the day-to-day experience of writing. For the past decade, almost all my short-form writing has been drafted in Evernote, and for twenty-five years, all my long-form writing has taken place in Microsoft Word. I’m not giving up either of those tools, but spending the past month writing in Scrivener has reminded me that new tools enable new thoughts and new ways of working.

Because Scrivener makes it so easy to slice up and reorganize pieces of a document, it profoundly changes the process of writing and revision, and the balance between them. Stergios Botzakis summarizes Scrivener’s most useful features in his article on digital writing tools for students: 

Students may use the binder, which acts as the project’s table of contents, to create chapters and scenes within chapters.…Students may rearrange the narrative by clicking and dragging chapters and scenes in the the binder, or by moving index cards on the virtual cork board….After adding chapter or scene summaries, student writers can alternate views between the manuscript, outline mode and corkboard.

For clues about the potential impact of a purpose-built writing tool, just look back a few decades to the emergence of the word processor. In those early days, it was considered a shareable finding to observe, as Francis A. Hubbard did in a 1984 review of several books on word processing: “I know perhaps a dozen people who write a great deal on word processors, and all of them concede instantly that their writing process has been changed.”

The “gee whiz” delight I’ve experienced in my love affair with Scrivener is much in evidence during those heady days of early word processing. Matthew Kirchenbaum has written an entire book on the impact of word processing, the seeds of which appear in his article on how it transformed the work of John Updike:

Like many others [Updike] was at first captivated by the strange new device, declaring it “dazzling” more than once. Evidence of writers test driving their first word processor is a minor genre in their personal papers. One of the best known examples comes from Russell Banks when he was writing the novel that became Affliction: “STILL VERY MUCH LEARNING TO THINK ON THIS MACHINE,” he wrote in all caps at the beginning of a document that is a kind of stream-of-consciousness exploration of its capabilities. “STRANGE EXPERIENCE, UNFAMILIAR MIXTURE OF SPEED AND SLOWDOWN.” A similar page by Salman Rushdie survives in his collection at Emory University. Stephen King, meanwhile, wrote a short story, “The Word Processor,” which was published in Playboy and stands as the first extended fictional treatment of the technology.

The kinds of praise that many writers, students, and writing teachers lavished on the emergent technology of word processing points to the very particular ways it changed the practice of writing. In an anecdotal assessment of her college students’ use of word processing in her English, Dawn Rodrigues writes that

I observed various ways in which the computer was affecting my students’ progress. First of all, the computer seemed to help reduce the students’ writing apprehension. Students who at the beginning of the semester wrote (in early journal entries) of being nervous about writing showed no anxiety at all as the course progressed. For instance, one student who couldn’t even think of an idea for a journal entry on the second day of class blossomed when he began writing on the computer. He explained in his journal that he wasn’t afraid to express himself because he knew that he could immediately delete any sentences which embarrassed him. Another student said that he liked writing with computers because he forgot to worry about what he was saying. He just enjoyed seeing the words appear.

Yet for all the subjective joy and liberation of word processing, a wide range of studies questioned whether it actually led to better writing. If word processing left the composition teachers of the world a bit underwhelmed, it’s because it facilitated plenty of tinkering, while doing little to foster the kind of large-scale editing and rethinking that can really move a piece of work forward. As Richard M. Collier noted in a 1983 article,

the use of a word processor for revising purposes did not enhance the quality of their written products. This would seem to reflect that their revision strategies centered on words, phrases, and clauses, and were, therefore, concerned primarily with matters of diction and with changes which were sometimes minimal, often trivial, and occasionally detriment.

A 2010 article includes Collier’s work in a round-up of studies offering decidedly mixed assessments of word processing’s effects on writing quality. The article includes research on how word processing affects the revision process among students, noting that “[T]he fact that computers have made global revision easy has led some to assume that it has made global revision more common. But the ease of revision afforded by today’s word processing may not have resulted in more students doing global revision.”

This complaint about word processing is exactly what sent me in pursuit of a new writing environment. I’m no stranger to doing large-scale edits in Word; there was lots of big-picture rearranging involved in writing my dissertation, and later, in writing my series of ebooks. But it was a painful process, because Word (like most word processors and text editors) is set up as if the complete article (or essay, or report, or book) is the fundamental unit of work. Sure, you can move stuff around by cutting and pasting, but you have very limited options for keeping the overall structure of your work in mind as you do. Word is fundamentally a tool designed to facilitate the modest changes described by Collier.

Scrivener, on the other hand, is set up to facilitate what Dave and Russell refer to as “global revision.” It encourages writers to slice their work up into the smallest viable units: not just chapters or even sections, but individual scenes, quotes or arguments. (To write this article in Scrivener, I imported each of the quotes you read above as individual documents, so that I could pull them in and rearrange them at will.) When you look at your work through the constant lens of its component parts, it’s much easier to undertake ambitious restructuring—not just technically easier, but conceptually easier, because you can see the parts that make up the whole.

While Scrivener has plenty of devotees among novelists, authors, academics, screenwriters, and even some bloggers, it’s still far from overtaking word processors like Word and Google Docs as the day-to-day context in which most business and personal writing occurs. If that necessarily limits its short-term impact on our literary or journalistic culture, don’t underestimate the impact it could have in the long run.

That’s because Scrivener is only one of a growing range of tools designed to support the writing process in new ways.

Think of the blogging platform Medium, which built its writing and reading community around the uncluttered, reliable interface it offers writers. More and more of my articles begin their life in Medium, because the minimal set of formatting options keeps me focused on the writing. And there’s nothing like being one click away from a pre-fab audience to keep a writer honest.

Of course some writers need their minimalism even more minimal. For people who get distracted by bells and whistles like font choices or a boldface, there’s the cult of Markdown editors: writing environments in which you add formatting through a secret vocabulary of symbols like **asterisks** (if you want boldface) or _underscores_ (for underlining). Markdown editors like IA Writer, Texts, and WriteMonkey catapult writers back to the golden age of the typewriter, but with the exciting benefit of being able to use the delete key.

Just remember that choosing the right tools is only the first part of the job.

Then there are the tools that support long-form writing while recognizing that long-form work is about more than file size. Along with Scrivener there’s Novlr, where your novel lives entirely in the cloud; Final Draft, which is designed for screenwriters; and Ulysses, which works for any writer, as long as they use a Mac. Each of them has been expressly designed around the writing process, though they differ as much from one another as writers do.

What all of these applications share is an insight that’s missing from your basic all-purpose word processor. It’s the insight that comes from looking at the impact of word processors on our written culture over the past thirty years, or for that matter, from looking at the impact of compasses on medieval masons. That insight? Our tools matter.

If you just need to get words on a page, well, by all means, use whatever text editor or note-taking app springs to hand. But if you’re actually trying to refine your practice or craft as a writer, choose the software tool (or tools!) that get you past your biggest limitations.

Just remember that choosing the right tools is only the first part of the job. As Shelby writes, “it was not the sophistication of the tools themselves, but rather the skill and ingenuity displayed in the use of those tools that made possible the great achievements of the medieval masons.”


JSTOR Citations

Medieval Masons' Tools. II. Compass and Square

By: L. R. Shelby

Technology and Culture , Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring, 1965), pp. 236-248

The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology

Reviewed Work: Scrivener

By: Stergios Botzakis

Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 58, No. 2 (OCTOBER 2014), pp. 167-168

Wiley on behalf of the International Literacy Association

Review

By: Francis A. Hubbard

College English , Vol. 46, No. 2 (Feb., 1984), pp. 128-133

National Council of Teachers of English

Operating Systems of the Mind: Bibliography After Word Processing (The Example of Updike)

By: Matthew Kirschenbaum

The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 108, No. 4 (December 2014), pp. 380-412

The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Bibliographical Society of America

Computers and Basic Writers

By: Dawn Rodrigues

College Composition and Communication, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Oct., 1985), pp. 336-339

National Council of Teachers of English

The Word Processor and Revision Strategies

By: Richard M. Collier

College Composition and Communication, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May, 1983), pp. 149-155

National Council of Teachers of English

Drafting and Revision Using Word Processing by Undergraduate Student Writers: Changing Conceptions and Practices

By: Anish M. Dave and David R. Russell

Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 44, No. 4 (May 2010), pp. 406-434

National Council of Teachers of English

Alexandra Samuel is a technology writer, researcher and speaker. She is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal. Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. from Oberlin College. You can find her on Twitter as @awsamuel and on her own site, alexandrasamuel.com.

Comments are closed.