Have we made writing too easy?

A good friend drew my attention to the disappearing act of calligraphy this week, and the beautiful work of master calligrapher Paul Antonio captured by The Guardian. Coincidentally, I am part way through reading The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Mushashi, a martial text from circa 17th Century Japan, an era and a culture that considered calligraphy an essential art.

In our culture and era writing has been reduced to a purely functional act. Computers and printers have turned calligraphy into word processing. Content is king, and the physical act of writing is only a means to that end.

But clearly, the act of writing informs the nature of the content. Inscriptions carved in stone tend toward brevity. The era of vellum and quills produced much of our greatest poetry, Shakespeare included, beautiful language for beautiful materials. Academic studies have demonstrated the correlation between the amount of ink held in a dip pen, and the length of sentence used by writers like Dickens, who trained themselves to compose sentences of the right length to be completed with one charge of ink.

Calligraphy is difficult and full of limitations. Word processing is easier, and gives far more freedom, qualities generally accepted as good. But often it is the restriction imposed by a medium and the disciplines it enforces that bring out a writers greatest creativity. Poets fit their thoughts into poetic structure, novelists tell stories within genres, both to give their infinite imaginations a scaffolding to build within.

Have we lost something important in abandoning calligraphy, script, and even handwriting? I think perhaps we have.

The act of writing is really indistinguishable from the act of thinking. You may believe you have grasped an idea in your mind, but it is only when you attempt to write it down that you really test the idea. (Hence why I am writing this post, to test the idea about writing that I had in my head) The freedom of word processing allows writers to lay down words at such a speed and with so little investment that, unfortunately, it often seems that there was little thought involved with their devising.

Am I suggesting a return to the quill and velum? No. Although I’d be fascinated to see what effect on my writing working with older implements would have. A computer keyboard is a superior tool for writing. But perhaps we all need to find ways to turn writing back from a process into a craft, and by doing so reconnect the act of writing with the act of thinking.

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7 thoughts on “Have we made writing too easy?”

  1. I’m split both ways on this. I can see that writing with implements is slower – and thus you take your time over what you write. But that doesn’t mean you can’t think more with a word processor. You can move words around, revisit. Even type slowly! But just because we can type quickly, doesn’t mean we all do, and the word processor probably allows for more tinkering – what about the fact that it frees up more time for thought?

    Plus you can actually write more these days – there are more forms of writing, from emails to twitter to essays. If anything, it’s probably supported the craft. It’s provided new lexicons and grammatical constructs, passed around more ideas at a much quicker rate than ever before.

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    1. Mark – I guess any craft, from calligraphy to keyboard skills, has ways you can do it well and ways you can do it badly. I think the risk with a word processor, at least in my experience, is that it encourages the attitude that you can write a bad sentence, because you can go back and fix it later. I know that for myself, if my first draft isn’t working at the sentence level, it probably isn’t working at all. I think keyboards and word processors encourage some bad habits in writers, that we need to guard against.

      Ian – That analogue / digital divide is really interesting, because in lots of areas people are rediscovering the value of analogue. Maybe there would be a market for an anthology of ‘analogue’ writing?

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  2. It’s an interesting point Damien. Michael Nath wrote La Rochelle by fountain pen and, when set the task of revisions, rewrote the whole thing again in fountain pen. Similarly Ian Clayton wrote Bringing It All Back Home by pen. In modern terms there is an analogue nature to both authors’ writing, somewhat like the difference between vinyl and CD.

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  3. On the analogue/digital divide – since getting a digital camera, I’d never looked back. For one thing, the ability to see what you’d done and then possibly take it again is a real boon. However, going out with a photography group and using disposable analogue cameras, with all their limitations, was a strangely liberating experience. Sometimes we “hide” behind our tools.

    I find writing insanely difficult, but working with an academic environment being able to write on command, to a good standard, is absolutely essential… so I don’t think writing has become too easy.

    On the other hand, I wonder if we have lost things in our move to the digital, online world. A handwritten letter is so much more expressive, and I miss sending and receiving them – I find it harder to fall in love with someone over instant messaging than over considered, tactile handwritten letters!

    Anzir

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  4. I can think of a whole slew of fantasy and SF authors who should be forced to use quill and vellum, if only to make them stop writing so many bloody words!

    For myself I couldn’t imagine hand-writing much beyond notes. The digital medium allows me to break things down. I can focus on narrative structure, character, setting and sentence level at different stages in the process.

    I would disagree that the quality of prose in a first draft can predict the quality of the final story. Sentence level editing is the final stage of the process for me. It also seems to be a stage that many authors don’t bother with…

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  5. I think that all mediums have their limits and their advantages. The materiality of text is a strong interest of mine. For how we write and experience the text, the form in which it arrives with us is crucial. If we lost handwriting, we’d lose a lot. But it is a different medium than word processed type. Not less valuable though.

    Thanks for this post!

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  6. I can understand why nobody uses caligraphy anymore, as you said, it takes longer. As a writer, I personally use both. Not the fancy pretty caligraphy, that takes an hour to write one word. I write my stories out by hand, then I type it. I write out all the ideas with my hands in the direction I want it to go, then when I type it, I mold it into what I want Because I can analyze what I am writing, and correct the imperfections. If I could, and if my current method didn’t work better, I would write everything out by hand. To me, when it is strictly typed, it takes the human essence out of it, makes it more machine, and it loses quality. I like the human quality, it puts more soul into it. But that is just me.

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