Has the focus on digital tools destroyed our ability to communicate effectively?
When choosing to illustrate the subject of “writing”, many bloggers will choose an avatar of a fountain or quill pen, or an antique typewriter. There is an organic, iconic simplicity to these tools, a functional beauty, elegance and purity of form that still holds a romantic place in the hearts of writers today.
The way we were
For thousands of years, a dip pen and bottle of ink were the only tools of a writer. In 953, Ma’ād al-Mu’izz, the caliph of the Maghreb, demanded a pen that would not dribble on his hands or clothes, and was provided with a writing instrument that held ink in a bladder and fed it to the nib. The fountain pen was born.
In the 19th century the Moleskine notebook made its appearance. A fountain pen or pencil, and the leather-bound black notebook, were popular with writers for over two centuries. You can still buy them today.
The first working typewriter was developed by the Italian Pellegrino Turri in 1808. For over 260 years, the tap-tap of a typewriter augmented the thought processes of writers around the globe, transferring their words to paper.
A blank sheet of paper, a well-used typewriter, a red proofreading pencil and the Oxford dictionary were all a writer needed. The only notable writing tools to emerge over two centuries were Roget’s Thesaurus in 1911 and Webster’s American Dictionary in 1913.
Libraries provided limited source material, so most editorial content flowed from the hearts and minds of writers. Feedback from readers helped hone columnists’ skills, and engagement with their audience enabled writers to establish their own unique voice. Good, authoritative writing was informative, but it also connected with the readership. Edgy, opinionated writers tended to have the greatest following.
The first dedicated word processors emerged as stand-alone office machines in the 1970s They combined a keyboard for text entry with the printing functionality of an electric typewriter. Lift-off correction tape permitted minor corrections on the fly. Within a few years, sophisticated computer processors would save documents to RAM or disk, eliminating much of the retyping during editing. My third job was in sales, marketing word processors for the Olivetti typewriter company. Secretaries oohed as I showed them how documents could be stored for reuse. It was a brave new world.
In 1979 Micropro International introduced their WordStar software and writing has never been the same. Today, the blogger is presented with a bewildering array of software options, each promising to make writing simpler, improve the writer’s workflow or protect them from their inadequacies.
I treasure my ‘swirl’ glass nib dip pen and Mont Blanc 149 Diplomat fountain pen, although I rarely write with them. They are elegant symbols of a time when writing was much simpler. I would love to get my hands on a Royal No. 10 vintage typewriter (introduced 1914)… a thing of exquisite beauty. It too is a classic icon of the writer’s craft.
Can we go back to simpler, more organic writing?
We live in an electronic age, so it’s unrealistic for most of us to consider going back to writing content on a typewriter. Ribbons and typewriter repair shops have become extremely difficult to find, but there are still a few purists that do their writing on a typewriter, then scan their text into the computer or tablet with an OCR reader app like Readiris.
If you’ve chosen to write on a tablet, instead of a laptop, a Bluetooth keyboard and perhaps a raised stand will provide a comparable typewriter experience. Many software apps exist for laptop computers and tablets that offer a distraction-free ‘blank sheet’ experience. Two examples are WriteRoom for Mac/iOS and Q10 for Windows 8. Here’s the good news: you will probably actually only need one app for life.
Toting hardcover editions of your dictionary and thesaurus are not practical or necessary today. For proofreading, Grammarly or WhiteSmoke will check your text for spelling and grammatical errors. There are many bloggers who still write their first draft in Microsoft Word and print it out double-spaced, so they can proofread it with a red gel pen. (The Pilot FriXion Erasable in red is a favorite with professional editors.) Word also includes a light spelling/grammar checker.
Writers of the last two centuries did not purchase a new typewriter every few months or even years. They chose one at the beginning of their careers and it became almost as much a part of them as their right arm. I was watching an episode of Million Dollar Listing recently and noticed that one of the top earners was using an ancient Apple PowerBook laptop that still required the old blue LAN cable because it was pre-wi-fi. I was puzzled that a millionaire would use that old clunker, considering his shoes cost more than a brand new top-of-the-line 15″ MacBook Pro Retina. On reflection, it occurred to me that he retained it because a new model with all the bells and whistles would contribute absolutely nothing to his bottom line. He was sparing himself the wasted time and distraction involved in shopping for a new one, upgrading to the latest software and hardware and then enduring the frustration of learning a new operating system. His current computer worked, it was a familiar friend, and he would rather sell homes.
We’re striving for simplicity, so that our minds are free to create and connect with our readers. Don’t get caught up in ‘shiny new object syndrome’, buying every new app and hardware recommendation presented to you. The new toys will not make you a better writer or real estate agent. Writing regularly and listening carefully to your readers are the way you’ll improve.
Most modern writers feel they must read constantly to be an authority in their industry. They believe they are inspired by big-name and competitive bloggers in their niche. They rely on readily-available reference materials rather than looking internally for their own unique take on the subject.
I have no issues with being informed and up to date, but am convinced that a blogger becomes an authority because people identify with the writer as much as the message. Reading outside of your niche can expand your outlook and fuel creativity. Reading other blogs and reference material in your own field obsessively often replaces inspiration and creativity with textbook knowledge, and I believe this is behind much of the “me too” regurgitated drivel found on websites today.
To achieve ‘contrast’ — to stand out — you need to look beyond the usual sources. Accurate, informative content that does not resonate with your readership is not going to build your audience. Without an audience or platform, you will have a very difficult time being recognized as an authority in your niche.
Inspired writing in 2014 will not come as a result of buying new computer hardware, more software apps, new online solutions or subscribing to an ever increasing list of resource feeds and email updates in your niche. Clearing the clutter, so you’re left with only your computer or tablet, your writing app and perhaps a spelling/grammar checker can be very liberating. Consider embracing the mantra, “I already have everything I need.”
You probably read entirely too much in your niche and that’s made it very difficult for you to provide a new perspective to your readers. Your copy will naturally sound exactly like everyone else if you don’t expose yourself to something completely different every day.
You need feedback, so write to elicit a response from your readers. Then carefully read and reply to your comments. Commenting on other blogs in your niche also provides an opportunity to test reader reactions, provide a unique perspective and attract readers to your site. Let your personality shine through. Present an opinion. Take a few chances with your content in 2014. Any successful columnist had readers that both agreed and disagreed. In the same way, as long as your critics are respectful, publishing their comments is likely to contribute to the conversation and increase further engagement.
Over to you
Would you agree that a return to the purity of simple tools, an uncluttered and creative mind, and a close connection with your readers are keys to increasing your readership and authority? Or do you believe cutting edge software tools and hardware, and a level of automation, have become necessary in building an audience today?
Has anyone written content on an old Commodore Pet, Apple II or other seriously cool vintage piece of hardware? I sold some of the first Olivetti M20 computers, bundled with Corel’s WordPerfect software and an external glass-ceramic hard drive enclosed in a wood cabinet. (Set one down roughly and the platter shattered.) Did any of you begin your writing career on a manual, or perhaps an IBM Selectric typewriter, then move to a computer later? Have you hammered out editorial copy for a publication? Here’s the place to share your writing roots.
I love edgy, opinionated “tell it like it is” writing that entertains, is thought provoking and informative, and inspires me to either make positive changes in my life or consider another point of view. Some examples are Paul Boag, Ash Ambirge (The Middle Finger Project), Erika Napoletano and Chris Brogan. Do you have any recommendations?
Magical writing comes from looking within.