Good writing is not technology, but technology may help


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I was working diligently to try to put in my daily quota of written words this morning and took a break to read some writing tips from mystery writing master Larry Block. For all of us “oldsters” (I absolutely HATE that word) out there, Block is one of the masters of good fiction, and someone we remember from a previous lifetime ago as a columnist with “Writer’s Digest” magazine. For more than a decade, he did a monthly column geared primarily toward the whys, wherefores and how-tos of fiction writing.

Block has gathered many of those columns into some volumes I highly recommend, the latest of which came out recently as an ebook (Kindle ready, by the way, from Amazon.com) titled “The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers.” The 40 or so collected WD columns in this nifty little book (I bought it for only $2.99, by the way.) are from 1981-1987.

As I read through the book, I am more than ever convinced of the truth in the title I’ve put on this little article: Good writing is independent of technology, really, although good technology may help you write well. Again and again as I read Block’s words of wisdom for writers, I am impressed with how timely they remain over the years: write clearly, organize your material, be brave and take risks with your writing and the writing lifestyle, master the fundamentals of good grammar, spelling, and all the other basics, etc. And as I read these time capsules from 1981-87 I am keenly aware of how greatly the technology of writing and publishing has changed.

For instance, how many of you under the age of, oh, let’s say 30, have ever used carbon paper for your writing? Or a manual typewriter? For that matter, even an electric typewriter? In one of the columns reprinted in his book, Block made a joking reference to a writer so broke he was “eating baked beans out of the can and pawning his overcoat to buy carbon paper.” The carbon paper crack was what started me thinking about technological changes. In the next column, he wrote extensively about writing while you travel — again, getting into things like the typewriter he might take along on an extensive trip, even mentioning his custom of sometimes renting typewriters to work on as he traveled.

But what do we writers do today? Personally, I’ve not given in to the trap of smartphones (yet) and wearing out my aging thumbs with texting. I do, however, have a laptop computer (I’m using it right now) AND I have a smaller laptop, i.e., a “netbook.” It’s probably a measure of how I’m always a step or two behind on the technological journey when I slap quotation marks around netbook. (And, no, I have no immediate plans to get an iPad or other tablet device.)

Some years back (OK, some DECADES back), I read an interview in WD magazine with Donald Westlake, a wonderful comic/mystery writer. The interviewer was poking fun at Westlake because he always used a manual typewriter, never electric. (I do not know whether he ever moved on to computers.) Westlake’s explanation, and I very liberally paraphrase because I no longer have the article at hand, went something like this: “When other writers are stalled by power outages, you’ll hear the ‘tap-tap-tap’ of my keys echoing through the steel and glass canyons of Manhattan.” (Incidentally, Donald Westlake, who died just a few years ago, was a close personal friend of Larry Block’s.) At the time I read the interview, I was quite pleased with and proud of my new Smith-Corona electric typewriter.

In my career, mostly writing non-fiction and religious instructional materials, I have used manual typewriters, electric typewriters, several very primitive “old-fashioned” dual disk-drive desktop and portable computers and, gasp, even pencil and paper. (You could argue this: A No. 2 pencil and a lined tablet might well be the ultimate in portable word processors.)

So here’s my challenge for you today: Pick up a pencil or even a pen and some paper today and start writing. Go ahead. Just to change up your routine and maybe find a fresh outlook on your current writing project, give it a try. After all, good writing is always good writing, no matter what the technology. My challenge might even force you to look longer and harder at your writing, rather than the particular medium you’re using to turn your thoughts into words.

Then come back and leave a comment or two, let us know how that works for you.

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