The Technology of Writing Habits January 15th, 2013 When I was in college, my method for writing essays went like this: I would read a book, and as I did I would underline or make check marks in the margins of books as I went along. I always read pen in hand, except if it was a library book. Then I would put little arrows on post-it notes, and stick them in the margin, half on and half off the page, so that I could find them later. Some pages would have several post-its on them if there were numerous passages I would want to remember. Then I would get a notebook and go back through the book, cover to cover, and wherever I found a check mark or underline. I would rewrite the entire sentence, or paragraph, that I had deemed important when I first wrote it. On the left hand side of the page, I would put the page number. Then I would simply recopy. I did not write down my thoughts about these passages. I would just copy them down. Then, underneath, slightly to the right to indicate a tab or change, I would write thoughts about the passage. Why did I go through this process? Why not just write my thoughts about a book down in my notebook, and then flip back through the source text, whatever I had been reading, to augment and add quotes and evidence to whatever I was writing? My system most certainly vaunted the author’s words above my own thoughts, however fledgling, something I often wondered about. I did it because through the act of writing out the passages I better remembered what I read. I did it because writing aids memory. I did to more fully engrain the book into my brain. I could have chosen other methods: I could have read the paragraphs out loud, once or twice or ten times. I could have read more slowly the first time, perhaps, slowing down my processing of the ideas, re-reading at a slower speed, just as a slow motion reply of a football play helps one remember it better than watching it live. But for me, the act of copying was the best way to remember. In graduate school, I kept this same system, but I gave up on the notebooks, and armed with faster and better computers, I typed up my notes. I sat at my computer, a book to my right, propped up on other books (I’ve never been one for office supplies, but one of those metal stands would have been a good idea.) I remember studying for my preliminary exams: I had a list of 100 American novels written between 1865-1945 on which I would be tested. I sat and copied out huge swaths of Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Nathaniel West on my computer. I printed out reams of quotes. I rarely referred to them later. The products were forgotten. But the act of reytping was all about remembering. And through the act of retyping I spent time thinking about and better understanding those novels. From there, I would write my own compositions, put my ideas onto the page, whether long-hand or typed. I was freed to think my own thoughts, undergirded by my previous stage of “studying,” as it were. I would then go on to opine or analyze or whatever it was I was doing when I wrote my History 303 papers, my dissertation, my subsequent articles, my last book. When I started my current project, a book on the history of handwriting, I spent some time thinking about how I would go about my research. So many more tools are at my disposal now—so many more than had been just a few years earlier—ones I hear about on twitter when my fellow academics praise the latest note-taking program or research aid. I looked into a few of those and got very sleepy while going through the manuals. I did decide on one new gadget, and one change in my process: I bought a Kindle. Many of the books I needed to research this book are available on Kindle, and I was enchanted by the idea that with it. I could skip one laborious step in my research: the typing up of the notes. Whoa, I thought: how quickly I will write this book! Instead of using check marks and underlining as I read, I can just “highlight” key passages. With my finger! I wouldn’t have to read with a pen in hand! And instead of retyping my notes, I could cut and copy them into my files. And thus I started, delightedly. I lay on the couch and put my lunch-greasy fingers on the screen. And yet I was not being lazy; I was doing important book research! All of it, two steps smushed into one. And then, having downloaded Kindle for Mac (it was all so easy), I could see my highlights on the page, and with a quick cut and copy, paste them into the file on my computer that contained my notes. I wouldn’t even have to sit up. I could just swap Kindle for laptop and stay on the couch all day, and voila: my notes—all those key sentences and paragraphs— would be tidily delivered to my “Medieval” or “Cuneiform” files. Goodbye, middleman, back strain, eye fatigue. Until I started writing. Until I moved to the drafting stage of things. I had all the same materials I always have had at my disposal, I had done the same work—read books and noted key parts. But I could not write a word. I felt as if I had not read anything, really, at all. I could not remember a thing about cuneiform. I couldn’t remember those books I had read on the Kindle, highlighted and copied into files. When I read the quotes in the files, they didn’t really make sense to me. I couldn’t conceptualize how those particular words worked in the context of the section of the book in which they occurred, or why I thought that passage was important for my chapter. I realized that for me, the action of retyping notes—once something I did by hand, and later by typing—was essential to my thinking process. With a heavy heart—oh crap, all those hours and all that back strain— and lightened wallet, I went back and re-bought the books— hard copies this time. And I started over. I re-read the books, putting underlines and checkmarks by the important bits, pen in hand. Then I sat upright, at the computer, and I propped the books up on my desk, next to my computer, and retyped key passages. Now, here’s the thing: there is nothing wrong with the kindle for taking notes on books. There is nothing about that process that is inherenly inferior to my process. Reading with a pen in hand does not make you a better reader. These things matter to me, because I have associations with them. They are my method, my way of thinking, something I developed when I first starting to think seriously about ideas, and writing. My method has been, to use the wrong and an unfortunate metaphor, hard-wired into my brain. I need to retain it because when I am doing it, I am touching base with my earlier, serious self, the writer person, the Anne who has written other things that did not turn out badly doing things that way and so she can do it again if she does it the same way, again. Maybe I have trained my brain to think using this method: maybe I have developed some circuits up there that I cannot shortcut if I want to write well. When I sit and type up those notes I access memories of other notes, ideas, thoughts, up there somewhere above my eyes, perhaps. So this is a story about me. It is not a story not about technology, or reading, or writing. It is about a connection, perhaps a nostalgia. (Now when it comes to form—the form of what we write—technology does play a central role—but that’s a topic for later one). I hear similar stories about the importance of handwriting first drafts all the time. I hear them from authors who insist on drafting novels long-hand, rather than typing them. They will insist, fists banging on bar tables, that pen and paper is an empirically superior form of composition to tapping keys to create a first draft. They have evidence; they have theories. I say: bunk. I say you wrote your first short stories in college long-hand, and got good comments on them from your professor, and now you need to continue this method so to touch base with the earlier self, the budding writer-self, to feel authentic, to feel comfortable, to feel at home with writing. You need to hand-write to write good novels—sure, I believe that. But not because the technology is superior, or causes people to think differently. It is because you have built associations—and maybe some individually pressed neural pathways—by so doing. For me, the transition from handwriting my notes to typing them was not a conceptual leap: it was just the same thing using different tools. The same is true for my composition process: writing a draft long-hand or typing it does not change the experience of thinking or writing for me. I can write better when I type because it’s quicker and I think quickly. Also my handwriting sucks and I am less careful with word choice when I handwrite. But when it comes to research: well then I’m a conservative. I have some pretty silly, archaic and tightly-held habits that I insist make my work better, and I am going to stick with them. So I get the handwriting-first-drafts-creates-better-writing proponents. But I don’t think it says anything about the nature of technology, or writing. I think it says something about habits and associations. It says something about mnemonics. It is all about memory in the end. comments Gaby Gabe replied on January 15th, 2013. Hey–who are those people in that bar with their fists on table? Also: Could it be about both? Habit is big, and work habits get pretty engrained, but there’s got to be some difference between the muscle memory of copying slowly and the quick slide of cut-and-paste. Especially with memory and notes. Do I know what that difference is? I do not. But I’d hesitate to say there’s no difference. Also: Do you really say “Bunk”? I can’t recall ever having heard you say it. Anne Trubek replied on January 16th, 2013. this comment is bunk. it is written by a dissaffected hand writer and as such cannot be taken seriously. also,t muscle memory or neural pathyways? And: yes. Gaby Gabe replied on January 16th, 2013. Bunk! Bunk bunk bunk bunk bunk Gaby Gabe replied on January 16th, 2013. Neural what ways? Go sharpen a pencil, sister. John P Kealing replied on January 18th, 2013. Hi Anne. I guess everyone is entitled to opinions about how technology should be used and which technique is most advantageous given a certain task, but isn’t it just that – an opinion? And isn’t technology a set of tools, networks or systems that different people employ for differing reasons? If so, then whether a writer chooses to use a pen and paper, iPad and finger or a laptop with a few more fingers, will be determined by proficiency with the technology but more importantly, their philosophical beliefs about the given technique. Joe Harris replied on January 23rd, 2013. Anne, Great post! My sense is that you are not talking here about technology per se so much as the stance or attitude a reader takes toward a text. For you, the act of retyping or rewriting a passage helped you internalize the work of an author in a way that simply highlighting text did not. (Me, too.) It’s what John Guillory calls “Intensive reading.” It’s more about a quality of attention than the affordances of a particular medium. (Although that quality of attention may be augmented or reinforced by previous experiences with the medium.) As for me, I always take notes on texts that I care about, that engage me, but I almsot never consult them . It’s the activity that matters, not the product. Leave a Reply Click here to cancel reply. Name (required) Mail (will not be published) (required) Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.