The word processing revolution: a boon or a bane for writing quality?

I was discussing the writing process with a friend the other day, a former New York Times journalist. I quoted Fran Lebowitz from the documentary Public Speaking: she hates writing. People hate, she proposes, what they do well. My friend countered that nowadays that he finds the entire process enjoyable. Perhaps, he proposed, it’s the 10,000 hours of practice. I replied that I enjoy the first step–the brainstorming–but often find the next step–organizing and formulating what I’ve brainstormed till everything seems clearly articulated and connected–painfully challenging. 

What keeps me going is anticipating the pleasure of what comes next. Taking what’s finally all out there on paper and more or less intelligible and editing the heck out of it: that has long been one of my favorite pastimes. 

But that wasn’t always the case.

What made the difference for me wasn’t 10,000 hours of practice: I couldn’t have possibly gotten to that point. Instead, it’s the Editing Revolution that occurred when word processors replaced typewriters. Back in the Dark Ages, we mostly revised by hand, creating a mess of cross-outs and carets and arrows and numbers. Less often, for good reason, we retyped entire pages. Often we turned in papers that cried out for further revisions: we’d run out of time or were thoroughly fed up.

After the Editing Revolution, most of the deterrents to revising vanished. Editing became nearly friction-less, requiring just a few points, clicks, and taps. And if a writer is unsure which wordings or structures or sentence and paragraph boundaries are optimal, she has at her fingertips the tools for “writing experiments”: for trying out different sentences and seeing/hearing how they sound. I do this all the time (I’m doing it now), and the feedback is immediate. I often say that the best writing instructor I’ve ever had is my word processor.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this–at least among people of my generation and earlier, the people who went through the Editing Revolution.

But I’m not so sure about today’s students–as this Out in Left Field post from about nine years ago has reminded me. While word processing has made it really easy to revise, it’s also made it easy to brain dump. And it’s made it possible to outsource all the editing to the machine in front of us.

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