Your Search for the Best Writing Software/Smartphone App is Dumb (and so are you)

I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil.

–Wendell Berry, “Why I am NOT Going to Be Buying A                                                                 Computer.” New England Review. 1987.

When your editor asks you to write everything on a typewriter for a week, say no. Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. And don’t look back.

–Cory Blair, “My Torturous Week of Writing Only on a                                                                Typewriter.” American Journalism Review. October 29, 2014.

While I doubt Mr. Blair has ever read Mr. Berry’s timeless (and several times reprinted) essay, his attitude certainly suggests he might come across it by accident and roll his eyes.

This animosity between the worlds of typewriter and computer is what I hope to splice myself into today. You see, I live in a world between Cory Blair and Wendell Berry. I was raised on an electric typewriter. Then I was raised on a word processor (with a typewriter function and a yellow/black screen). And then we got a computer. As an adult, I have written several stories on typewriters–some of them rough drafts of eventually published pieces. Some of them just drunken hammerings.

I love the computer. I love the typewriter.

Cory Blair is an idiot for trying to use the typewriter as a computer, for thinking that the laptop of today is used exactly as typewriters were used prior to the rise of the personal computer–of placing our take-it-everywhere mentality on a time-continuum, ad-infinitum, meaning before the typewriter we hauled printing presses and jars of ink and blocks of paper and pieces of charcoal and sticks of dried clay and rolls of sheepskin to their time-appropriate gathering places–cafes, train stations, hitching posts, swamps, etc. He seems to think, somehow, we were dumber sixty years ago. You can see this thought appear on his face in a photograph that accompanies the article. He stands in a hallway, hauling the 40-pound typewriter behind him on a luggage cart. Like a moron.

Now, Wendell Berry, on the other hand (at least the Wendell Berry from 1987), is also an idiot. In his now-historic essay, he preaches of the typewriter as an almost divine creation, something bestowed upon him that, magically, consumed no natural resources during its production. Never mind the hundreds of tiny arms and pivots, all methodically punched out by an assembly line machine producing thousands of identical typewriters in a factory consuming 1.21 gigawatts of electricity per annum, driven from the factory via highway and interstate in a pre-smog-conscious world, packaged in crisp, fresh cardboard straight from the forest. Never mind that the 19th Century device revolutionized record keeping and document making much as the computer did for the 20th Century. And does it matter that Berry’s railing against corporatism and consumerism was stamped out on a machine made in 1956, just a year before Royal Typewriters would manufacture its 10-millionth typewriter? Does it matter that Royal is now Royal Consumer Information Products, Inc., a company that still produces boring office products with the Royal name stamped on it? Yes, I can thank Google for this systematic debunking of one of America’s great sentimentalist grandfather authors–but you know? I could do it without Google, too. And without a computer.

In addition to being brought up using typewriters and word processors and computers whose most awesome feature was MS-DOS, I also grew up using real-life card catalogs and performing real-life library research for written assignments. For crying out loud, I used colored pencils to highlight photocopies of book excerpts. The computer (and its ever-increasing access to scholarly sources), dear new writer, allows me to do all this research far more efficiently, effectively, and get closer to a finished product faster than at any point in my writing history.

So you, dear new writer, are also stupid if you ask me my opinion on the best writing software or application for your computer or smartphone. When I discuss writing with other writers (which I really, truly despise doing, but do so out of courtesy when I hear the words–“Oh, Joseph is a writer, you should talk to him about writing“) it is guaranteed that I will be asked what software I use to write. Word, you dolts. I use Microsoft Word. 2007, 2010, 2013? Uh, I guess. I never thought about what software I used, except that every so often the features on the ribbon change places, and sometimes I long for the simplicity of Office 97. If you don’t have Word, OpenOffice Writer is pretty much the exact same thing.

Now, I’m not saying you’re an idiot for having a preference–if you take nothing away from this rant, take that at least–and in fact what I’m saying hasn’t been said yet. After stammering my way through my answer, I always get the protest-as-clarification–“No, no, I mean what writing program do you use to format your writing and block out distractions?”

OH! My mistake! Microsoft Word. Whatever version is on whatever computer I use. That’s what I use. Word.

“NO! Focuswriter? Storyweaver? Dramatica? WriteitNow? WritewayPro? PowerStructure? Powerwriter? Contour? Writer’s Blocks? Master Writer? Storybase?”

Like you’re asking Mickey Mantle just how he got to be so damn good. What’s your secret? Because you want to have all the same advantages I have. I know, I know, because my name is one you’ve never heard and yet someone just told you I was a writer and you think maybe they know what they’re talking about.

The question doesn’t have to be directed at me. It can be anyone asking a writer for advice. But the advice is inherently garbage, because it doesn’t matter. And you shouldn’t be so worried about software specifically for writers. Don’t you own books? Real life books on a shelf over your writing space that you can reach up and refer to when you need to? Because thumbing through Gray’s Anatomy is way more satisfying than Googling “those awesome looking bones below your neck.” And can’t you format your own Word document like a big kid? And can’t you refer to an actual book for spacing and formatting guides–like, say, Guide to Style? Shouldn’t you be more worried about what written content you prefer to pull inspiration from rather than what computer program you’re going to use to hack your way through a mental catalog of tepid literary ideas?

The search, the struggle to find the perfect writing software that turns off distractions, that helps with formatting, that helps you build characters and stories and plots, is really just you putting off your due diligence as a writer. It is a huge distraction in itself. If you devoted your anxious energy to reading for pleasure–to exploring the depths of your curiosity through the written word–rather than to nitpick the pros and cons of every writing program available for $49.99, you might just realize that you’re the best writing program. You can make up your own rules, you can do anything you want on paper (or, uh, screen). But you have to be generating words to do so, and it doesn’t matter how the words come out.

So, when you ask for writing advice–is that the best you can do? You have the opportunity to ask anything, anything at all of a fellow writer (however well-known or not) and the only detail that matters to you is what the author has downloaded? Are you, dear new writer, a complete imbecile? If that is truly the only curiosity you can muster about craft, there is no software available for you that can help.

The effect of technology on the written word is one of efficiency, and that is aimed specifically at the act of writing itself, not on tasks associated with writing such as formatting, character and plot development, and editing. My take on technology and literature is that we, as writers, will naturally gravitate toward a system where we are most efficient and effective. For me, the computer (and Word) allows me to type at the speed at which I think. I don’t know what the next innovation in the written word will be, but I’m sure my sentiments will echo Mark Twain’s as he reflected on his first typewriter:

…I will now claim–until dispossessed–that I was the first person in the world to apply the typewriter to literature…The early machine was full of caprices, full of defects–devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells…He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.

–“The First Writing Machines,” Hartford, March 10 1875.

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