Tag Archives: writing

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Dear New Writer, Uncategorized

Habits and Hijabs

To date, I’ve been very good at beating around the bush when it comes to being a writer. I don’t like to discuss it when I’m around other writers, regardless of where they are in their careers. I have done so because I felt it was my duty to show great humility when it comes to my accomplishments, talent, and ambition. However, it’s been pointed out to me that the way I approach it is not through humility, but through poor self-esteem and lack of confidence. Am I not proud of the good work I’ve produced? Of the dedication I’ve put into developing that talent? Wouldn’t I rather be writing full time than anything else? Of course, but I’ve stood in my own way.

So here I go, preparing to out myself as prideful, ambitious, and talented.

I have an agent (Victoria Sanders), a novel (Habits and Hijabs), and an editor (Benee Knauer). At present, I’m in the process of editing the novel for perhaps the sixth time with Benee’s guidance, and I’ve been working toward this singular goal since I started playing with the Brother word processor my mother bought when I was in second grade.

I have just shy of a dozen published short stories to my name, a handful of non-fiction articles, and occasionally I write for a Kentucky tourism website.

What’s funny is that I just realized this week that I have a friend who didn’t even know I was a writer. That’s not being modest, that’s just being closed-off.

Let me get weird and personal in an attempt to explore why I am this way. 99% of my life has consisted of me not speaking up when I should have, not having the composure to carry myself in a debate, not having the confidence to stand up for myself. You know how you think of the best comeback when you’re back home all safe and sound? Just imagine that happening every day for as long as you can remember, every time someone talks to you. You never say what you mean, what you need, what you want. You feel guilty for having something to say.

Habits and Hijabs is a beautiful book. I say this not because I want to oversell my new pride and self-confidence, but because I am profoundly connected to the characters, world, and story I wove nearly 6 years ago. When I first wrote it, I titled it The Appalachian, and the only thing beautiful about it was the main character, Maggie, a sixteen year-old runaway. I put it away for a couple of years thinking it was one of those projects that wouldn’t go anywhere. When I got it back out a few years ago, I liked it enough, put some work into it, and entered it into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest.

Round 1: From 5,000 to 500 (I think). Made it through. Nice.

Round 2: From 500 to 100 (I think). Made it through. Huh.

Round 3: Semifinals (Top 50…I think): There’s my name. There’s my book. “Honey, come look at this…”

And that’s as far as it went. I was ecstatic. Didn’t care that I didn’t win. Didn’t care that I was so close yet so far. It meant the novel was viable–people would read it and like it…but it needed work.

So with another round of edits, I went the route of submitting to agents (for the umpteenth time in my career) and got the usual round of form letter: Not what we’re looking for, good luck in the future, sorry, we’d like to represent your novel pending structural revisions and editorial development.

Damn, that sucks.

“Honey, come look at this…”

So, this novel has been pending representation for a while as I go through the editorial process. The first attempt with a professional editor was pleasant enough, but it wasn’t what I needed as a writer. You see, I’m a special kind of stupid…

“Novelists have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.” --Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I’m not brilliant at the novel but I’m persistent. Now, after hundreds and hundreds of attempts at short story writing, I’ve become semi-brilliant–that is, I can occasionally pump out a stellar story–but that persistence is what gets them published. I’m still submitting stories I wrote years ago because I know they’re good. They just need to hit the screen of the proper editor at the proper publication at the proper time.

Back to novels. Being semi-brilliant at the short story means I have the ability to write, edit, and submit one within a week (or trash it and move on). I don’t have a formula, but I can quickly get in the Short Story Zone (SSZ (c)) and have a rough draft over a weekend. Single story line, single-sentence revelations, characters you only want to be with briefly. I got that. Trying to translate this same skill to the novel is a lot like a gold-medal sprinter deciding to do a marathon in the middle of training for the 50m dash. Vomit. Vomit everywhere.

Or, back to writing, it results in flat storylines, flat characters, and ponderous revelations that absolutely make no sense because you’re 100 pages in and you realize every other page is trying to be too…revelatory…important…significant?

The most common critique I got from Victoria Sanders after several successive revisions was that the storyline and characters were undercooked. Undercooked? I got it. I’ll fix it..I think..I’ll cook it more. I’ll be the grillmaster of literary perseverance.

Enter Gordon Ramsay yelling at the top of his lungs: “It’s fucking raw! Are you trying to kill people? Get your shit together, man!”

See, if you don’t know what undercooked means, then you’ll probably do something stupid like put more salt on your steak or hit it with a hammer and put it in the fridge. I had no idea what Victoria really meant. Whew. It felt really, really bad to admit that. Much worse than I thought it would. I’m glad it’s out in the open.

Enter Benee Knauer–a woman whose name you’ll find in the Acknowledgements section of many books in your local bookstore. Go on and look. You’ll find one. There you go. Benee absolutely knows her shit, and she knew my shit before I even knew there was shit to know. I’ve been working with her for a few months and so far I’m floored by my experience with her. I’d love to go into detail about working with Benee (ie, what working with an editor is actually like and why I love it/need it/crave it) but I’m afraid that has to wait for another entry. The point of this entry was simply to tell you that I’m a writer–no self-deprecating joke about being mediocre and no humility whatsoever–and I’m on this journey that sometimes I forget about because at the same time I have a lot of other things going on…like real life (Dad stuff, work stuff, drinking stuff). Right now, I need to stop procrastinating and actually get to work on Habits and Hijabs. Seriously, I wrote this post instead of working on my book.


Filed under Fiction