(Do Not) Throw Out Your Pens and Paper

Richard Powers, who received the National Book Award in November, wrote an essay for tomorrow’s NY Times Book Review about speech recognition software and the importance of dictation while composing a text. It is quite an interesting article which proposes that writers should go back to dictating their works to typists or, in Mr. Powers’s case, tablet PC’s.

He gives a lot of classic examples of writers who preferred dictation (F. M. Dostoevsky, J. Joyce, W. Wordsworth, J. Milton &c.), and apparently he himself has not typed a single of his last 500,000 words of his published fiction and a mere 10,000 e-mails were sent out without ever touching a keyboard.

I am not quite sure what to make of this, though. Some people, such as Mr. Powers, say that speaking the words while composing a text creates an immediate feeling for them, especially for their sound. Also, writers can record their thoughts just as fast as they think them, without having to wait for their hands to write it all down or type it up.

Then there are others, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who preferred (or still prefer) typewriters. F. Nietzsche said that using a typewriter changed his thinking process entirely.

And word processors changed it once again. Writers can easily erase what they just wrote or exchange one word for another. Here the words become ephemeral. They only exist as binary code bits composed of zeros and ones, until they are printed out. But what if the whole computer crashes completely before you can print anything and you have not made any back-up copies? When composed on a typewriter, words become eternal immediately, unless, of course, someone burns the pages.

It is unfortunate that pen and paper or typewriters have become unfashionable. Quite a big portion of a text’s myteriousness lies within the tool(s) with which it was originally written. Thomas Pynchon, for instance, still uses a typewriter. His letter to the Daily Telegraph, in which he defends Ian McEwan, was clearly typewritten and that alone gives it a certain aura of intellectuality, maybe even superiority (the good kind).

Personally, whenever I write an essay or any other text for that matter, it is a "hybrid" process of pen and paper and computer. It is a symbiosis that works quite well for me. All the thoughts come out on paper, in actual writing which probably only I can read, and the editing is done on the computer during and after typing up the words. Luckily, I do not have to edit a lot—at least I do not feel that I have to—and so I can say that most of my writing is done with pen and paper, notebooks actually. I would love to use a typewriter, though, just to see where it would take me.


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