Writing now and then

This is the second guest post from Prof Peter Downton from the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University, reflecting on the changes that have occurred during his long research career. In this post Peter talks about practices of writing prior to computers and the effects new technology was introduced.

Although intellectually you may be aware of the fact, I can personally attest to the fact that computers are not necessary if you want to write.

I was one of the first kids on the block with a Mac when they were launched in 1984. Prior to the arrival of desktop computers I had managed to hand write several hundred thousand words: some research reports for local and international agencies; a research masters degree (two actually, for, to my supervisor’s horror, I threw the pile of pages of the first one in the bin and started again – by then I had worked with some of the people whose research I covered and my first effort seemed naive); my parts of a couple of co-authored books; some conference papers; a PhD; and a co-authored film script.

Nearly all of this material was typed by someone else for payment. Reflecting on changes in my writing processes, and those I have seen from supervising higher degree candidates since 1974 and conducting a research seminar since 1988, might reveal some things I hope are useful.

My handwriting was done on lined paper. I wrote on every second line to allow inserts and corrections, but if I really screwed up the same fate awaited the paper. It was portable: I wrote in cafes, on couches, and in (parked) cars. My entirely part time PhD was squeezed into the corners of an over-busy life, and frequently done at night or in lunchtimes. Combined with handwriting, this meant that the final draft was composed over twenty-two months. My thinking evolved over this period and the result is patchy. At least I could work in various places.

A similar level of portability was not recovered with computers until battery technology allowed lighter laptops. When reference material was required, the hand writer was more desk-bound than current computer users. Useful material such as outlines, notes to self and diagrammed arguments were kept in arch files along with the emerging text. This was bulky to cart about compared to the one-kilo laptop I currently use.

Writing by hand on paper promotes starting at the beginning. Perhaps this is the beginning of a section or chapter, rather than a whole document, but unless a great deal of cutting, re-ordering and reassembly is undertaken, writing in the same order as it is to be read makes sense. Computers irrevocably altered this for me. Now, I simply start. Often I conclude I commenced in the middle and a beginning is assembled prior to the initial start.

Always the text is provisional at both the level of words and with respect to the structure. Therefore I fiddle. Sometimes improvement results; sometimes it is simply change. The discipline of paper limited the fiddle factor. One person I supervised, only a few years ago, had the entrenched idea that a writer must start at the beginning and work through to the conclusion. He was unable to write at all because he had not decided where to begin. In an act of remarkable desperation he began and produced thirty-five thousand words in eleven weeks as a part time candidate. After mild polishing, this was final draft material.

I have supervised people who bang out drafts at remarkable speed, write a new second take and even a third draft prior to polishing it as a final text. I have had candidates who write in small units, possibly paragraphs, and slowly manipulate them into place in the PhD. Other candidates use whatever new mind mapping, idea assembling, or writing aid they have most recently discovered.

I know those who adore these tools. I see a lot of time go into mastering new ones. I am not necessarily convinced by the outcomes.What matters is the quality of the final product. What works for the individual seems personality-driven, so I am not prepared to support any one approach. Fooling with the writing toy, like tidying up, seems often to be a displacement activity – one more way of avoiding writing.

Post computers I have written books, chapters, and papers. My current mode of working is at odds with the paper-based writing. It is largely toy-free, reliant only on MS Word, although I had some flirtations with voice recognition a decade ago. (The inability to play music or work in cafes I regard as major drawbacks – however I have new voice recognition software on order.) Usually I write a paragraph or two that have popped into the brain. Often I produce an outline.

Nearly all these first thoughts are appallingly naïve and have to be wrestled into something presentable. Everything is in the one document: attempts at structure, outlines of arguments, passages of text, reminders and thoughts in red. Slowly it coalesces. The sensible bits constantly become longer; my first efforts at a whole always need further fleshing out. Re-reading alerts me to what I forgot or failed to convey well. While I feel writing a loose draft and editing it down is a waste of energy, I realise I may well type just as many words working in the opposite direction.

For much of my computer-based writing life I printed what I had produced and scribbled upon that; commenting, re-structuring and editing. This could be done in cafes or on trams. More recently, I take a small laptop to my local café. I also write at a desktop with two 24-inch screens. Pumping up the text size helps proofing. Other documents in electronic form can be piled up for display on the other screen. It parallels having books and papers scattered on my desk.

Many of the guides to writing theses seem to assume that writing is a hated difficulty. This may be true for those who resort to such guides. I have supervised many who enjoy, maybe even love, writing, or who at least (as I do) find the process of word production fairly compelling and hard to avoid.

Editors have long liked me as I have delivered the requisite words, with a low level of error, on or before the agreed date. In my view, this has had nothing at all to do with the mode or means I have employed to write. Mostly it derives from starting early enough. I learned early what a very long process writing can be even for those, like me, who are not alarmed by doing it. I see many people put themselves under pressure by leaving writing until later. I advocate fairly constant writing. A final text can then draw on this material. Be warned, however: it should be commenced much earlier than you intend to.

Related Posts

How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)

Another way to write 1000 words a day?

12 thoughts on “Writing now and then

  1. tassie_gal says:

    My mother remembers typing up peoples PhD projects when she worked at UNSW in the early 70’s. For some reason she refused to type mine!
    I still have books and papers scattered all over my desk. Mainly as I am a very tactile person, and sometimes writing on a screen does not necessarily translate to what is in my head.
    I love nothing better than sitting at a coffee shop with the printed page and writing notes etc. I dont work well on screen for reading or editing so still kill a couple of trees a year.
    I am finding this series of articles fascinating, as it really stirs for me what I always thought academia was about. I am one of those transitional students, I remember things like card catalogues, but still had the usefulness of the early online reference searches such as OVID and Silverplatter.

  2. Radhika (@levis517) says:

    Interestingly, it wasn’t till I came to Australia till I had to start handing in typed assignments. Throughout school and college, everything worked on the basis of pen and paper, and I have to say, I still prefer it. I’d even go as far as to say that I think I’d find it easier to do my thesis if I could, at the end of it all, hand in a pile of papers of my handwriting. That is, after all, how we did 3 years of psychology practical files, 8-12 experiments a year including basic concepts, discussions, statistics, etc – there’s no shortage of words.

    We may type faster than we write, but I find I think better when I put words down on paper. I love the satisfaction that comes with being able to see the volume of work you’ve done – have it in front of you as a physical quantity, rather than virtual (and quite personality-less) A4 pages on a screen. My best thesis words came out of a bic, scrawled on an inexpensive, ruled, spiralbound A5 notebook.

    I may be a devotee of the pen and paper technique, but I don’t think it’s an unfair claim to make that having the freedom to move your hands around – to draw, sketch, map, add mnemonics in the margins, is more liberating than limiting yourself to the restrictive movements across a keyboard/mouse – even a tablet+stylus doesn’t offer you the same mobility.

    3 paragraphs, 3 cents 🙂

  3. Melissa says:

    Thank you for this series of posts, and especially for this last one.  Despite the fact that I have not been involved in research for decades and am not even of an age to remember using a card catalogue (although my tiny local library did have one when I was a kid), I do not think well onto a computer screen.  Even typing something like this, I find myself closing my eyes when I get to the end of a thought to imagine the beginning of the next one taking shape on a piece of paper.

    Some of the most helpful things in this post are perhaps some of the most obvious.  The idea that handwriting something encourages one to start at a beginning had never occurred to me before, but suddenly a lot of things begin to make sense.  Most of the writing strategies that I’ve come across are directed for computer-based writers.  But before this post I hadn’t really stopped to think about the differences.  As a paper-based writer (most of the time, or at least until I’m well into the middle of a piece), my thinking doesn’t follow the same pattern as someone who easily sits down at a computer screen and moves paragraphs around.

    Please share more of this series, because not only is it interesting to see how things have changed over the course of researchers’ careers, it is also a valuable help/tool for people who have more difficulty with some of the computer-based methods (or whose research doesn’t lend itself as easily to a completely digital environment).

  4. Pravinjeya says:

    I cant imagine not using a computer 2 produce the thesis and 2 keep a record of all my notes but the only way i could start writing was by going back 2 the beginning even if the wriing is no longer linear. I also find handwriting drafts easier than going straight 2 screen in the beginning.

  5. Maree Kimberley says:

    I find writing by hand helps get my brain into motion and the thoughts flowing but I can’t do it for very long, mainly because my handwriting is so terrible it’s difficult even for me to decipher. Plus, once the ideas start flowing I need the speed of typing to capture them. Nevertheless, I always have a notebook with me to jot down any random ideas.

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