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The Keyboard is Mightier than the Pen

Monday, 13 July 2009

The debate about whether writing is best done with pen and paper or with keyboard and screen is a long-running one. Quite a few experts - writers and tutors - have told me not to use a computer for writing and that longhand is just better. It's a view I don't have too much time for. I accept that there are advantages to pen and paper. For one, it's much easier to open a notebook (by which I mean the paper sort) and jot down ideas than it is to boot up a computer to do the same. Notebooks are also portable and cheap. They are satisfyingly low-tech. And in fact I do often carry one around for writing down whatever stray ramblings occur to me.

But these notes are strictly temporary. As soon as I can I decant them onto a computer. The electronic copy of the text is the "real" one. Once things are on the computer they can be searched, copied-and-pasted, edited, backed-up and so on. I basically don't feel comfortable until everything is transferred. I would never dream of writing anything of significance longhand. Obviously it's the way things have been done for most of recorded time. When I try it now I rapidly end up with a text strewn with crossings-out and arrows : in effect the cut-and-paste operations I want to carry out but can't. Paper is just so limiting. And then there's the muscle cramp. These days, although I can type for hours, I find it can be actually painful to write for the same length of time. Obviously this is just because I'm out of practice. But one of the big problems I had doing the recent degree was having to write for 3 hours straight in an exam. It was, to some extent, a matter of basic physical endurance.

I've heard people say that you feel more in touch with your thoughts using a pen; that with a keyboard you're more detached. I get what they mean. But I think they only say this because they're not truly comfortable with a keyboard. They can write without having to think about it; the pen becomes an extension of their mind. But they're not fluid with a keyboard and so it becomes an obstacle. For people brought up using a keyboard, or who have become naturalized later on in life, writing on the computer can be just as intuitive.

I suppose the ideal solution, for me, would be a computer that was as portable, cheap and easy to use as a paper notebook. There's no sign of such a device existing just yet. You might get close with a handheld computer with a touch-sensitive screen that you just write on, but all the ones I've tried have been clumsy, error-prone and slow to use. The hardware certainly does get in the way. One day, I'm sure, we'll have something that looks and feels like a paper notebook but which is actually a "computer", giving you the best of both worlds.

Right now, I think typing into a computer via a keyboard (and mouse) is the best way to write. One problem with this, of course, is that desktop computers aren't very portable. Because of this, I also use a mobile-phone with a slide-out qwerty keyboard that I use to bash out jottings when I'm out and about. So, in other words, more or less the electronic equivalent of a paper notebook. It works pretty well, although you do end up typing with your thumbs. The small keyboard is a bit fiddly, but it's perfectly possible to type out a couple of paragraphs, say, and the great thing is that I can easily copy what I've typed on to the main computer without having to re-enter it. Or I can take a copy of some Word documents from my main machine and edit them while I'm out and about.

It's still not the ideal solution, though. Just recently I've splashed out on a half-way house between a full-sized computer and a mobile : a "netbook" computer. These are essentially just smallish, cheapish laptops. The term "netbook", incidentally, is just marketing-bollocks as these machines are perfectly good for word processing etc. They are light enough to carry around in your hand, only a bit bigger than a novel, but have good-sized keyboards and screens. I think they are an excellent option for the writer. You could easily take one to the library if you were researching something, say. Or you could go and work in the garden with one, or take one with you when travelling to write while you're away from home.

Mine is a Samsung NC-10, which is pretty much the pick of the current bunch. It will never be able to run the latest and greatest video games but it is more than adequate for writing. It has a good battery life (6-7 hours), a great keyboard and a nice, bright screen. It is, unfortunately, a wide screen, but then they pretty much all are. Computer manufacturers seem to think people buy computers just to watch video on. But it works fine. With an old copy of Word on there, you can display around 25 lines of standard-sized text. I'd avoid Word 2007 and its huge, clunky "ribbon" though - it would take up too much screen-space. And it's also, you know, pretty useless. You could also use Open Office instead, of course.

I've set my netbook up to synchronize automatically with my main computer when it's within range so everything should get backed up automatically. It all seems like the ideal solution. Now I have no excuse not to be writing ...


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