Friday, 28 January 2011

3 x When Computers and Writing Don't Mix

After my posts on index cards, I was interested by some of the comments about rewriting and plotting on computer. Now, I'm a dinosaur and always choose for the lowest tech approach possible, but I know there are lots of people out there for whom computers are a more natural way of working. However, there are three circumstances when I think computers really don't work.

1. Re-drafting
You've written your novel, and if you're technically minded you might have used something clever like a spreadsheet to develop it. At this stage I'd say dump the computer. Rewrites HAVE to be a time when anything goes, when you're shuffling the cards around and anything could end up anywhere. If you use a spread sheet, you're changing one element a time. It doesn't have the same 'suck it and see' facility. There's an organic fluidity about using the cards: Take this one away, what does the novel look like? Put this one here, not there, or what about over there? This needs to happen before that - or does it? It's harder to experiment when it's on the computer, it all looks so neat and tidy and well organised. But it's got to get worse before getting better.

2. Editing
For some strange reason, when we edit on the computer screen we miss stuff. Print it out and mistakes and typos screech at you, practically circling themselves with red ink. Always, always, always print out your manuscript to do at least the final edit on paper.

3. Note taking
OK, this one has caused me grief because I really really really want an iPad and taking notes was one of the ways I was going to justify it to myself. But I know it doesn't work like that. A bit like re-drafting, notes are an organic form, the imaginative part of the brain working, not the technical bit. Snippets of info get saved - ideas for titles, snatches of dialogue, plot ideas (and shopping lists). Now you can put them all neatly into your computer, but I bet you won't get round to looking at them. Whereas, what could be simpler or more absorbing than flicking through one of your old notebooks and seeing a ragbag of information?

Computers are wonderful tools and incredibly useful. But writing is an imaginative act, so don't get sucked into using them for everything.


Rebecca Bradley said...

I definitely use paper for editing. I'm currently doing some editing and do print it out and find a lot more errors than on screen. I then make the changes and print again. This again brings up other issues that I happily scribble all over the paper then go back and make the changes on the computer. I couldn't work as well if I did it all on the computer.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t redraft. I write until I’m finished and stop but then my books have very thin plots and no subplots so there’s nothing to rejig. Editing I do on the computer but I edit constantly anyway in a write-read-edit cycle. It helps when proofreading to see the text in an unfamiliar shape so I get why people might want a hard copy to work with but I prefer to reformat the text, change the font etc and it’s amazing what you can pick up when the words aren’t sitting on the page where you’re used to seeing them. As for note taking I almost always use paper for that, a shorthand pad or something like that I can scribble on at all hours. Then I can then work my way through the pad and score off what I’ve grafted into the text. This year I’ve been using my Kindle in conjunction with my laptop which works quite well once the text is well on – if you’re fixing every second word then forget it.

womagwriter said...

With short story writing, I trained myself to edit onscreen to save paper. I don't think paper is necessarily better for editing on - I think it depends on what you are used to. But I do agree that seeing your work presented in a different way - on paper vs on screen, read aloud vs silently - can highlight problems you'd otherwise have missed.

Definitely agree computers aren't much good for note-taking! I've yet to edit a full-length novel. I'll try your index card approach when I get to that stage and will let you know how it goes.

Bethany Mason said...

I have to do my editing on paper as otherwise I miss silly mistakes. However, for notations, apparantly word has a 'track' tool, when it is on, everything you write comes up in a different colour and then you can delete the comments as you go through it again.

Debs Carr said...

I've just this minute finished printing out my manuscript so that I can read it aloud. Thankfully no one else is around as I'm sure they'd think I was a little strange.

I don't think you can beat a notebook and pen for making notes. I just wish I didn't have so many notebooks and had everything in the same one.

Sarah Duncan said...

Rebecca - I'm just like you, I need to see the words on the page to pick up all the typos, it just doesn't work for me on screen.

Jim - I'm interested by the idea of changing the font etc to spot typos etc - I'll have to try it.

Womagwriter - if you can pick up all the typos on screen, then I'll believe you, but I think most people (like Rebecca) find it much harder.

Bethany - I've used the tracking tool; my editor likes it if there are only minor corrections. I have to admit I don't like it, it confuses me, but then I'm easily confused by computers.

Debs - I know what you mean about having lots of different notebooks on the go. The other day I came across one stuffed with useful ideas about a book that had already been published. Missed the boat there.

womagwriter said...

Maybe because my day job is computer programming - I'm well-used to spotting tiny typos on screen! A misplaced comma in a computer program can have a much more catastrophic effect than in a piece of writing.

Sarah Duncan said...

Ah, then I bow to your more discerning eye - and in awe of your computing skills.