Your Computer & Your Creativity
     Victoria Grossack

When I pick up Pride & Prejudice or David Copperfield, I marvel. Not simply because they are wonderful, entertaining novels, which have made me laugh and cry throughout the years – although they are. I am filled with amazement and awe because these books were both written without computers and words processors.

Notice that I am not pausing to pay homage to the typewriter. Although typewriters1 made things much easier to read – and I concede that legibility is important (people tell me that with my handwriting, I should be a doctor) – the typewriter, for me, actually slows down the writing process.

In this month’s column I’d like to discuss some of the ways that writing is made easier and/or better for those with computers and access to the Internet. I’ll cover these tips and effort-savers, just in case you’re not using them. And, if you are already aware of them, this column will remind you of them so that you don’t take them for granted. After all, we’re in November, the traditional time for Thanksgiving in the United States, so it’s time to show some gratitude!

We’ll also cover a few downsides – yes, there are downsides – and ways to deal with them.

1  Did you ever wonder why your keyboard has its letters arranged in such a peculiar manner? Wouldn’t it be more logical for the letters to start A-B-C-D instead of Q-W-E-R? The Q-W-E-R originated back in the 1870’s, when typewriters were first invented. The problem arose when some people typed too quickly and the equipment jammed. The manufacturers couldn’t make the machines better, but they could reorganize the keys, so that frequently used letters were further away from each other. And, once customers learned a particular arrangement, it was impossible to change it.

Word Processing

Legibility, spelling, formatting, reduction of errors. Everyone knows that the business of getting the words down on paper is much, much easier when you use a word processor. Everything is easy to read. Typos can be fixed easily, without leaving marks, unlike those days with the typewriter, when my clumsy fingers forced me to get out the white-out or even to re-type a page entirely. Heck, spellcheckers will help you find most of your typos. Not all of them, that I know, but plenty. You can format, or reformat, insert page numbers, add headers, footers, footnotes, you name it.

Notes and outlines. I sketch out the main points of a piece before I start writing and continue writing notes to myself while I am writing – even within the document that I’m creating. Things about which I have questions, for attention later from either me or my collaborator ((I put them in double parentheses like these)). This allows me to get out the broad strokes of the story, such as the gist of the dialogue, or major points for articles, and then fill in the details later when I know that I want to keep those broad strokes.

Write when inspired. The computer also makes easier for me to write the scenes that I’m inspired to write today. For example, I wrote the prologue and the epilogue of Iokaste when I was about halfway through the first draft of the main part of the book. I wrote it when I was ready to write it, when my Muse showed up, when I knew and felt the characters and the story. It was one of those times when the words simply poured out. It was also one of those times when only minor tinkering was required afterwards.

Editing. Usually, my writing requires more than tinkering. It requires major surgery. I move, delete and add paragraphs, portions of scenes, or re-write sections from a different point of view. Often I re-order events, deciding that a piece of information still needs to stay secret for now, or this argument should take place in that scene instead of this. Or perhaps too many of my characters have names that begin with the letter “L” – making the reading experience too confusing for my audience. I can pick out a name that looks and sounds sufficiently different – perhaps one beginning with the letter “M” – and use my word processor to do a text replace. I can even insert – or remove – whole storylines. Thanks to a computer this is all so much easier!

Different drafts. Sometimes I’m not sure which version of the story is best. I want to try out a scene with and without a particular passage. So I’ve got version after version of chapters in my computer, labeled A, B, C and so on – or sometimes distinguished from each other with v1 or v2. If I decide that the story would be better with an earlier version, I can go back and find it. I don’t often actually do this, but the knowledge that I can is very liberating.

Saving ideas for later. I can also jot down ideas and save them for later. Yes, I know you can do this using paper as well – you can keep your ideas in a spiral paper notebook or a filing cabinet. However, I travel frequently and can keep everything in my laptop, in saved files. I even have a file containing ideas for this column!

All in all, the computer has helped improve both the productivity of my writing as well as the quality, in things both great and small.


The connections that can be formed with computers, in the guise of both e-mail and the Internet, have facilitated writing as well. Here are a few of the ways:

Research. I was fourteen when I read Oedipus Rex for the first time. I liked the play, but I also found it frustrating, for I thought it was told from the wrong point of view. Jocasta, his mother-wife, had a more interesting perspective, for she had given up her infant, been widowed when her first husband died, had been threatened by the sphinx and then ended up marrying her biological son. At fourteen, I wanted to write the story from her point of view. But I dismissed this as impossible. Not only did I not have the writing skills (I was sensible enough to realize this) but the research requirements were daunting. How could I go to Greece and look at the places that needed to be looked at? And what about all the research that needed to be done to cover food, clothes, architecture and customs? At the time I imagined having to spend weeks, even months in the library, perusing thick, dusty tomes.

The Internet has made all of this much easier. Yes, I’ve also visited Greece, but on the Internet I’ve found maps, and details on clothing, food, chariots and architecture. I’ve contacted experts and have asked them obscure questions. I’ve joined discussion groups devoted to my interests. And most of the old texts (Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles) are also on-line when I need them!

Reference. I don’t just look up major pieces of information, but I use the Internet to find out small things as well. I’ve bookmarked several dictionaries, thesauri, and pages on grammar, as well as encyclopedias. It’s much easier to look up things on the Internet than to go through the books on my shelves. And, as I travel frequently, the Internet permits me to do research anywhere.

Collaboration. My co-author for many of my works is a very generous and patient woman called Alice Underwood. Because of e-mail, we don’t have to collaborate in person, but can send each other files as we make outlines and go through various drafts. We have worked out our own methods in order to make our partnership function more smoothly. We still get together occasionally for longer sessions, but as we’re so often in different parts of the world this is not always possible.

Critiquing. I’ve belonged to a few local writers’ groups over the years. I got a real charge from meeting with writer friends, going through a manuscript and discussing it. I’m still friends with some of the people from the last group to which I belonged, more than ten years ago.

But a local writers’ group suffers from the limitations of space and time. Space: you can only meet with people in your area. (For the last ten years I’ve lived mostly in Switzerland, and could not find people doing creative writing in English.) Time: you can only meet with people who can meet at the same time that you can meet – and it was never possible to meet often enough. Before the advent of e-mail it was also a challenge to get a manuscript to other members of the writers’ group for critique. The discussions were better if the other members of the group read the manuscript in advance, but so often this did not happen.

Although I enjoyed my local writers’ groups, it was not the best way to improve my writing. When I joined an Internet critique group at Coffeehouse for Writers and started submitting scenes of my own and critiquing the scenes of others, my writing improved by leaps and bounds. To find out more about the critique groups at coffeehouse for writers, go here. (We have two active groups and may start another.)

Other Groups. Besides critique groups, the Internet offers other ways to improve your writing skills. There are classes offered for money, which you can attend no matter where you are. You can read articles for free (like this one). There are forums with plenty of information about markets and where you can post your questions about grammar or pretty much anything else.

Markets. Using the Internet, you can find markets for your work. Many agents (not all) and publishing houses (not all) will accept queries by e-mail. This saves authors both time and money. Furthermore, Writer’s Market – I used to eagerly anticipate the new hard copy edition each year – is available via the Internet, updated continuously, and much easier to sort through.

WARNING! Not all publishers, agents and editorial services offered via the Internet are legitimate! Plenty of them have been accused of unfair practices. Before you sign with anyone, do your research, and check how other customers feel about their reputation – and not just at the company’s own website. I suggest that you check out AbsoluteWrite  and Preditors and Editors and, please, please, please, take their warnings seriously!


Although the combination of computer / e-mail / Internet should mean, not just more writing, but better writing, there are potential pitfalls.

You May Lose It All. Your computer may be stolen or damaged in some other manner. Have you backed up your work recently? No? Do it today!

Whichever way you back up your work, you want to be able to access it easily in case of an emergency. Lots of people swear by USB sticks, and I admit that they’re pretty good. But what I do is to save some of my works in progress in an Internet e-mail account. This way I don’t have to hunt down the USB stick, and the files are available even if I’m traveling.

Inability to Concentrate. Having so much information and entertainment only a mouse-click away has made it more difficult for me to concentrate. From the comments of others, I sense that they, too, are more easily distracted than they were in the past. As deep concentration creates a sort of euphoria in me – I don’t know if it releases any endorphins but I would not be surprised – I yearn to enter the concentration zone. So, when I’m disciplined, I turn off the Internet, by either unplugging it or by turning off my wireless connection. Occasionally I even get out a pad and a pen and write by hand.

However, one of the best methods for improving my ability to concentrate is to pick up a novel and read it. Sometimes I don’t like reading work by other authors – their voices get in my head and interfere with my own voice – but when my own voice is tripping over itself, reading a book somehow resets my own mind. Oddly enough, it has to be a novel (even though I enjoy non fiction) and it has to be a novel that I’ve not read before. Perhaps this is because never-read-before novels are more absorbing for me. You should study your own character and tendencies to determine which remedies work best for you.

Carelessness. Plenty of agents and editors still refuse to accept e-mail query letters, demanding that new authors deal through the mail. This is not because they don’t have e-mail addresses, but because they want to put up an additional hurdle. This is understandable. It’s very easy for author wannabes to send off queries through the e-mail – and too easy for that author wannabe to send off those queries before they are ready.

I urge you, even if you have found agents and editors who accept e-mail queries, to polish and polish before you hit “Send”. Even though you may feel as if you’re raring to go, let your work sit a bit and then come back to it. Your words may not glow quite as much when you review them later and you’ll probably make some very necessary changes.

The downsides are few, but it’s important to recognize them so that they don’t hinder you and your writing.


Despite a few downsides, the combination of computer and Internet and e-mail has really improved both the quantity and the quality of my writing. I hope these inventions have done the same for you – and if they have, be thankful that you’re not writing in the time of the pilgrims!

Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact me at grossackva at yahoo dot com.

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the internationally published author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and other books coming out in the series called the Tapestry of Bronze (Tapestry of  You can also read more of her articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in Fiction from  

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the From Leaves to Forests and Writing Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.