Your Computer & Your Creativity
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Preditors and Editors and, please, please, please, take their
Although the combination of computer / e-mail / Internet should mean, not
just more writing, but better writing, there are potential
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
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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 Bronze.com). You can also read more of her
articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
From Leaves to Forests
Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.