People used to write without computers. I used to write without one.
I get a taste of what writing used to be like when I try to compose on my ASUS tablet. It’s still a space-age device, of course. But the keyboard is infuriating, and it doesn’t have all the functionality of my beloved Mac, with its huge screen and sophisticated writing tools. Writing on my tablet – which I take with me on trips – is such a struggle that I just put off most writing tasks until I get home.
What’s so great about a writing on a computer?
Let’s skip all the usual answers: spellchecker, grammar checker, copy-and-paste, etc. What I really like is the ability to synthesize multiple sources – and have fun doing it.
I write for a law enforcement website, and I always use multiple sources. If everything I need to know comes from one article, I look for a related article so that I can add some complexity.
The website I write for just published an article about crime-fighting success in Tampa Florida (you can read it at this link).
I used four sources for this article. In the old, pre-computer days, I would have had newspaper clippings and photocopies stacked up in my home office (which I share with our cat, but that’s another story). I would have been busy highlighting information and cutting and pasting with a pair of scissors and a bottle of Elmer’s glue. It would have taken hours and hours to get the article in shape.
Here’s the most important difference: If I didn’t have a computer – a good one – I probably would never have written the damn thing at all. It’s more than 1800 words long, and I wouldn’t have been able to get started.
With the help of my computer, I’ve worked out a system that makes writing even a complex project much more manageable. Here it is:
1. Hatch an idea.
Often my editor suggests topics and sends me a link to a current article to get me started. I discover others in our daily newspaper. Facebook is another great source: I follow ThinkProgress, which often posts articles about crime, domestic violence, and prisons. (If you want to use my system and you’re not writing about law enforcement, set up a Google Alert about your subject.)
3. Copy your sources into a document.
Since I write many articles for the same website, I’ve developed a template with headings for the Summary, Title, Body, and Sources, along with a blurb about me. I paste everything into the template without worrying about the inevitable mess caused by typefaces that don’t match. I copy the URL for each source and paste it in too. (Useful tip: If you click on the Tweet link for each article, you’ll often get a short, efficient URL.)
4. Read the articles again.
5. Highlight anything that might be useful in the finished article.
This is fun. (I don’t actually use a highlighter – I usually change the type color to blue or red.) You don’t even have to think about how you’re going to organize the article. (Tip: Format Painter is a great tool for this step.)
6. Start moving the highlighted information around.
What you’re really doing is outlining – but this is much more fun!
7. Cut the parts you won’t be using.
I paste them at the bottom of the document. If the cuts are incredibly long, I open a separate document. (An article I wrote last week had 30 pages of sources, and the document with cuts was 25 pages long.) You want to save this information because you might discover you need it later.
8. Start looking for ways to connect the ideas and information in your document.
In traditional writing terminology, you’re creating your rough draft. But because everything is already in place, and you’ve probably figured out the connecting ideas, it doesn’t feel like you’re starting from scratch. (Tip: Don’t plagiarize. You should be interpreting the information, not just copying what you’ve already read.)
9. Revise and proofread.
This is my favorite part of the writing process. I can see the finish line, and most of the work is done! I enjoy fixing and enhancing what I’ve written.
I could also have called this post “Writing When You Don’t Have Time to Write.” The playful part of the process at the beginning – discovering articles, pasting them into a document, and highlighting the bits you want to use – doesn’t take long, and it doesn’t require a lot of brainpower. I can pick it up and drop it without worrying about losing my train of thought.
How on earth did we manage writing tasks before computers? I’m shuddering at the memory.