learning to write again and again

in 1984, we bought our first computer. We took out a loan. It cost $3000. It had 256K of memory and 2 5.25″ floppy disks.

I know it’s ancient history. I know it’s easy to laugh at how far technology has come.

This isn’t that kind of a story.

pencil and paperI have always written at the keyboard. In typewriter days, I wrote final drafts. I seldom did a full rough draft. Too much writing. Too much work.

We bought the computer while I was in a graduate research course. I was developing my own project and writing a scholarly paper.

Having the computer thrilled me. Writing was so much easier.

I wrote a draft. I handed it in. A day or so later, my research adviser saw me in the hallway. He invited me to his office. He had me sit down. He looked at me and said, “Do you want it nicely or bluntly?”

“Bluntly,” I smiled.

“This is an awful piece of writing.”

He was right. It was awful. It was not a paper. It was a collection of sentence and paragraphs cut and pasted together. The paper had no flow, it made no argument. It was merely words.

What happened?  We got a computer. Because a word processor allowed me to write and easily reorder, I reordered. I pasted bits of prose together. However, I did not rewrite, rethink, re-sense. My unwillingness to do the hard work of revision was exposed.

I spent the rest of that semester figuring out how to write with the technology. I’ve spent the decades since then doing the same thing again and again. Every new platform, every new technology, every new communication channel challenges storytellers, debaters, writers, thinkers. We can easily succumb to the capacities of the tools and forget that we must learn to use them rather than be used by them.

  • I have a Blackberry. I can write blog posts from my phone. But the potential need not create oughtness.
  • I can record and post 12 second videos. But if I have nothing to say in 12 seconds, I need not record them.
  • I think well in 300-1000 word essays that invite thought, both mine and others. That is worth developing as far as I can.

From time to time I find myself writing as I did for that week in grad school. I think that the coolness of the technology will be its own excuse for poor craft. Unfortunately, I have few people willing to say, “Nicely or bluntly?”

It’s a shame, really.

I’m a better writer for it.

4 responses to “learning to write again and again

  1. I like your writing, Jon. You have come a long way during those intervening years.

    I agree – we need more critics. Gentle critics.

  2. thanks, Paul. And you know, i’ll take accurate criticism of my work that grows out of a concern for helping me grow. Even if it isn’t always gentle.

    But gentle is nice. I confess.

  3. You do hit the nail on the head here Jon🙂

    “I can record and post 12 second videos. But if I have nothing to say in 12 seconds, I need not record them”

    I love your writing… and your willingness to be both blunt and kind to it🙂

  4. This post is on point Jon. Earlier this week I reached out to a friend and asked for critical feedback regarding my blogging voice, style, and message. I was pretty specific too encouraging real feedback. What I got back, while interesting and useful, had absolutely nothing to do with the original request regarding my writing style, voice, and message.

    I suppose we all want validation, but past that, we want to be better for us and for others. i agree with Paul M, we need more critics (that care).

    Thanks for sharing!