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A Modest Proposal


© 1996 by Michael Chesley Johnson

Has anyone ever told you, throw away your computer? Besides your spouse or significant other, that is. He speaks from petty envy; you zip through all thirty levels of DOOM in two hours, but him it takes two weeks.

He's not serious, of course, but as a writer speaking to other writers, I am.

One day I looked hard at a first draft I'd written. Butchery. Stitching together something that could stumble out on its own two feet would have been a crime worthy of Dr. Frankenstein.

Sadly, I realized much of my writing had been poor lately. Years ago, my school teachers laid down miles of chalk to teach me the basics. Yet here I was, a professional writer, who no longer could get even the basics right.

After a little detective work, I learned that my decline coincided with the purchase of my first desktop computer. The computer had unburdened me of several good writing habits, and burdened me with a few new bad ones.

I had bought the computer as if it were some miracle drug. But for every benefit, there were side-effects, some bad, some worse.

The computer was a real labor-saver. I didn't have to slap the carriage return twenty-three times per page, load two fresh sheets and a carbon every ten minutes, and wait sixty seconds each time I dabbed on the White-Out. The computer let me type as fast I speak.

Most times, I even wrote like I speak -- that is, with grammatical slips of the tongue that would turn even a literary Neanderthal's face red.

Side-effect: I'd forgotten that good grammar is good riddance to much unnecessary revision.

But the computer let me revise instantly. And so I did, sometimes taking an entire evening to perfect a single paragraph. They say strike while the iron is hot, but often the fire guttered before I reached for the next rod in my pile.

As a result, I didn't have much to show for my writing sessions.

Side-effect: I'd forgotten that first you write, then you rewrite.

With revising such a snap, I could plot on the fly. Of course, I'd never have my characters do that. How could I expect my hero to succeed on a mission without a plan? My tale was full of dead-ends, U-turns, roads going nowhere.

Retrofitting a logical plot into my story required the help of someone like the Army Corps of Engineers.

Side-effect: I'd forgotten that you plot before you leap.

Well, I had a serious problem. But just as a problem drinker may need Antabuse to help him quit, I needed a gimmick to help me, too.

Then I remembered my typewriter collection.

I keep three manual typewriters in my garage. Each one is full of history. Two of them are also full of cobwebs, but they're antiques whose only chance of a paying job will be as props in a period piece. The third I've always kept clean and covered, waiting for the day when I'm chugging with a full head of steam and my computer crashes.

Writing with that typewriter was always a workout. But I loved the palpable thump of each slug as it struck the page; the oily smell that wafted up from the machine's inner workings; the rewarding ring of the margin bell as I finished yet another well- written line.

Then I remembered a few other things about typewriters.

There's no place for lazy language because lazy language means laborious retyping. For example, before I typed "my friend and me," I always made sure it was the correct phrase. Even if I made only a small error, it meant losing precious time waiting for the White-Out to dry. Typing forced me to pay attention to what I put on the page.

Also, tinkering with that last paragraph until it's perfect is impossible. Revising even a single sentence meant I had to retype the page or, heaven forbid, the whole chapter if the revisions were drastic enough. Typing forced me to shape the paragraph in my mind before putting it on paper.

Plotting on the fly doesn't work well with typewriters, either. You will retype the entire book if you don't have your plot in shape before ratcheting in that first sheet. Typing forced me to think long and hard about my characters and the scrapes they needed to get into.

So I dug out my old Olympia.

I shoved the computer help books off my desk and made room for it. I set it down on its rubber feet, loosened up the keys, and rolled in a crisp sheet.

With my first tentative thumps, the old habits started coming back.

I thought before I typed. When in doubt, I looked up words in the dictionary to make sure I had the appropriate ones and that I had spelled them correctly.

I paid attention to the words I put down, keeping in mind the words that came before them, and those that would come after. I worked to get things right the first time. I was an artist painting with watercolors: deliberate, but yet striving to look spontaneous. I pretended I wouldn't have the chance to go back and fix things.

The trick worked. The story was as perfect as it could be in its first draft.

You can do the same. No, I'm not really recommending that you heave your new Pentium. As a DOOMer, I'll be the first to admit that computers do have their advantages.

I do recommend, though, that you give up the computer once in awhile. If you go back to your typewriter, you'll find yourself honing some of the old skills that the computer may have dulled.

The computer's strengths can encourage the writer's weaknesses. As a writer, it's your job to recognize this.

Be vigilant.

This article is copyright. Reproduction and distribution specifically prohibited. All rights reserved. 
First appeared in Speculations Issue 12, December 1996. Reprinted here with the author's permission.

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