The Best Part of Writing

working writerMany a writer I know claims that the best part of writing is rewriting – going back through the piece and making it work.

Others hold out for writing the first draft. I think that is particularly true for those of us who define ourselves as pantsers. The fun part is figuring out what the story is, which we usually do by writing it.

But the other day I figured out my real favorite part of writing: The thinking part.

I was lying in bed, and began to work out in my head how a story was supposed to work. I got it figured out, and then I got up, made coffee, fed cats, had breakfast, and sat down at the computer. It was like pulling teeth to get myself to write it up.

I’m not a lazy lie-abed. I walk everywhere, partly because I frequently do great thinking while walking. Often I create a complete scene and repeat it to myself enough to remember it.

Then I get where I’m going and confront the reality that I have to write the damn thing down.

Figuring the story or the essay out is the fun part. Everything else is work.

Back in the distant past, before alphabets and paper, the storytellers and thinkers did the work in their heads and then told them to others. I’m sure there was work involved with that as well – I suspect they practiced and that they refined their stories and lectures over time – but it was work done mostly in one’s head.

But then the Sumerians – as I recall it – came up with writing things down, and since then we’ve had to struggle with the work of writing. Since humans are inventors, we’ve created a plethora of writing and publishing tools over time, leading up to today’s amazing world in which we have machines and software that can do almost everything.

Most writers have strong opinions about writing tools. Some only write with fountain pens on legal pads. Others swear by word processing software of the past – Word Star or Word Perfect. I’m sure there are a few writers who still use a typewriter.

A lot of people use the latest fancy writing software. Scrivener gets the most praise these days. It apparently has places for storing your research and saving your chapters separately (which probably works better for outliners than it does for pantsers).

Me, I use a reasonably current version of MS-Word, partly because that makes it easy to send the story out to beta readers and editors and partly out of inertia. It works. I used to save everything in RTF back when some operating systems did not speak kindly to others even when both purportedly ran Word, but these days I find that anything saved as a doc file can usually be opened by someone else.

I gave up writing by hand as soon as I learned to type, replaced my old manual typewriter with a correcting electric one when I could afford it, and got my first computer for writing purposes in 1983. But right now I’m fine with basic Word once I remember how to take out the automatic grammar correct (which is usually wrong) and automatic spelling correct (which is usually right but distracting) and just write.

I might try Scrivener or one of its kin if I do a nonfiction project where I’m going to want to keep close watch on my sources for the bibliography and footnotes. But for most stories and essays, basic word processing suffices.

But it still doesn’t solve the pesky problem of having to write the damn stuff down.

I suppose I could try dictating. The software that translates dictation to the written word has improved over the years. But that still involves translating the ideas from my mind into sentences with punctuation and proper grammar.

When is someone going to come up with an app that takes my thinking directly from my brain and puts it on the page? That’s the writing tool I want.

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The Best Part of Writing — 12 Comments

  1. There are records (written, of course) of scholars saying that, dammit, this new-fangled writing of things is going to be the death of learning. How can you know stuff unless you have it MEMORIZED in your head? Relying on those clay tablets, it’ll just rot your brain, boy. Learn the Iliad line by line, like your betters did when Homer smote his bloomin’ lyre!
    I have found that it is helpful to have a ‘real’ document and an other. The real document, the novel, is in Word, and it -is- the work: dialogue, plot, setting, scenes. Since I am a pantser, it is written from beginning to end, straight through, without any deviation. I do not know what’s going to happen except in the most general way, so I can’t get ahead of myself; every stitch has to be knitted in its order. Knowing that this is the ‘real’ novel keeps the Muse on the job; she cannot tell me that an outline of the plot is enough and turn her attention to checking the email on her smartphone.
    The other document, which I keep on Internet Typewriter, is all the other stuff : trial scenes, bits of dialog cut from the real text but too good to toss, chunks of stuff copied from Wikipedia, links, that scene which is going to form a crucial turning point in chapter 22 but drat it, I am still mired in writing chapter 8 and there’s nowhere to put it yet and if I don’t write it down now I will forget it by then. Knowing that this is not ‘real’ gives me the freedom to put anything down there. I can have stern discussions with characters — what the hell are you doing, John, do you realize you are just lying down and letting all the other characters steamroller you? I can work out elaborate time lines and deceptions (layers of untruth!). And, at need, I can cut from Typewriter and paste it right into the Word doc.

    • It occurs to me at times that I might have done well as a storyteller and scholar back in the days before writing. Depending, of course, on whether the particular society let women do that.

      • Heh heh—women were the very first storytellers. How else would they have got all those little ones to sit still and take note? And then the men figured out that storytellers have the power, and they took over.

        Or thought they did. I know whose stories form my earliest memories. I suspect I’m not alone.

        But I do think that the first Sumerian scribe to start setting things in stone, as it were, was not interested in stories. I’m pretty sure it was the court bean counter who’s responsible. Yep—the bureaucrats invented writing. And the world has never been the same.

    • BTW, I just looked up Internet typewriter — hadn’t heard of it before. Looks interesting. I assume when you use it you don’t have that green letters on black background layout. That would drive me nuts.

  2. Well, I do some very large non-fiction projects and Word has worked just fine. Though for indexing, the Excel spread sheet was best for that — sure as heck better than those so-called indexing programs — they are awful! It still takes real human brain and eyes to make an index that is of any use or even accuracy.

    • Oh, good. I don’t particularly want to learn new software and I can more or less manage Excel. If you can do work as complicated as The American Slave Coast with ordinary software, I can surely do mine that way.

      I have known professional indexers and I agree with you. I’m sure software that searches manuscripts for key words makes their lives easier, but I don’t think we have any tools that can make the call that something is important enough for the index. And since one of the things I do when looking at nonfiction is check what the author thinks of similar work on the subject, I find an index very important.

    • The really good software programs for indexing: Macrex, Cindex and Sky Indexing primarily are not the type of program which create the index automatically given a file. Instead, what they do is automate the index structure and format – the alphabetization, cross-reference placement, headings vs. subheadings etc. The actual index creation is still done by the human indexer, who is still the most important part of the process.

      To throw out a few of the most common complaints about automated indexing software. Is it going to pick out that JFK, John Kennedy, and sometimes even “the President” are not three separate entries, but are instead supposed to go under only one term?

      How about where the term isn’t even named directly on the page, but the discussion is clearly about it? I don’t think so!

      Forget the subtleties of passing mentions vs. substantial information!

      Sorry for the soapbox. Indexing is a topic of some importance to me – I should mention that I am a professional indexer.

  3. I tend to be an outliner of the “walking down a dark story corridor with a flashlight that lets me see three chapters ahead”, and yes, Scrivener is good for that–also if you’re writing historical fiction, it’s love to have your research right there, neatly labeled in the side-bar.

    Re dictation–I’m not sure about that, because I think the part of my brain where speech comes from and the part where stories come from might be too far apart, and the wiring just doesn’t run that way. 🙂

    • Back in the olden days, I (briefly) had a secretary and learned how to dictate letters. But I didn’t dictate documents or anything complicated even then. Having tried my hand at a bit of oral storytelling, I’ve found that the told story and the written story are structured a little differently, too. So maybe dictation wouldn’t work that well.

  4. I tried speech recognition software for 2 books when my hands ached so badly I had to drug myself insensible to type. When the spoken draft was done, I had to rewrite. But then I always have to rewrite on 2nd draft.

    When I did my big historical fantasies (Merlin’s Descendants), for each book I’d have a stack of 200-300 3X5s. Most I never used in the book. How would scrivner deal with that kind of in depth research? I grew up with 3X5s. I love 3X5s. This was in the day when it was difficult to take a computer to a library to record notes. Before the days of Google at your fingertips. I think I still love my 3X5s.

    • I rewrite every time I look at a manuscript. In my pre-computer days, when I wrote on a typewriter, I would write a draft, mark it up some, and then use that as a guideline for revision. I often rewrote things wholesale even then.