If you’re working from home during this pandemic, you might be feeling as though you’re living inside your computer. Even freelance writers and editors, who are seasoned workers-from-home and used to spending many hours secured to their screens, are spending more time online with virtual meetings and online professional development.
In many ways, this brave new technological world is marvellous. How would we survive this pandemic and economic crisis without it? But I can’t help the increasing lure of my fountain pen collection. None of these pens has monetary value, but each holds particular memories of what seems like a less cluttered time. At university I always wrote with a fountain pen – so much smoother and more satisfying than a ball point – then typed up my essays on an electric typewriter in the library.
It’s not just nostalgia and technology overload that’s making me hark back to the fountain pen. It has also been reflecting on decades of teaching adults how to write and how writing habits have changed over that time.
Taking a disciplined approach to writing was drummed into me during my professional writing degree. If you’re a journalist writing under pressure to deadline, you have to get the words down fast. And they have to grab the reader and make sense as well. You had to think before you wrote. Simple.
The other incentive for planning was because making changes once you had typed up your hand-written draft was very tedious. Literally cutting a piece of paper and pasting it together with sticky tape (ideally the invisible variety not the shiny type) was fiddly and time consuming. Then what an amazing invention we thought Tipp-ex was before Microsoft and Apple word processing software came on the scene and revolutionised our world. Now it’s so quick to perfect our writing and correct errors. Or is it?
The concept of the brain dump – unstructured writing that is almost impossible for the reader to follow – is not new. What is new, is the idea that we can easily fix our mess of a first draft with a few quick key strokes.
Word processing software as well as spell and grammar checkers are marvellous tools. But they can give us a false sense of security. Regardless of whether you’re using a word processor or pen, pausing before you write your first draft, thinking about why you’re writing, what you’re writing about and who you’re writing for is essential. Even now I will often jot down my initial ideas with a pen before I go to the computer. I type very quickly, so pausing with the pen to plan my work first stops me launching into full-on writing mode.
What I’ve come to realise is that the fountain pen not only encouraged us to organise our thoughts, it also made us more thoughtful writers. With word processing, writing a word and deleting it numerous times, or right clicking on a word to see the list of synonyms, is so easy. But staring into space, and carefully considering the appropriateness of a word before committing it to the page, is a reflective rather than frantic activity. In these days of information overload, becoming absorbed in one’s thoughts before bringing them to life as words on the page feels like a luxury.
Like many others, I have learned a lot of new things about technology in a short time. At the beginning of the year I had never heard of Zoom or delivered my training modules on an eLearning platform. I love many of the COVID-19-induced ways of working and it would not be practical to return to the fountain pen as our only means of writing. But perhaps as well as bringing in the brave new ideas and practices, we can safely resurrect and celebrate some of the tried and true old ones.