Sunday, September 19, 2010

Long-Hand versus Type-Written in Pre-Computer Writing

Robert J. Sawyer has argued that there were "two basic metaphors for pre-computer writing," namely, "the long-hand manuscript page" and the "typewritten page." I will call them the long-hand and the type writer metaphors respectively. These metaphors were adopted in various ways by the makers of word processors. Sawyer claims that most word processors emulate the the type writer, while some, most notably Wordstar, try to emulate long-hand.

What do the two metaphors amount to, according to Sawyers? He says: "On a long-hand page, you can jump back and forth in your document with ease. You can put in bookmarks, either actual paper ones, or just fingers slipped into the middle of the manuscript stack. You can annotate the manuscript for yourself with comments like "Fix this!" or "Don't forget to check these facts" without there being any possibility of you missing them when you next work on the document. And you can mark a block, either by circling it with your pen, or by physically cutting it out, without necessarily having to do anything with it right away. The entire document is your workspace ... On a typewritten page, on the other hand, you are forced to deal with the next sequential character. Your thoughts are focussed serially on the typing of the document. If you're in the middle of a line halfway down page 7, your only easy option is to continue on that line. To go backwards to check something is difficult, to put in a comment that won't show when your document is read by somebody else is impossible, and so on. Typing is a top-down, linear process, not at all conducive to the intuitive, leaping-here-and-there kind of thought human beings are good at."

This sounds plausible on a first read. Hell, it sounded plausible to me even on a second read. But when I thought about how I actually wrote with a type writer, it became apparent to me that this is superficial. Whe you write a page with a type writer, you are indeed forced to focus on the next character, or next word you type. But the very same same is true about long-hand. While actually writing you must concentrate on the next character, next word, next sentence. Both ways of writing are equally sequential or linear. It is also false that you cannot write series of unconnected notes. You can, and to do so, many people wrote their first (or second) drafts on index cards which were conducive to what he calls the "intuitive, leaping-here-and-there kind of thought human beings are good at." If you take a look at what Sawyers compares, you see it is actually not writing down letters and words in long-hand or with a type writer, but rather revising a long-hand document and simply typing on a type writer. This is not fair. It amounts to comparing things that are at different ends of the same continuum.[1]

So how did we revise the type-written page? Well, we struck out words and sentences, wrote new ones in the margins or above the struck out line, annoted [sic] the text with comments like "Fix this," "Expand!" etc. Stapled half a page or a paragraph that we wrote to the original page, marked it up by circling or underlining. Sometimes we even cut up the manuscript and glued it together in a new order. Ultimately, it had to be re-typed, just as a long-hand manuscript would have to be re-written. As far as revising went, there really were no significant differences. And even as far as writing went, there were few. I have seen manuscripts of novels, in which the author struck out things, typed between lines, etc., right on the type-written page.

For this reason, the conclusion is unwarranted: "a word processor that uses the typewriter metaphor — WordPerfect is one — might be ideal for low-level secretarial work: proceeding top-down through a document that has been created in content and structure by somebody else. But for one who must start with absolutely nothing and create, from scratch, a coherent document with complex and subtle structures, the long-hand-page metaphor is the way to go." Since there is no fundamental difference between the two metaphors, they cannot lead to such fundamental different applications. This is also apparent from such metaphors as "cut and paste," for instance, which comes mainly (but not exclusively) from the age of type-writers.

What about this: "If I want to make a note to myself, WordStar lets me simply type it in my document. WordStar will not print a line beginning with double periods, like so:
.. check the length of Jupiter's year"
Well, any word processor allows you to enter anywhere something like "###" to write ###check the length of Jupiter's year###, and "###" is easily searched for, as it does not occur naturally in many texts.

Most other things he talks about have "work-arounds" like this. What does this show? We fall in love with our tools. Some of us do not reflect on what we are doing, some of us do. This may lead to quite different ways of using these tools. Some of us use our word processors for "low-level secretarial work," some of us use it for "the intuitive, leaping-here-and-there kind of thought human beings are good at." I actually think there are better tools for the second kind of work, but that is another matter that has little to do with the myth of the fundamental difference between long-hand and type-written pages.



1. He claims himself: "Writing and revising are a continuum," yet he uses the two extremes of this continuum to argue for a (radical) discontinuity between the long-hand and typewriter approach.

2 comments:

J Tranter said...

Robert J. Sawyer:
has argued that there were "two basic metaphors for pre-computer writing," namely, "the long-hand manuscript page" and the "typewritten page." ... [in a typewritten document] to put in a comment that won't show when your document is read by somebody else is impossible, and so on... What about this: "If I want to make a note to myself, WordStar lets me simply type it in my document. WordStar will not print a line beginning with double periods, like so:
.. check the length of Jupiter's year"

MK:
Well, any word processor allows you to enter anywhere something like "###" to write ###check the length of Jupiter's year###, and "###" is easily searched for, as it does not occur naturally in many texts.

JT:
But you have missed his whole point. WordStar allows you to type in a comment *to yourself*, that will not appear on the printed sheet of paper. Read his remarks again. He says that only you will ever see it, because only you will ever look through the work onscreen, where the line beginning with two dots, the non-print line, will appear. It will not appear on the printed output, which other people will see.

Scrivener allows you to do this easily, by inserting "Annotations", and choosing later not to print the Annotations, just the text.

John Tranter, at johntranter.net

MK said...

There are other programs, different from Scrivener, that allow you to do this, like ConnectedText (which I use): "### at the beginning of the line hides the comment altogether.'

In any case, I do not understand (i) why it is so important that only you see the comment, (ii) why you would not want to remove the line ".. check the length of Jupiter's year" after you have fixed the problem, and (iii) how the fact that the comment appears only on the screen assures that only you see it. Publishers (of academic and non-fiction texts want electronic versions. For years now, I rarely (if ever) distribute documents in printed form. With my last book, it was only the proofs that came in print to me.