First comes the writing

I’d read somewhere that Kurt Vonnegut would use continuous rolls of paper in his typewriter rather than individual sheets of paper. If I remember correctly, he didn’t want the interruption of inserting new sheets just when the words were flowing. I can see the mechanical benefit of this arrangement too. Pages wouldn’t get lost or shuffled this way.

I don’t know if this story is true or not, but it does illustrate what I think is an important point. The writing comes first.

In my brief year as a book editor for a small publishing house we would often get manuscripts (this was just at the beginning of the era of electronic submissions and we weren’t equipped then to accept anything but paper) that were formatted beautifully. Margins were one inch all the way around, and the lines were double spaced, which allowed for ease in making editorial comments of course. But the chapter breaks were artfully designed; the pagination included the title of the work. Dingbats were slipped in here and there for artistic relevance. So on. And these submissions invariably included an offer by the writer of a diskette copy of the work (remember diskettes?) to save us the trouble of formatting and designing.

I suppose the writers thought that by saving us such work they increased their chances of getting their submission selected. Of course this was a waste of time for them. We had our own in-house design team (myself and the publisher), and all of the formatting the writers had done to their work only meant more work for us since we would have had to remove it if we were going to accept and begin working on their submission.

But more than that, it seemed that these hopeful writers were putting the cart before the horse (hackneyed metaphor). They were trying to achieve the style of a book before achieving the substance of one. (I don’t mean to suggest that the quality of the writing in these submissions was invariably bad. Some of it was perfectly adequate but merely not suited for our market niche. Most of it was bad, however.)

I made a similar observation in the days when desktop publishing software had its brief flowering. Anybody could produce a slick-looking newsletter, and nearly everybody did. It didn’t matter that they had nothing to say; they looked great saying it. And I think many of them never realized the difference. Of course many didn’t look great saying it either. They blended too many typefaces on the page, slipped in too much “design,” and assaulted the eyes of anyone who happened upon their migraine-inducing newsletter. The style got in the way of the precious little substance that was there. (I see it a lot in emails now. Formatted like crazy, but still with nothing to say.)

Word processors have taken much of the drudgery out of the writing process. In a way, they provide the continuous roll of paper that Vonnegut favored. They allow saving and editing and rewriting and spell checking and all sorts of conveniences that would have seemed miraculous to our counterparts of the typewriter age, even more so to those of the quill and ink age.

Yet those ages did produce outstanding writing. I doubt the Melville or Tolstoy was at all concerned with design issues when in the fever of composition. It was all about the words. Getting the right words in the right order to say the right things. A word processor will only help with that, but it won’t do it for the writer. The words have to come first. Only then can they be manipulated.

I don’t want to seem like I’m making some sweeping, dismissive judgment of contemporary writers. Indeed, when I hear things like John Updike still using a pencil and a legal pad for all of his first drafts, or a globe-trotting journalist who still schlepps a portable typewriter to some fly-speck destination, I sometimes feel they are being pretentious in their devotion to the “old ways.” The judgment, of course, is in the words on the page, and its those words that must come first.

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