The Right Writing Tool for the Job

The Right Writing Tool for the Job

A writer’s tools matter, and part of what teachers can do is help students explore the tools that make the most sense to the student.

I’ve been thinking about how important the actual physical tools I use have been to my own writing.

Back in my grade school days, on the old report card, I consistently scored N (needs improvement) on only one criteria, handwriting.

My handwriting was bad, so it wasn’t like the mark was unfair, but there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it. Unfortunately, my crappy handwriting got in the way of my writing. I would have to concentrate so hard on making the letters legible, I would lose track of what I wanted to say.

As I now say often, writing is thinking, and the tools at my disposal were getting in the way of my thinking.

Fortunately, by the time I was in high school, I’d been liberated by the typewriter. In short order following that a personal word processor, and by junior year of college, my first Macintosh computer. Typing allowed me to capture my thoughts at the speed they occurred. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without the typewriter keyboard, I never would’ve become a writer. 

Even now, I’m dependent on typing to write. I have tried dictation software, and inspired by a former colleague from Clemson, the writer Keith Morris, who writes the first drafts of his books entirely in longhand, I even gave that a run again.

But nope, I’m a typing guy. But as a typing guy, I’ve long been dissatisfied with the action on my MacBook laptop. The keys are sleek, low-profile, and you can barely feel when you depress one, which is the problem. I was weaned on the brute force thump of a manual, and raised on the clickety-clack of an IBM Selectric. To me, typing is meant to have a physical component, rather than being a low-impact endeavor.

This is why I am now so grateful for my KnewKey mechanical keyboard, a Bluetooth external keyboard that looks, and more importantly feels like an old-school electric typewriter. 

Typing on this thing is actively fun again, and after years of speed compromised by laptop keyboards that don’t have the same je ne sais quoi, I find myself typing at the lightning speeds I thought were behind me. 

Sure, it’s a little weird looking, and the noise this keyboard makes means my wife thinks she can tell how much I’m working from two rooms away, but this thing is awesome. 

Over my teaching career, I have had to learn to be open and patient with how students utilize the writing tools available to them, recognizing that times change and every writer works differently. I will never forget a time in class, maybe 8 or 10 years ago at this point, when I had given students some time to start working on an assignment and one student whipped out their phone.

Such disrespect! I went to the student and spoke quietly so as not to distract the others, “You’re supposed to be working on your essay.”

“I am,” they replied, showing me a screen already filled with text. 

Later in the semester I asked the student about the method, and they said they started doing it when their laptop broke and took ten days to be repaired. The phone was the only writing device in their possession, so they used it and found that having a writing machine on you all day could be pretty handy. The student would write during lulls at their restaurant job or while waiting for the bus. 

Whatever small motor coordination problems I had that held back my handwriting in grade school have now transferred to typing on my phone where I have, like, an 80% error rate.

But watching the student type I was amazed by their speed on the keyboard, how they utilized the predictive text feature so seamlessly. Clearly the phone was the right drafting tool for this person.

The tools of writing will continue to get more and more sophisticated. I’m drafting this in Google Docs where the algorithm will detect if it thinks I’ve made an error, underlining a passage and suggesting an alternative. Where it’s a typo, it’s often correct. Other times, not so much. There’s an additional predictive text feature that I’ve had to turn off because it messed up my thinking by suggesting words and phrases that don’t sound like me or my thoughts.

The tools need to fit the writer, the occasion, the purpose. The more thoughtful we can help students be about those choices, the better.