C=Computer or Paper? (Feb 4)

David Byrne has some definite ideas on how our surroundings can shape the brain’s response to art // Shutterstock

Music has many lessons for writers, from rhythm to the simple value of the sounds of words, to structure (the movie-score composer Hans Zimmer says each piece of a score asks a question, then answers it in a way that leads towards the next question – we will look at this more in the essay for Q, “Question-based Writing”). But there is a less obvious lesson from music and that concerns the context of creation.

As David Byrne wrote in How Music Works, much of music history has been shaped by the context of performance. The open savannah lent itself to the percussive sounds of drums; Gothic cathedrals have long reverberation times that suit slowly evolving melodies with very long notes; the enforced silence of large opera houses meant «the quietest harmonic and dynamic details and complexities could now be heard» all the way to the back row. (The picture below shows a draft of Byrne’s lyrics for This Must Be the Place. The final version of the lyrics is here, with the first line and not much else intact.)

The spatial context of written creation today is almost always the computer. It’s so normal we forget about it, yet writing on a computer is quite different from writing on a piece of paper.

The main difference is that writing on paper slows you down (like ALWAYS READ BACKWARDS did in our first essay).

When you write longhand, your hands and fingers get tired and force you to pause every paragraph or so. This encourages brevity while writing, and reflection before writing, as wasted words are wasted effort. Also, for some reason paragraphs tend to be longer when written on paper.

In contrast, writing on a computer is a breeze. You can run on and on for hundreds of words without pause. This is not necessarily good. You are apt to end up with material that fits Truman Capote’s harsh assessment of Jack Kerouac’s work: “It isn’t writing at all — it’s typing.”

Research at Princeton University found something similar: students in a lecture who typed their notes on a computer had the same recall of facts as students who wrote their notes by hand, but the latter had a much greater grasp of the concepts being transmitted.

Byrne says musicians know that “the emotional center is not the technical center”. But technology can come to dominate process, and process to constrict outcome.

LEARN: Read How Music Works, especially Chapter 1.

USE: Try writing a first draft on paper. At first it will feel wrong but persist … even if just for your introductory paragraphs.


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

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