The writing paradox

Having used keyboards, both physical and virtual, as my primary means of entry for "written" communication for almost two decades I am painfully aware of how poor my handwriting has become.

Holding a pen feels almost alien and writing anything longer than a birthday card greeting can be a real struggle.

This has long perturbed me but, apparently, never enough to do anything about it until recently when I vowed to carry a notepad and pen with me.

Part of me wanted to stop the rot, to regain my penmanship skills, but part of me selfishly wanted to use it as a source of inspiration - to see if writing in a different way would trigger different thought and creative processes.

Writing without writing

I have posted before about how we call it writing but the word has become largely disassociated from its meaning: we have the physical act of writing and then the creative process where the two used to be synonymous.

It has been a couple of months since I made that vow but, after a promising start, almost that long since my pen has touched the pages.


I'm not sure why it should be so hard to return to pen and paper; perhaps it is the years of conditioning and the convenience of a powerful, miniaturised computer in the palm of your hand.

We could argue that this is only natural, that the tools used for writing have been changing for millennia with the old ways getting left behind in favour of new technologies, but each of those old ways still involved putting an implement to a canvas of sorts.

With the ubiquity of keyboards we are at the first point in history, since writing was invented, that we are all but media-less. And I think we should be concerned, if not outright scared.

Why write?

It is acknowledged that handwriting plays a vital part in learning: the act of repeatedly tracing letter shapes whilst learning to write improves their recognition when it comes to leaning to read.

The physical act of writing is also said to engage different parts of our brain leading to cognitive benefits through the relationship established between thought and motion.

Advocates assert that writing by hand enhances creativity, leading to better quality work, thanks to the more measured and determined pace we must take when using a pen; the numerous studies undertaken to demonstrate this, however, contradict each other.

Others will focus on the lack of distractions when using a pen as we are not interrupted by notifications or tempted to switch to social networking apps every few minutes, although the same result can be achieved if we turn off the connectivity of our devices whilst writing.


As mentioned above, my wanting to return to pen and paper wasn't just to practice my handwriting, but to assess its impact on the creative process; whether an alternate workflow would affect how I wrote and, perhaps even, what I wrote.

Just as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are used to separate content from styles when creating web pages so using a pen separates writing from research. In this digital age, when our information sources are predominately online, does the ability to quickly switch between apps, between content and consumption, serve as a benefit or does that disconnect actually help by giving our thoughts time to breathe and settle?

Can the lack of distraction make for a better writing flow where we can leave placeholders to return to and fill in the gaps later?

Losing ourselves?

We are advised to always have a pad and pen with us as inspiration can strike at any time, yet our phones are invariably to hand (almost literally) and this, no doubt, is why it is difficult to make the switch back to drafting thoughts on paper.

We run the risk of being subsumed by our technology without making a conscious effort to the contrary.

Regardless of whether the pen is mightier than the keyboard, or cursive script is still needed in the 21st century, maybe we should be more worried about losing such an organic skill that helps to remind us of our humanity.

The writing paradox

Finding the perfect workflowComments


A report on The Atlantic into how the paradox of choice may be a myth has got people flustered. This indefatigable tenet of consumerism and modern life, that has been held so highly aloft, is coming crashing down because the studies that prompted its creation cannot be replicated.

Perhaps in some areas this may be true, perhaps humans have become immune to oversupply and variety, especially in a retail environment; being able to compare specifications and prices is an absolute must. As the piece says, single-option aversion causes its own problems because you just don't know if you're getting a good deal when presented with only one choice. This is why governments and regulatory bodies are so against the abuse of monopoly positions.

Consumers and creatives

Consumers love choice, they like to be able to vote with their feet (or their eyes or ears) but for creatives it can be a different matter altogether.

When I used to spend time making music on my PC I found that the more tools, effects and virtual instruments I had the more time I would waste trying to find that perfect sound or just the right amount of reverb for a particular section.

Stuff didn't get done. Rome burned while I fiddled with endless options.

The moment, and the flow, was lost.

When I had only one application I was forced into creativity, forced into getting the most out of what I had in front of me.

The same applies to writing.

With so many writing applications now available for the iPhone the temptation is to test them all, evaluate their functionality in the hope of finding that magical blend which makes the process painless. But, in doing so, more time is spent evaluating than actually writing so there comes a point when you have to limit yourself and go with what you've got.

It may not be the best or the most efficient but forcing yourself to work within the limitations of your tools means you just have to get on with it.

Sometimes we're lucky and we find the perfect workflow - often we have to forgo perfect for what works.

Finding the perfect workflow

Our stories


“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories.”
― Laurie Anderson

As human beings we are students of story. We are enthralled by them just as we are enthralled by the flames of a campfire, fascinated by their twists and turns and always want to know how they end. We feel cheated if we can't get that closure.

Stories affect us because we can relate to them, understand them at some subconscious level beyond words on a page, beyond rational thought. We feel them, imagine ourselves within them, and live through them.

Some make us laugh, others make us cry but all good stories have one thing in common: they affect us, make us react, and in this they have power.

All writing is storytelling of a sort.

Instructions tell the story of how to achieve a desired result; ingredients tell the story of a product; a sign tells a story, be it information or a warning, and has an implied back story full of potential outcomes should we ignore its message.

Pause and affect

I originally wrote this having just finished watching the film "Her" and then, as now, I was dumbstruck by its power. I couldn't recall when I had been so affected by a story.

A lot has been written about it from the technological point of view, about possibilities and vagaries of the future, our relationship to it and the "creepy line" but this is not its purpose.

There is a line in the film that says:

"The past is just a story we tell ourselves "

It is our story, true, but a story nonetheless, perhaps written with a degree of artistic licence. We write it day by day, chapter by chapter but can place more importance on the telling than on actually writing it, living it, existing in the moment rather than reflecting on the past.

We are more connected than ever but often, as individuals and as a society, somehow more distant.

Our lives are becoming ever more digitalised. With machines, gadgets, and the web, so much of what we used to do has been outsourced. What made us the people we were slowly being removed, eroded.

We have reached a stage in our evolution where the story has changed. Some are uncomfortable with where the plot seems to be taking us. Maybe, we are now using technology to revert to a more familiar course, to recreate some of our humanity, to replace some of what has been lost.

Perhaps the old story was wrong and we needed a change. Perhaps we are overcompensating.

It's hard to say.

Before it's too late?

Biz Stone's recent post "The Future Is Simple" inspired me to revisit this. He wrote that he hopes the future of technology "somehow amplifies the best qualities of humanity" but in a way it's kind of sad - sad that it takes technology to make us realise who we are, what we could be, and perhaps even how we are... failing.

Maybe it reminds us how society is changing, how we are changing, and that we might not like what we become. Maybe it makes us question if this is the right campfire.

That people are having these discussions, people in positions of influence, is a positive sign. Still, the rest of us shouldn't wait. We should take our own steps without waiting to see what future technology awaits us.

For, what if the tech doesn't work?

Original version posted 18th November 2014 as part of the #Write365 Project, now deleted

Our stories

Dispensing with the trappings of technology.Comments

I wanted to post something a little different today and look at how my use of technology has altered which, in turn, gives an idea as to how my perception of social media has changed.

This blog took over from the old Randomelements site which I had self-hosted on one flavour of SharePoint or another since 2003. I was also running my own Exchange Server and handling all my own emails. Initially, these endeavours were useful in that they forced me to learn: managing and maintaining a Windows 2003 based network and the related server applications but, once things were established and I was able to troubleshoot any issues that arose the learning stopped.

While other people were content to have their sites and mails hosted remotely I was dealing with everything locally just for the sake of it; being able to say I could.

I changed ISP and in doing so lost the static IP address I had been using. While dynamic solutions exist - such as DynDNS - managing things became a chore, especially when it became apparent that the IP addresses I was being assigned by the new ISP were on the PBL. Any change of IP address meant that I had to request it be removed from the PBL before emails sent from my server would be accepted by an servers checking the originating IP address. At the same time, SharePoint no longer cut it as an effective blogging platform.

Consequently, the move to WordPress and remotely hosted email have been made and life has been simplified from a technical perspective. Outlook and my phone are both accessing email via IMAP this keeping in sync and I have been able to shut down the server at home - it is no longer being used so why waste the power.

I was using technology at home just for the sake of it under the misguided impression that it made a difference but I still have full control over my blog and emails so what is the difference? I treat them now as a means to achieve something rather than as a focus in themselves, and this is how I see social media. Social media should not focus on the tool in use but on what that tool allows you to do so we must not get caught up in the trappings of the technology as they will distract us from our goals.

Dispensing with the trappings of technology.