••• The International Writers Magazine - 23 Years on-line - Tech & Writing
How Technology Has Changed the Writing World
Writing has always been technological. From papyrus paper to printing presses, writers have used the latest technology for thousands of years to record stories, poems, memoirs, and musings.
But digital technology has a unique potential to reshape the writing world. While writers in the digital age should still expect to encounter some challenges, authors today can lean on the power of tech to improve their wordsmithing, research complex issues, and reach new audiences — all from portable laptops or tablets.
Digital technology's real power is in its ability to grow and advance far quicker than typewriters or notepads (when was the last time the pencil received an update?). This means that the tech of today is constantly changing the writing world, as new word processors and platforms give greater freedom to writers, publishers, and readers.
Most writers take word processing for granted. But as Matthew Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland and author of Track Challenges, points out word processing “changed the game” for writers in the late 20th century.
According to Kirschenbaum, word processors do far more than help us revise and catch errors. At their best, word processors “[allow] writers to grasp a manuscript as a whole”. This means, unlike typewriters or handwritten compositions, writers using word processors can shift and change the very structure of their text with just a few clicks. This makes manuscripts more malleable and fluid during drafting and revision.
This might sound like a point made by a literary version of Captain Obvious, but being able to revise the overall structure of a piece of writing is a big deal. Publishers can demand much more from writers who present jumbled arguments, and authors who use word processors can pursue more complex narrative structures due to the ease at which they can assess the bigger picture of their story — it’s impossible to imagine novels like Infinite Jest or Leaves of Grass being written without the aid of word processors.
So word processors changed the game for writers. But how does digital tech continue to impact the publishing industry?
E-Readers and Audiobooks
Whether you’re a bibliophile or a bookseller, you’ve probably heard a lot of fuss over e-readers and audiobooks in the past few years. Rather than being seen as a great way to engage with new audiences, advancements in reading and publishing technology have been heralded as the end of book shops and the “death of the novel” by nearly every major news outlet.
This alarmist approach to e-readers and audiobooks is mostly unwarranted. Print media is not dying, and 90% of young readers prefer physical copies of books to digital ones. While Kindles and Audible subscriptions do eat into booksellers’ revenues, the buying and selling of physical books continue to represent a multi-billion dollar industry.
Rather than yearning for a nostalgic vision of writing, authors today are leveraging the potential of e-readers and digital audiences to their advantage. After all, if more readers are accessing content via the internet, why not take advantage of hyperlinks and embedded media when researching and referencing?
Research and Referencing
Things have changed since Einstein famously quipped “the only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library". While libraries remain an integral part of our social fabric, writers today can complete almost all of their research from the comfort of their own homes.
Digital collections have also raised the standard of non-fiction works and academic research. Academics and journalists today can find necessary information in a fraction of the time it used to take, as libraries across the world have digitized their archives and typically offer open access to online resources.
Creative writers have also benefited from digital archives and media. Even literary novelists like Sally Rooney use the reality of our digital lives to weave stories that are reflective of a life spent staring at screens and accessing information through the internet.
However, before a news outlet publishes an article lamenting the end of “real” research, plenty of authors still have to get out and see the world as it is. For example, Rebecca Makkai, author of Great Believers, recalls how research for her recent novel “forced me out from behind my desk,” to find “gay weeklies like the Windy City Times” which were only archived physically in The Harold Washington Library.
Even writing style guides — which hold an unfortunate reputation for being slow-moving — are catching up to the idea that writing is a digital practice. Guides like APA, Chicago, and MLA have made recent common-sense changes to their citation guides to allow authors to reference digital media and include URL links in references and footnotes.
Authors today benefit from the luxury of being able to write anywhere, at any time. Of course, this isn’t unique to the digital age — even Dickens could have taken his quill with him on the train or into the countryside — but writers today will find that their actual writing practice is largely unchanged whether they are typing away in a home office, on a moving train, or in a quiet coffee shop.
While writing anywhere is a romantic ideal, authors today have to be aware of the dos and don’ts of public wifi. When working with public hotspots, authors are susceptible to hackers who lurk in “Dark Hotels” and steal data from folks who are looking for convenient wifi access. This sounds like something from a Stephen King novel, but hacking devices via public wifi is surprisingly easy and can result in some rather dire consequences.
It’s also worth noting that, while word processors make it possible to write anywhere, they do carry their own risks. In particular, writers who lean heavily on cloud-based processors will be familiar with losing work to peers who save over documents and almost every author has experienced the pain of losing paragraphs that vanish overnight. However, processors are still infinitely more reliable than physical manuscripts stored in briefcases — just ask Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, or Thomas Hardy, who all lost work to theft or forgetfulness.
Technology has always been a part of the writing world. From the humble pencil to cloud-based processing, writers have always made use of new technology to write, revise, and promote their work. But digital technology has shaken up every element of the writing world. E-readers and audiobooks give busy commuters a chance to catch up on their favorite fantasy series, while digital archives help authors transform yesterday’s facts into tomorrow’s bestsellers.
© Indiana Lee 9.1.22
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