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Business of Writing, Craft of Writing

For Writers Overwhelmed by Technology, Is More Technology the Answer?

Well, that’s what the tech people want you to believe.

This week Jane Friedman’s excellent blog posted a list of 10 new apps created, supposedly, to help writers stay focused on writing. The first thing I noticed was that the apps are recommended by a social media strategist and manager for writers. How come so many people can’t make the connection between “here’s some free advice” and “this is how I make my living?” It’s called vested interest, and it negates any claim of impartiality.

But for fun, let’s scan the list:

  • Anti-Social says turn it on, schedule it for your writing time, and you’ll be blocked from distracting social media websites.
  • Coffitivity says that according to research, it can be more difficult to be productive in a quiet space. This app will create a background of coffee shop sounds to “soothe you into your sweet spot of writing.” Are they kidding? Ever really try to write something serious in a coffee shop while sitting next to obnoxious cell phone guy?
  • Here’s the most interesting one: Write or Die. In Kamikaze Mode you will need to “keep writing or your work will unwrite itself.” Yeah, I can just see the quality writing flowing from that app.

Let’s face it, as writers, we have to always remember that non-writers are clueless about what we do and how we do it. It probably makes sense to someone who writes code all day that more code is the answer to every problem.[1] But writing ain’t code. It’s intense concentration while disconnected from the rest of the world. As Jonathan Franzen says, a distracted writer is a sloppy writer, and rarely worth reading.

More than that, writing is a discipline. Discipline is about the ability to control one’s mind and/or body. Would you trust a surgeon who just has to check her email in the middle of an operation? Would you even trust the mechanic working on your brakes if he had to hop on Facebook in the middle of the job? Why should I be interested in what you’ve written if you don’t have the self-control to focus on it? If a writer needs one of these apps, my guess is s/he spends more time thinking about when the timer runs out than about the prose or poetry.

When I write, I simply turn off my email. I don’t turn it back on until my session is done. Anyone emails me during that time, they have to wait for a response. I do not, contrary to Franzen’s advice, quit my browser. Often I come to a passage that requires some technical or historical accuracy, and I’m one of those writers who needs to answer those questions before I can move on—the answer might make a difference later in the story. But I don’t digress and click on the browser for a quick game or surf session. A browser is a tool, not a distraction.

How the hell do I do it? Umm, did I mention that writing is a discipline?

But wait, as they say in ginsu knives commercials, there’s more! Readers are no longer safe from the tech stampede. Can’t read fast enough? Here’s an app that says it will “allow you to read novels in under 90 minutes.” I tried it and, wow, read War and Peace in an hour! (I think it’s about Russia.)

Is this our future—writers writing novels without being able to concentrate for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Readers who don’t care because they can rip through any book in no time. Welcome to ADD-Land!

Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe great writing—make that great anything—comes from discipline and focus. It’s a shame the rest of our culture seems bent on breaking us of those qualities.

[1] If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. A Murphy’s Law corollary, I believe.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


21 thoughts on “For Writers Overwhelmed by Technology, Is More Technology the Answer?

  1. Writing is a discipline. My new mantra.

    Posted by Downith | March 8, 2014, 4:45 PM
    • Discipline can be a good thing, sometimes. It’s about when I write, not necessarily how.

      Posted by jpon | March 8, 2014, 7:16 PM
  2. I think Wordsworth was putting the amount of time and effort and DISCIPLINE it takes for us to create well gently and succinctly when he mentioned “emotion recollected in tranquility.” And I agree with you that all these apps seem intended to keep us in the field of emotional excitement without giving us the true tranquility (or at least, peace, quiet, and concentration space) which we need. You’re right about this, I’m saying, and I really don’t care for the trend you mention: it’s as if the notion that anyone can be a writer if they have enough technology behind them is being put forward, and I guess I think that writing’s a particular kind of talent as well as a skill and a craft, and there’s only so much that any sort of training can do. Technological or otherwise. As the caption to my website, I have something like “To the good writer in all of us.” This doesn’t mean that I think there are GREAT writers in all of us, but I do think that any person who isn’t totally dead in the head can become a competent writer OF SOME SORT. Some become critics, some become poets, some become fiction writers, biographers, or just letter and e-mail writers. All of it is worth doing well (IMHO).

    Posted by shadowoperator | March 8, 2014, 5:51 PM
    • I suppose Wordsworth’s advice sounds better, but I think it’s really pretty much the same thing. To your point about technology, I think there’s always been some people who believe there’s a shortcut to accomplishment, and some people who are willing to sell them something that’s supposed to help.

      Posted by jpon | March 8, 2014, 7:18 PM
  3. Great article. I agree about all of this tech designed to take the self-discipline, self-reliability, self-accountability, and hell just the whole self out of the art. I’m a coder, but I still know that like good writing, good code requires a certain amount of art, of putting oneself out there and in something. A writer needs to connect with their writing if they ever hope a reader will and all of this tech gets in the way of that.
    Besides, I don’t want to read any writing that wasn’t hard work and meant the writer had to overcome some obstacles to create. Rarely does anything worthwhile come easy.

    Posted by Kevin Stewart | March 8, 2014, 6:17 PM
    • Well said. Everything has its place, even tech and even writing. I promise not to tell coders how to code if they stop telling me how to write.

      Posted by jpon | March 8, 2014, 7:20 PM
  4. Yeah, I’m not all that interested in gimmicks when it comes to writing. I still find the best way to get around technology is to get away from it, with a notebook and pen, in whatever space nurtures the daydream.

    Posted by Averil Dean | March 8, 2014, 6:42 PM
    • It’s interesting to me how many writers still do their best work with a notebook and pen. It must help them detach and focus. Sometimes I’m sorry I did the journalism thing—that was all about writing fast, on a machine, just getting the basics down. It’s taken me a long time to get away from that approach. At least I now hand write my notes and outlines.

      Posted by jpon | March 8, 2014, 7:23 PM
    • You are smart, Averil Dean.

      Posted by Teri | March 8, 2014, 7:45 PM
  5. By the way, dear commenters, today and tomorrow are travel days, starting in a few minutes. I probably won’t be able to answer comments again until Monday. (Yes, it’s that much trouble to get to Michigan from Victoria.)

    Posted by jpon | March 8, 2014, 7:24 PM
  6. Have you seen this one, Joe? Apparently we can’t waste too much time reading anymore either. Ugh.

    Posted by Teri | March 8, 2014, 7:51 PM
    • Yes I did. (In fact I mentioned it in my original post.) I did try it. It flashes each word individually, highlighting a “key” letter in each word in red. You can read much faster this way, but as for comprehension, that’s another story.

      Posted by jpon | March 10, 2014, 2:03 AM
  7. Good Lord, what is happening to us as a race?! Amen, Joe, I’m with ya, here! I’m all for useful technology, but lazy, everything-has-to-be-done-NOW (and over a smartphone) technology gets my gall….

    Posted by fpdorchak | March 8, 2014, 10:16 PM
    • Just got home from my flight from Seattle. It’s truly amazing how culture and technology have brainwashed so many people. The instant the wheels hit the tarmac at least half the people on board pulled out their smart phones (if the phone is smart, who is the dumb one?) and started calling or texting. Seriously, who needs to know so soon that you’ve landed? The woman next to me was texting so desperately I thought she might faint. What I think has happened is that the marketers have convinced these people that the devices empower them (look, I am telling someone where I am). But the sad truth is they’re creating a new class of people who allow themselves to become enslaved by their devices.

      Posted by jpon | March 10, 2014, 2:10 AM
      • It always amazes me the *frenzy* of activity, as if their lives depended on it at just that moment. Love the “faint” analogy. :-]

        Hope you had a good flight, and things go well!

        Posted by fpdorchak | March 10, 2014, 2:30 AM
  8. Couldn’t agree with your opinion more, Joe. It’s interesting, my sister asked me about the Write or Die app and posted a link on my Facebook page. Since I was unaware writing apps even existed (even writing the phrase feels like an oxymoron), I clicked the link and had a look. I couldn’t believe anyone would find it useful, or worse, spend money on it! Scheduling my time in labeled chunks (e.g. blog time, writing time, email time,) is how I get it all done, and most of the time I stick with it.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | March 9, 2014, 11:35 AM
    • That’s oxymoron, with the emphasis on the “moron.” The whole idea of needing an app to get you to write probably has writers like Hemingway, Stein and dozens of other spinning in their graves.

      Posted by jpon | March 10, 2014, 2:13 AM
  9. thanks. for journaling purposes, I’ve reverted to paper and PENCIL (pen is too high tech). the scratching of the pencil and the way it doesn’t glide onto the paper helps me focus on what i’m doing. then of course i text everybody. but that’s after i have actually written something!

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | March 9, 2014, 6:33 PM
    • You got me there. I haven’t used a pencil since the 6th grade, I think. But in spirit I think we’re on the same page.

      Posted by jpon | March 10, 2014, 2:16 AM
  10. I saw that reading app the other day. I “watched” for about a minute and that’s all I could do. I am an abysmally slow reader but that’s how I enjoy. When I read, I need to stop every sentence or so to think or look back. This new method of “watching” a book reminds me of A Clockwork Orange, when they pinned Alex’s eyes open so he couldn’t not see. Torture.

    Posted by girl in the hat | March 14, 2014, 8:31 PM
    • That’s an apropos comparison. Seems like a lot of these apps are about “looking” but not “seeing.” To them, it’s just a lot of words.

      Posted by jpon | March 15, 2014, 1:25 AM

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