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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Assembling thoughts – then and now

All my life, until I became accustomed to the use of word-processors, I thought out what I was writing in a quite different way from now. I reflected carefully upon what was to go into the sentence, and it was only then that I committed it to paper. Changes had to be by carets and balloons with arrows, which are unattractive and hard to read in a handwritten letter. Maybe today they would be viewed with a certain charm.
   It took me ages to switch to the mode I'm sure most people have learned if they've never had to write something by hand. Then, it had to be legible, carefully composed, with no scratchings out, grammatical flaws and spelling errors. Now, that all comes later.

   Somehow the thought processes while composing at a computer screen are different, and it's reflected in what comes out. It may have a certain form of precision but I wouldn't call it as seamless as pen and paper efforts. 

   Not mine, anyway.
   Now, when starting on a new project that needs structure, I usually open a page in Word and simply throw down in point form my random thoughts on the subject. Spelling, typos and grammar are irrelevant.
   When I've run out of ideas or think I've got enough, I arrange these points in a rough order. Items that are subsets are rearranged and indented beneath their parents. Others are added as I think of them, and slotted in to what I think will be their place in the project. Many will recognise this as outlining.
   Language-based research too is an utterly different process from how we did it in the past; that is, by going to a library, reading sources, taking notes by hand and organising them, but I won't go into that here. We are in the age of keyword search, the pdf file, cut and paste, and clever note-organising programs like Filemaker. We relate these to the outline prepared in the way I described above.
   Depending on the topic, we can do it all from home. That's the big difference. For some tasks, libraries and their books and manuscripts (all of which I love) are indispensable, but we live in a fast-changing world.

   One last thing. All the above are rapidly becoming superseded. Kids wanting to know about or how to do something go to youtube and see it demonstrated. Then they may go to Wikipedia and other sources, but text-based learning is rapidly becoming second choice.
   For complex pieces, I prefer text; the words, and the way they focus and orientate my thoughts. If you've bothered to read this from start to finish – about 500 words – you're probably sympathetic, but our train's stopping at fewer and fewer stations.
   The express is faster, but there's much more of the country missed on the way to the destination. And what flits by may be the richest part of the understanding of what we're writing about.
Part of an earlier draft – very different to what's on the page above!


  1. Handwriting was my downfall; in junior high school I failed maths because my handwriting was untidy. I love computers - writing is fast and it is easy to correct mistakes. But my computer writing is based on that old handwriting, on thinking carefully first - getting the facts, the grammar and the spelling right first time ... so that I didn't have to re-write it all again. Maybe that was the real benefit.

    1. I wish I could think who it was – some great savant – who wrote page after page in perfect prose, not missing a beat. Now that's mind training, and someone who knows his subject. I think you must be closer to it than I, Bob.

  2. I love serendipity! In an hour or so, I will receive via email, a Word document from one of my beloved daughters-in-law who is embarking upon her first university degree. I will use the "Track Changes" tool which, when I email the assignment back to her, will enable us to discuss it, para by para, over the phone as we then both look at it together.

    I've thoroughly enjoyed being my kids', and several of their friends', editor/proofreader over the years. (Can take the girl out of the school, but can't take the school out of the girl.) The best bit has been how much I've learnt about so many different academic disciplines I wouldn't have otherwise e.g. Journalism, Social Work, Computer Science, Nursing, Landscape Architecture, Early Childhood Development, Medicine, Community Development and so on.

    I'd best wind this up and go look at my Inbox for that 2,400 word essay waiting for me!
    Thanks Denis. Lovely post.

    1. One of my most important jobs as teacher of First Year university students was how to write an academic history essay, and this I did quite well, I believe – and with great rigour.

      Now I break just about every one of those rules when writing blog stories. Oh yes, different academic disciplines have different rules, as I found when I went over Sylvia's first English essay with her. I was quite offended at what they regarded as good writing style but I saw as travesty.

      It wasn't – they were looking for different things.

  3. I always am stimulated to write by reading about how to write -or how others do it. One invaluable lesson I learned from Denis was to read my work out loud, and I still advise students to do that when I mark essays. You can hear if it's clumsy or just plain incomprehensible!

    Thank you, Denis. Again:)

    Julie M


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