Guts Before Beauty?

One of the perennial questions on writing forums is whether people write their work on computers, typewriters, or by hand. Over the time, I have noticed – for me at least – the question is not that simple. I write different things in different formats, and even when I do use a specific format for a type of document I might well use different sub formats for different subsets of that document.

The biggest divide is between prose and poetry: I always write the first draft of prose, fiction or article, on a computer; whereas, if I am writing poetry I always grab a notebook and pen. After some thought I feel this comes from a different perception of the value of each specific word in the respective works. The first draft of prose creates the story, argument, or content of the work without expectation it will be beautiful. The first draft of a poem already has the expectation each word will be beautiful or apposite. So I write prose in the way that best lets me create and save large volumes of text, but need to physically interact with each word when writing poetry.

This difference in crafting can be seen in the first draft of The Truth About Cats, below:

Poetry Notebook
Initial Draft of The Truth About Cats
(©Dave Higgins – CC BY NC SA 2.0 UK)

Not only is the poem already very close to the current version, but there is only one alteration during writing (due to an obvious mistake in the repetition of lines). Whereas, when writing this article I have already changed a number of words, and added paragraphs between others to rough out the argument.

When it comes to editing, the converse technique is usually true: I print out the first draft of prose so I can edit with a pen, whereas I copy poetry onto a computer to edit it. This reversal is not unsurprising for prose: with the first draft a rough route through the message, the change of approach lets me focus on the aesthetic of the work rather than the story.

But for poetry the benefit of the change is not a simple reversal. I am not refocusing on the story at the heart of the poem. Rather I take advantage of one of the first great advantages of word processors over both typewriters and long-hand: the seamless change. I can change words then revert the changes without spoiling the pristine look of the work; this ability to maintain the finished appearance of the work is doubly useful when tweaking layouts.

The most interesting part (to me) was when I considered the prose I do not print out to edit. This fell into two categories:

  1. Online Articles: I write nearly all the articles for Davetopia either in the WordPress editor or Notepad++, and edit the document in the WordPress editor. But, after writing the first draft I use the preview and return to it often throughout the edit, so this method has a separate aesthetic view built-in. Similarly with other online sources.
  2. Editing for Other People: Depending on the writer’s file preference I use track changes, separate notes, or in-line notations, made into an electronic copy of their document. This puzzled me for a while, until I realised it represented a definite acknowledgement of incompleteness. Whether highlighting potential deviations from formal grammar or suggesting alternative wording for sentences, the suggestions are all made in the expectation there will definitely be further editing to unify the whole.

Taking my editing approaches as a whole – while I do not expect the first draft to be perfect – I see an underlying hope that the current re-draft might produce a finished product, so, as well as purely giving me a different experience of the work to highlight errors, I choose an editing format that lets me consider the aesthetics of the work.

Do you use different formats to write or edit different types of work? Do you only look for aesthetics after content, or do you alter them in parallel?

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4 thoughts on “Guts Before Beauty?

  1. I’m kind of like you, poetry by hand, prose by machine. BTW, for those disparaging word processing, think of it as the electronic equivalent of Kerouac’s roll of butcher paper, which he used to avoid changing paper in his typewriter. Remember those?


    1. I remember typewriters. For me they always fall between longhand and word processors: they lack the visceral nature of pen on paper and the flexibility of nothing being fixed until you press print.

      I also remember when printer paper came in really long strips, much like butcher paper.


  2. I tend to write on whatever’s available. If I’m near my computer, I’ll use that. If I’m out in the world, I’ll use a notebook or my phone. I find it easiest to write via computer, because my fingers can *almost* catch up to my thoughts, whereas trying to keep up via pen is just a fool’s hope 😀


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