“Messy-Minded” Writers

I confess I am a disorganized mess. I’m not being self-deprecating, just honest. My writing process is similarly disorganized. I am a notorious note jotter. I have notes everywhere…tucked in pockets, stuck to the refrigerator, used as bookmarks in books, and even on the visor of my car. They somehow seem to multiply (like the old shampoo commercial, “and they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on…”).

(While I was referring to the Faberge Organics shampoo commercial from the ’80’s, this Wayne’s World parody is even more apropos…)

Thinking back to my earliest memories of formal writing, I wrote all of my drafts in high school on a typewriter. Once the pages were typed out, I would take scissors to them and cut them into sections, paragraphs or even smaller segments. I would then spread them out on the floor and start to arrange them like a jigsaw puzzle. That was my favorite part of the writing process: organizing and reorganizing the sections in various ways until somehow they began to fit together in a logical flow. Once I was fairly satisfied with the result, I would then type another draft using the “Franken-draft” that I had taped together, adding introductory phrases and transitions as I went to “sew” these segments together.

As a college student, I did a semester abroad in England and was absolutely shocked to find that they did not have computers, or even typewriters, available for students to use. My instructor (“tutor”) informed me that we were to legibly hand write our essays each week in blue or black ink. I cannot count the number of pages that I had to re-write due to errors that I made as I was copying and recopying these essays. I felt that I had literally traveled back in time, and it gave me a much greater appreciation for writers who wrote prior to the advent of the typewriter.

A few months ago I read John McPhee’s collection of his creative non-fiction entitled Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. In the chapter on structure, he talks about the transformation that he made in the early 1980s from typing his notes for magazine articles to using a computer program called “Kedit” that was not a word processor, but rather a combination “text editor” and data organizer. According to McPhee, the program “did not paginate, italicize, approve of spelling, or screw around with headers, wysiwygs, thesauruses, dictionaries, footnotes, or Sanskrit fonts”(36). It was bare bones, but McPhee used that basic program for nearly three decades.

When I was teaching writing on the Community College level, I encouraged my students to use Google Docs – both because of the collaborative nature of it, but more importantly, because the program was free. It may not be as robust as the MS Office Suite, but students can do a great deal with it nonetheless. In looking at other word processing programs that we were asked to examine this week, the only one that I was not familiar with was Scrivener. Unlike Google Docs or Word (which is my preferred program for personal use), it seems that Scrivener might closely approximate my former style of drafting, writing, organizing, and editing in terms of its ability to move around whole sections of text. I am only just starting to learn what the program can do, but I am drawn to the fact that it can be shared among multiple platforms, be it a computer, smart phone, or tablet. Unlike Google Docs, which is free, there is a nominal fee for Scrivener. Even so, at $38.25 for an educational license, it is a fraction of the cost of Microsoft Word. I can see encouraging my students to download the free 30-day trial to experiment with it. That is precisely what I am going to do this week. (628)

Original Post

6 thoughts on ““Messy-Minded” Writers

  1. Take two on my comment… the first one would not publish so I must start from scratch.
    For your notes comments, we are very similar, I have post its everywhere! I also love your anecdote about cutting up your papers and rearranging!
    For word processors, barebones allows the user to focus on the content and the process, without the distracting bells and whistles. There are many word processors out there that do more than documents, I used to use Celtx to write screenplays for example. If you want to incorporate more of these into your teaching, look to what you will be teaching and do a Google search to see if programs exist that help with that skill.
    As for Word, check to see if you can get a student or military discount for the license. My sister gets hers through the military for 10 dollars.

  2. Thanks for the tips, Ally. I hadn’t heard about the military discount for Word (ironic as we are a military family!). I just did a quick search and Microsoft offers two programs: the better of the two is what your sister seems to be using, the “Home Use Program” (HUP). Active-duty service members can sign up through their work email to see if they qualify, and if so, it is only $9.95 (a phenomenal deal!). Unfortunately, that seems to only be for full-time active duty service members though, not reservists, veterans, or their family members. However, Microsoft does offer a 10% discount on “select products” for anyone in those categories. Thanks again for the proverbial ‘heads up’ as many of my students on the Community College level fall into the latter category!

  3. It’s nostalgic that you mention cutting the texts and arranging them because they are exercises teachers still integrate into classrooms. I think that the tactile and visual act of moving text around easily allows students to learn to process and organize information. I also like Scrivener for the simplicity of its templates. I feel dissatisfied with Microsoft templates at times because it doesn’t achieve the layout that I want and tries too hard to apply themes to them versus actually having the key components.

    1. I agree Nhu, oftentimes Microsoft frustrates me as it’s supposed to make formatting/editing/writing “easier” and more “free” but instead it traps us in little boxes!

      Amy– glad I could help! She is active duty and is giving me one of her licenses, so it would be good to mention active duty people can share with family. 🙂

  4. Firstly, I like how relevant and convenient your “Franken-draft” it is to our discussions in the class; it’s also an interesting activity that I myself would like to attempt at some point.
    Secondly, I’d like to think your experience in England would be refreshing, over-reliance with computers and their functions would dull the senses of a writer; computers can sometimes act too much of a “crutch” whereas using it too much for too long would cause writing to be difficult without one.
    Lastly, with Scrivener, which function are you interested in teaching students the most? I asked because I have reservations of programs such as these as well as coding.

  5. Thanks, Vincent. I’ll let you know about Scrivener once I’ve had a chance to play around with it. Whatever technology I decide to use in my classroom will depend on what and where I’m teaching. For instance, when I was at TCC teaching English 111 and 112, the majority of my students were either recent high school grads or students returning to school after an extended gap (or coming to college for the first time). Oftentimes, students were really nervous about the technology that we were using, even with things that are fairly basic such as Google Docs, which could/would then translate into student frustration, or even resistance. There was a great deal of hand-holding required, but it usually worked out in the end. However, I would argue that if I can adapt to and learn new forms of technology at my age, then my students can do it as well! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *