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Philosophy of Writing, part 1

Company Blogs November 4, 2011 By Richard Sezov Staff

Writing is something I've been doing for a long time. I mean, a long time--since I was something like 12 years old. To give you a piece of perspective on this (without giving away my age), I was 12 years old in the 1980s. Since then, a lot of things have changed with regard to writing: word usage (I still by default write *worshipped* and *kidnapped*), the process (mindmapping replaces outlining for me), and most especially the tools (pen/pencil and paper, to typewriter, to text-based computer, to graphical computer).

Since the Liferay documentation team has recently undergone a lot of changes with regard to the way we write documentation, I thought it might be cool to start a blog series on what we've done and the philosophy behind why we've done it, with some personal reflections along the way. I hope you find this interesting. If not, feel free to stop reading and move on to some of the other excellent bloggers here on liferay.com. Much of what follows in this first part is somewhat of a response to a blog entry I saw here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/03/creative-writing-better-pen-longhand.

I was bad at penmanship in grammar school. It was the only subject in which I got Cs and Ds consistently. I struggled through capital letters, chafed through lower case letters, and dragged on cursive. Finally, in the 5th grade, when penmanship was no longer a course, I switched myself to writing in all caps, and have stuck with that from then until now. Why? Because I'd been writing in all caps the longest, and the nature of capital letters means you have to slow down and be more careful, thus producing more legible text. And by the 5th grade, none of my teachers cared or said anything about it.

In 6th grade, we started getting these spelling assignments where you'd have a list of new words to spell, and you had to make up sentences in which the word was used. Rather than produce a bunch of dry, boring sentences (e.g., The patient was paralyzed from the waist down.), I'd make up stories and work the spelling words into these. My teachers loved it. I always got an A+ on my spelling sentences--when my teachers could read them.

Somewhere around this time, I got a plastic "children's" typewriter. I think it was only labeled a children's typewriter because it was cheap plastic: it did have metal hammers and a real ribbon. My mom, who is an office manager for an orthopedic surgeon, was always an excellent touch-typist, and she began teaching me to type. At this point in my life, though, I didn't have much use for the skill, because I couldn't use it much for my school work, and I hadn't gotten the idea yet that I might someday become a writer. Handwriting was everything in school work at this time, and I sucked at it.

Also about this time, rather than typewriters, friends whose families had more money than mine began getting Commodore 64 and Apple II computers. I was incredibly interested in these things, but they were way out of reach for me. I remember the envy I felt in 8th grade when we had these bulletin board projects to do and my friends were able to produce posters and banners strung together on dot-matrix paper, while I was stuck with crappy construction paper and markers.
This looks pretty much exactly like the typewriter I had. Image courtesy of Government Auctions.
I don't remember what circumstances brought this about--it was probably getting older and having to start writing papers for school--but in the 7th or 8th grade, my stepfather pulled out for me this old Royal manual typewriter. The thing must've weighed 50 pounds. We lived on the 2nd floor of a two-floor duplex, and I'm sure if I ever dropped it, it would've gone right through the floor and hit our neighbor on the head. It was gun metal gray and had round keys that when you pressed them, went way, way down, slapping a hammer onto a page. At the end of each line a bell would ring, signifying that you needed to finish the word you were working on or hyphenate it. Once you did this, you'd reach up with your left hand and in a smooth motion that my mother demonstrated for me, use a bright, chrome lever to swipe the "platen," or the roller the paper was on, back over to the right to begin a new line. I looked at the machine in awe. Everything about it said to me, "serious writing."  

Coincidentally, sometime before this typewriter appeared, I'd done some of my first bit of creative writing outside of my spelling sentences, just for fun. I'd written a short story that had been inspired by a dream I'd had, and I'd also attempted a magazine based on Mad Magazine which I called Crazy Magazine. Of course, my drawing skills are probably worse than my penmanship skills, so the magazine really had no prayer of going anywhere--but I do remember photocopying it for some friends and handing them out.

The story, though, had some promise, if other people could read it. So I thought maybe I could try my hand at another one--this time, on the typewriter. I was in high school now, and taking a typing class, so if it didn't work out, at least I'd become a faster typist. And so I produced a story called The Deadly System, also loosely based on a dream I'd had (I was having all kinds of weird science-fiction dreams at the time). I stuck this one in a green folder and gave it to a friend of mine--an artist--to read. The story inspired him enough to illustrate the front of the green folder with the main protagonist of the story, which I thought was pretty cool. There are more details here, but they aren't germane to my point.

I was off and running. That story blossomed into several more, and soon I began thinking that I might want to do this writing thing for a living. Upon my high school graduation, I got a PC--a discounted Philips 8088 with a monochrome screen--to take to college with me, where I would be majoring in English. The 386 had just come out, so this machine was already antiquated, but I loved the thing. I did all of my college writing on that PC, in WordStar, where I most appreciated being able to continuously type without have to reach up and swing that platen over at the end of every line. And of course, there was the all-important Backspace key. Right before my senior year, I purchased a 486, and of course I did my writing on that. I have more to say on this subject, but that will have to wait till part two.

The point I want to make here is that for me, the keyboard has always represented serious writing--whether that writing is creative, scholarly, or technical. Writing with a pen always got in my way, and represented extra, tedious work--in other words, re-typing, not to mention deciphering what I wrote--and I thought there were better ways to use my time. I'm happy to write notes in a journal and jot lists, but if I want to do any serious writing, I always sit down at a keyboard. All keyboards are on PCs now, and I definitely have specific thoughts on how best to write on a PC, but they'll have to wait till part two.

If you made it this far, you must have some interest in writing, or in the process of writing. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Threaded Replies Author Date
I relate to your experience in regard to... Cynthia Marie Wilburn November 4, 2011 10:15 AM
Thanks, Cynthia. That's actually a point I... Richard Sezov November 4, 2011 2:41 PM
Writing has always been a major part of my... Joss Sanglier November 9, 2011 2:19 AM
Wow; there's so much here. Thanks for all... Richard Sezov November 9, 2011 2:58 PM
I look forward to it! Sadly, cant seem to find... Joss Sanglier November 9, 2011 4:15 PM
"I struggled through capital letters, chafed... Ivan Cheung November 30, 2011 8:13 PM

I relate to your experience in regard to handwriting presenting challenges in your writing process. I have beautiful handwriting but am left-handed so my papers end up covered in the smears from my hand dragging across my freshly penned ideas. It wasn't until I took Mrs. Fisher's word processing class (for those of you who don't already know, Rich and I went to high school together where he was always recognized as an amazing writer) that I was able to solve that problem. At 65 WPM, I find it much easier to capture my thoughts as they are flowing. Plus it is really nice not having to walk around with a blue ink-stained wrist and palm.
Posted on 11/4/11 10:15 AM.
Thanks, Cynthia. That's actually a point I meant to make but didn't--it is possible to type much faster than one can write, which enables you to get your thoughts down almost--but not quite--as fast as you can think them. So in that sense, it's more efficient.
Posted on 11/4/11 2:41 PM in reply to Cynthia Marie Wilburn.
Writing has always been a major part of my life; to be more accurate, words have been central to what I love. I am a great believer in communication as it is the thing that has lead human beings to dominate life and we ignore the subtleties and intricacies of language at our peril. I am another person who, like you, found handwriting hard; I still do. As a composer and writer my hand seems to fit a musical instrument much more neatly than it does a pen and liberation for me was my mother's typewriter.

Now, rather too many years on, I am wedded to nice big keyboards and nice big monitors. I love the freedom in my mind to express what I want in the way I want to express it and for me the physical realisation of that needs to be as expansive. I hate laptops and have absolutely zero interest in anything smaller. They always feel cramped to use and seem to restrict my thoughts in the same way as they restrict my hands.

My biggest bugbear, however, is how the computer industry has forced me down the route of black keyboards. I hate them! I love black letters on a white or ivory background. A few years ago I had a lovely ergonomic keyboard where everything was comfortably spaced and where all the letters were nice and easy to use. But in the UK at least, Microsoft have stopped selling white ones - we are now all meant to be 12 year old boys trying to be cool using black ones. And the few white ergonomic keyboards that you can buy here cost a fortune and are often simply weird!

The computer world and its main designers seem to have little concept of the human being - how they think, how they communicate, how they walk around - and are determined to cramp us into boxes that they like rather than what might be wonderful for the rest of us.

Which brings me back to writing.

I ache for the day when all documentation, GUIs, help guides, planning and so on are written and designed by writers, by journalists, by editors, by the people who have several centuries behind them of understanding how people communicate and think on the very ordinary, day to day level.

If that ever happens I think modern computer technologies, still very much in their infancy, will finally mature and become a natural extension of how we are rather than a challenge.

Recently I presented a brief to a couple of programmers of an ongoing Liferay project I am desperate to get going. Most briefs would probably be 20 pages or so of lists and diagrams and so on. But I am a writer and have written professionally for 30 years, I just don't think like that. So they got a 20,000 word Google site (great for briefing by the way) walking them through not only the technical requirements but the full expected user experience.

I worried that they were going to panic when faced with great long sentences and full paragraphs, and I suspect they did a little. But I had tried to write gently and with humour, approaching the brief in much the same way as I would an article or a short story.

The comment I got? They both said it was the best documentation and brief they had ever read simply because it drew them right in and made them live the idea of the project not just react to a todo list.

How did I do it? Simple. I sat at my keyboard and I talked. Because that is what language does best.
Posted on 11/9/11 2:19 AM.
Wow; there's so much here. Thanks for all you've said!

I work like you most of the time, though I use a laptop and wouldn't go back to a desktop: I love the portability and the ability to take my work environment everywhere. I currently go between two external keyboards: one you can still get and one that you can't generally get anymore. The one you can't easily find is a Belkin, which I just found on clearance here: http://www.pacificgeek.com/product.asp?id=47627.

I like this keyboard because most of the ergo boards split in the wrong spot: the 6 key is on the left instead of the right, and I learned to hit the 6 with my right index finger. The Belkin board has the 6 key in the correct spot: on the right.

The other board I use more often. It's a Unicomp keyboard with the spring loaded keys like the old IBM model M. You can get these here: http://pckeyboards.stores.yahoo.net. I find this incredibly comfortable to type on, and the satisfying click of the keys gives me that subconscious feeling that work is getting done. :-)

Regarding writing documentation, I've had some similar experiences. I was once told by a senior executive at a Fortune 500 company that my Request for Proposal for a project I was managing was the best one he'd ever read. Presumably, this was because I approached it from the perspective of the companies that were going to receive it, rather than from the perspective of my company describing what we wanted out of the project.

More recently, after my experience with Liferay in Action, I'm persuaded that there should be no such thing as dry, formal documentation. It should be written in a crisp, entertaining, casual style that's fun to read. But I'll get to that in a future post. :-)

Thanks for your comments!
Posted on 11/9/11 2:58 PM in reply to Joss Sanglier.
I look forward to it!

Sadly, cant seem to find either of those keyboards over in the UK
Posted on 11/9/11 4:15 PM in reply to Richard Sezov.
"I struggled through capital letters, chafed through lower case letters, and dragged on cursive."

Just wanted to say....I really enjoyed this sentence emoticon
Posted on 11/30/11 8:13 PM.