Putting quill to parchment.

Many authors are asked the same questions over and over again. One of these is often Do you write longhand or into a computer?

But however repetitive it becomes, it’s a question worth considering. A commercial novel averages around 80,000 words, and that’s just the final product, not taking into account the many redrafts that will inevitably have gone before.

Let’s consider the different ways that different authors physically externalise their words, and the alternative approaches that could be taken.

Learn to touch-type

One of the best choices I ever made at school was learning how to type with 10 fingers, as it’s a skill that served me well in my working life. There are a couple of huge advantages over using just two or three fingers: your word speed can more than double, and it spreads the effort between all your fingers rather than straining just a few of them.

Be advised that it takes a while to master initially, but you’ll eventually be able to do it without conscious thought. A word about tablet computers as well. These have virtual keyboards, so it is possible to touch-type on these, but you’ll need to keep an eye on your finger position as you won’t be able to feel for the keys.

Choose an alternative keyboard

It’s a well-known story that the QWERTY keyboard was originally designed to slow down typists as the first machines were prone to jamming. It’s less well-known that the jamming problem had been solved by the 1930s. This allowed August Dvorak to invent an improved keyboard to help typists increase their speed by placing the most common letters on the middle row.

Sadly, it failed to catch on widely, but it is available on every major operating system. I’ve used the Dvorak layout for some years and it has the edge over QWERTY in terms of word speed. To increase it further, you could try a chorded keyboard. Clerks of court and TV subtitlers use these to keep up with the pace of normal speech. I haven’t used one myself.

Open your notepad

Unless you’re employing a shorthand system, this slows down your thoughts to the speed of the pen or pencil, and some authors are convinced it makes for higher quality writing. Martina Cole claims to be able to tell when a novel has been written directly into a laptop, while James Ellroy sends his handwritten work to a typist.

Be aware, however, that there’s no backup unless you’re using carbon paper. I’ve been told that a highly regarded author was forced to rewrite a large section of a novel when the paper blew out of an open window.

Be a dictator

Barbara Cartland famously dictated her words to an assistant, sometimes producing around 7000 words a day. Happily, you no longer need to pay someone for this service, as voice dictation is supported by many devices.

When I first tried this in the late 1990s, I gave it up as a bad joke. It. Required. Each. Word. To. Be. Spoken. Individually. Today’s software works with normal speech to a reasonable degree of accuracy without any training, even with my Scottish accent, although I recommend doing some to improve it even further.

I often use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which can also be used to control many of your computer’s functions. In my experience, the actual dictation is fairly quick; it’s the formatting that tends to take a while.

Unconventional means

Probably most famous user of assistive technology is Stephen Hawking. He uses a switch activated by his cheek to choose words and letters from a computer screen.

But another author had to use a more difficult method. Jean-Dominique Bauby was struck by Locked-in Syndrome, so he could only blink and move his neck in a restricted manner. He wrote every word of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by listening to somebody physically reading out the alphabet and blinking at the correct letter.


There are many ways to put your words out there, and not all of these will work for every author. For me, it’s through necessity that I use voice dictation and handwriting because my fingers are currently strained with typing too much. So until they improve, that’s how I’ll be writing my work.

But I’ve long thought that when you’re forced to take a certain action, you can always learn something useful from it. And that’ll be the theme of next week’s entry.


Frm Tlgrph to Txt.

Every so often, some newspaper or another carries a report on the declining literacy standards of young people, usually focussing the blame on text message speak. I’m not worried about this happening. To illustrate my point, let’s have a look at how txt spk originated. The first SMS was sent on 3 December 1992 by Neil Papworth, who used a PC to send the message Merry Christmas to Richard Jarvis from Vodafone. The message didn’t receive a reply because no phone was capable of it.

All right, Nokia fans. Get ready to drool.

But that problem was solved the following year using a method that already existed. Certainly in the UK, phone number pads were already marked with letters as an aide mémoire when calling other towns and cities, and it’s very similar to the layout of a modern mobile. Codes are no longer assigned like this, yet if you remove the 01 from many modern area codes, you can often guess the original mnemonic. Perth is 01738, equating to 01-PET; while Hastings is 01424, probably resolving to 01-HAI. It’s an efficient system when encoding a very short message such as the codename of a city, however it becomes more cumbersome with a more complex message.

A simple question such as Where are you, John? could become a nightmare to tap out, as you would need to press extra buttons to write a capital W and J, while the first two letters of you need three presses each. That’s not even mentioning the comma or question mark, both of which could be buried in a sub-menu. No wonder people would write whr r u john, reducing button pushes to 22, assuming one press of the 0 or 1 key acts as the space-bar. That’s just over the 20 required to spell the full message on a standard keyboard.

The boffins have improved mobile input since then, at first with T9 predictive text, and now with touch-screen QWERTY keyboards. So too with text messages. By habit, people still shorten messages and miss out punctuation for brevity. Sometimes it can be a challenge to read, but the brain is particularly good at filling in blanks. In fact, the creators of Teeline shorthand knew this back in 1968, and their system removes the internal vowels from most words.

It’s worth noting that the QWERTY layout is a historical hangover too: a deliberately inefficient design intended to slow down typists and stop the first typewriters from jamming. Yet it still endures even although jams were eventually almost eliminated, and other layouts made available, such as Dvorak, which I generally use. So if QWERTY is still around, why am I not worried about txt spk being with us for the long term? Because we’ve been here before, and it wasn’t even within living memory.

When the telegraph was introduced in the mid-1850s, its pricing model was pay-per-word, so people naturally wanted to communicate as cheaply as possible. Businesses quickly learnt to abbreviate sentences into single words, and enterprising authors also wrote code books for the general public. Here is a wonderful example of where a sender has encoded the important points of a shipping accident into just five words. I’ll bet that in the latter half of the 19th century, people thought all communication would end up being that way. For instance, there is a novel from 1880 called Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes [CONTAINS SPOILERS] about a couple who meet via telegraph. And yet, despite the subject matter, the description is rich and colourful, just like the majority of documents from the period.

In short, so to speak, text messages are still brief because of old technology, and telegraph messages were brief for cost reasons. But proper English as a whole was not greatly affected by telegraphy in the late 1800s, despite its popularity, and that’s why I doubt it’ll be killed off by cellular telephony in this era, the early 2000s.