The Hess Report


Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Curious Effect of Tools 

I was told back in my days in Penn's writing program that the tools you use to do the actual work of writing can dramatically affect what you write. This may seem strange to non-writers who would tend to think: the story's the story, isn't it? It turns out that writing long-hand (i.e., pen and paper) produces a certain word count for a particular topic or scene. Writing from the exact same starting point using a keyboard produces a noticeably higher word count. At the top end of the scale is dictation, either direct or recorded for later transcription, which results in the highest count.

It probably has something to do with the speed with which we're able to transcribe our thoughts into verbalization. When we are actually composing speech, humans typically think at about 200-250 words per minute (this figure is my guess -- no documentation available). Under normal conditions, we speak around 120-150 wpm. I type at around 90 wpm when I'm in a groove. I, along with most people, hand write significantly more slowly than that. What that means is that our thoughts are running faster than our output mechanism can handle, leading to flubbed speech (57 states, anyone?) but also apparently allowing some extra brain power for pre-processing. While this word count effect is real, it does not exist in a vacuum: the hand-written copy is actually more dense in meaning and in the encoding of action and thought. A continuum is created that runs from this denser copy through dictation, which produces many more words to generate the same amount of meaning. Real content is diffused.

My guess, though, is that the noted effect extends even beyond the extra processing power to the underlying thoughts about the medium. I've been wondering about this lately as I've noted that the application I use for writing (I'm exclusively keyboard based) affects my results. Writing in a full-fledged program like Word or OpenOffice Writer tends to produce longer stuff. Working in a simple text-pad app like TextEdit on the Mac, WordPad on a Win box or Gedit on Linux produces briefer material. Last on the list is when I write posts like this one directly into the online editor of something like Blogger. It's almost like the trappings that surround the program affect the way I approach what I'm writing. Word has tons of bells and whistles. WordPad is streamlined. With an online editor, I'm not even going to be saving a copy of the work on my local machine.

Of course, it's possible that I self-select my writing environment based on the guessed-at complexity of the project, which in turns produces the same result. However, if you think about how each medium is perceived -- physical paper to letters on a screen to sound waves -- the effect persists. To most of us, that progressin defines a declining scale of permanence and authority, and probably affects the thought processes behind each as they are created. All I know for sure is that you should be glad I didn't write this post via dictation.

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