Writing is Easy
Writing is easy.
Well it is, isn’t it? Of course, I mean the physical process, not the creative one. Developing the theme, plotting, developing convincing characters and expressing all this in a way that will capture readers is as taxing as it must have ever been. Bringing a novel from concept to finished volume demands dedication and hard work, and involves riding a roller coaster of emotions. This has always been so. But the act of getting those words down has surely never been easier.
I’ve just read Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. As an aside, I’m ashamed to say that until I did so I thought Villette must be a person, not a place! It’s a long book, in the 3 volume tradition of victorian novels. If you visit Haworth Parsonage you can see the room where Charlotte and her sisters worked. It’s easy to imagine her sitting at the table in the lamplight, writing page after page in longhand using a quill pen. Same for Dickens, and Thackeray, and Hardy, and Virginia Wolf, and every writer up to the advent of cheap and portable personal computers in the last 25 or so years. Yes, before that there were typewriters, but I did try writing with one of those once and found it hopeless, far more cumbersome than writing by hand.
If you want a vivid illustration of the sheer labour that must have been involved in writing some of the great novels of the past, consider ‘War and Peace’. It’s over half a million words and even in an edited version runs to more than a thousand printed pages. Leo Tolstoy’s wife copied out the manuscript nine times as her husband revised it. Yes, nine! Think of the time and commitment there. An even more dramatic example is Proust’s ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’, which weighs in at 1,125,000 words! All written out by hand. Even those writers who devised their own shorthand for the drafts had to produce a fair copy at some stage; perhaps only to find, as the Brontës did with their first attempts, that no publisher was interested.
I contrast these efforts with my own experience writing. I sit at a keyboard and I am able to cut, paste, alter, spell-check, dip into a thesaurus, check a word meaning, reorganise, with ease. If a passage doesn’t work I can put it aside on a clipboard and address it later. If I want to re-order the chapters I can. I use Scrivener, which makes all this sort of thing a doddle (highly recommended, by the way, if you don’t know it). There’s an upside and a downside to this. The upside is the democratisation of creative writing. The downside is that with the process so easy there’s an enormous amount of fiction about. That makes it harder for all of us to get our work noticed, whether we self-publish or are trying to interest an agent.
I acknowledge that there are still writers – and some very good ones too – who hate the computer and prefer to write out their work longhand. They tell me they value the physical connection they have with the paper. Some feel, too, that it gives them a better link with their readers, and as a result they find their experience of the writing process more intense. I take my hat off to them. For the rest of us, writing is easy.