Beset By Red Squiggles

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. Every day, after I couldn’t put it off any longer, I would sit down and practice a piece of music. Whenever I made a mistake, I would stop, go back to a point just before the mistake, and start again. The problem with this technique was that I never learned to play anything all the way through without stopping. Even if I didn’t make a mistake, I would automatically stop and repeat the difficult parts several times before continuing. This became an ingrained habit that took ages to break.

A few years later, my family bought a PC, which I used to type my school assignments. Like everyone else in the world, I quickly discovered how easy it was to edit on the screen. No messing about with white-out or correction tape, just “backspace” and start again. I learned to type on a computer, so I never learned to type without the crutch of a backspace key. For a long time after that, I automatically hit the backspace key after certain words I typically mistyped, even if I had typed them correctly.

Now I have a modern word processing application which will check my spelling, grammar, capitalization, and even my formatting while I type. One would think this would leave me free to concentrate better on the writing itself, but I find the reverse is true. All those little red squiggles distract me from the words I’ve written. I don’t care if my words are misspelled until I’m finished writing and into the editing phase.

I think today’s word processors are too focused on the editing phase, and their “helpful” distractions make it more difficult to write coherent prose that flows logically from one sentence to the next. I find myself falling into a stacatto, disjointed pattern of short sentences and disconnected paragraphs, more like an outline than prose.

Gary King wrote recently, “It’s up to us to ensure that the tools we use are optimizing the important tasks, not the trivial ones.” That’s why when I want to get any serious writing done, I launch Emacs full-screen.