Is The Pen Mightier Than Microsoft (s)Word? (by Marian Smith, July 2021)

On Christmas Day 2019 I received the usual gift from my sister, an A6 2020 diary. But since retiring I found I wasn’t using a diary so much, but as I couldn’t resist those empty pages, I decided to jot down a few notes about what I did each day instead. Trips out, what we went to see at the cinema, that sort of thing.

Of course, if I’d known how 2020 was going to pan out, I would have asked for a bigger diary. For the first two months I would barely fill the space for each day; my main focus was the ongoing problem with our boiler and the awful weather – remember Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis? The 29th January marked my first attempt at banana pancakes. At the time I was giving scant attention to world events apart from a passing comment on the 31 January ‘We leave the EU today’.

The first recorded death from coronavirus in China was on the 11th January but this momentous event passed me by (‘Went to Chester with Maggie late morning, had lunch in Bean and Cole’). Then, gradually the pandemic started to touch our lives and, on the 4th March, I wrote ‘there are now 85 cases in the UK’.

I recorded events in the order in which they happened, rather than by their importance, hence the entry on the 5th March: ‘Dropped my laptop while coming down from the gallery at Gladstone’s – it bounced off every step. Used the ‘F’ word out loud – doubtless eyebrows were raised. Turned on the car radio, first coronavirus death in the UK and now over 100 cases. All in all, a very bad day.’

By mid-March new words and phrases had started to be part of our conversation: lockdown, self-isolating, social distancing and Zoom.  And of course, there were the ongoing antics of Donald Trump. By the 29th July, the A6 diary was full and I had to buy another notebook. I recorded the impact of coronavirus on our daily lives. I logged the rising number of cases and the death toll, and I wrote about the daily government briefings at which they announced the ever-increasing restrictions. But there was always the underlying belief that life would be back to normal by Christmas.

Looking back at those entries from a year ago, it’s a sobering read.  Given that it is an account of an historic year, it would be tempting to add some telling phrases such as ‘read today of some weird bug which started in an animal market in China’.

But where is the honesty in that? A diary rewritten with the benefit of hindsight stops being a diary. Only in the raw, unedited version, do the accidentally prophetic entries become the gems, not to mention those events which only took on significance later on, like my husband’s eight days of persistent coughing back in January.

So, this is the case for handwriting. Once that pen touches the paper, the words are set in stone. My ‘editing’ head doesn’t get a look in, because any subsequent changes would stand out and spoil a neat page of my very best handwriting. The only way I could go back and make those changes look like they were my original words, would be to copy the whole diary out again and, to be honest, I can’t be bothered.

But If I think that rewriting an A6 diary is too much like hard work, what about a full-length novel?

I believe a lot of people prefer to handwrite a first draft and then type it on a computer. Perhaps the pen feels like a conduit between the brain and the paper, the ink is the blood through which the inspiration flows. And that’s fine, because we have a choice.

But before Bill Gates made our writing lives a whole lot easier, authors must have been constantly editing and redrafting in long hand.  Jane Eyre was almost 184,000 words long, Oliver Twist 156,000, with War and Peace coming in at a whopping 587,000 words. The classics of literature could be overflowing with ‘darlings’ that never got killed off.

We are so lucky. When we type our work, we know that we can edit it again and again. That gives us the freedom to write that rough first draft, happy in the knowledge that with constant reworking and polishing, we can produce something which is sparkly and memorable.

I wonder what would have been the end result if Bronte, Dickens and Tolstoy had access to Microsoft Word or Scrivener.  Would their novels have been substantially different (though I’m sure no less memorable) if they had been able to cut and paste or find and replace? Who knows, perhaps Charles Dickens may have toyed with the idea of renaming his eponymous hero Douglas Copperfield, but then looked at the pile of neatly handwritten pages and thought “Sod that.”

I still enjoy the feel of pen on paper and so now, in the middle of 2021, the diary habit has stayed with me. But I’m looking forward to a time when we have put some distance between ourselves and 2020, our lives are back on solid ground and domestic trivia will once more fill the pages. I’m looking forward to a time when a year of my life will fit neatly into an A6 diary.

I also hope that one day, given the choice, my grandchildren would rather read my diary, written in a hand which is unique to me, rather than a printed Word file.