No Piece of Software Will Make You A Better Writer ✍️

But there are other things that will

Image courtesy of the author

I see tweets and posts all the time saying things along the lines of “without xyz app I couldn’t have written this book/article/thesis/anypieceofwriting!“. I understand what these writers are saying, but the truth is… yes, you could.

Until quite recently, all writers produced their work long-hand. Then they moved on to typewriters, then computers. Some still use the older techniques, or some hybrid. I do. I know that if I trap my work within a glass and metal cage too early, it suffers. The digital age offers far greater convenience and speed than the analogue tools used by our creative predecessors. But while seductive, that’s not necessarily for the best.

Emily Brontë wrote on small pieces of paper that could easily be hidden should anyone call…

Word processors, digital cameras, music creation apps – they’re all just aids to our creativity. In reality, they don’t contribute to the process of creation, which comes from within. In fact, it could be argued that because such tools tend to increase the speed at which we create, they actually have an adverse effect.

Speed is not creativity’s friend. “Frictionless workflows”, shortcuts and streamlining can make things faster, but greater speed can deny us the benefits of the subconscious mind – an immensely useful tool that’s available to us all, for free. But it needs to be used properly, given time, worked at like a relationship.

According to social psychologist Graham Wallas, there are four stages that are essential to the creative process:

  • Preparation, which equates to learning and examining
  • Incubation: pondering, percolation
  • Illumination: making unexpected connections
  • Verification: evaluation and checking

It’s in the incubation and illumination stages that the subconscious mind comes into its own. And we have to give this time and space. Active thinking plays a relatively minor role in the overall creative process: the subconscious mind, the tip of the iceberg, is a far more important contributor.

Ideas can’t be forced or reproduced quickly; making any kind of art is slow. There’s no cookie-cutter formula or super-efficient system that will enable the easy formulation of great ideas. And really there shouldn’t be, because it should be about the process, not the product.

It’s about the process. I get a certain amount of satisfaction from the finished piece, but for me the buzz comes at the moment the idea is conceived
– John Squire, artist and former Stone Roses guitarist

Development of ideas can benefit from slower, less convenient tools. Using a pen or pencil is slow, leading to more thinking time, and thus greater opportunities for unexpected connections to be made.

When we’re not actively working on something, our subconscious casts bad ideas aside, stores those that might be useful, makes connections, looks for solutions. Have you ever woken up in the morning with the answer to a problem? It’s exactly that. If we do things too quickly, we don’t give these subconscious processes a chance to occur.

And don’t get me started on things like Grammarly or AI writing systems. Many people seem to think that the availability of such “tools” means they don’t have to learn the rules, that a piece of software will do the work for them.

Let’s get something straight here: you have to learn the rules.

Punctuation, spelling, all that jazz – they’re essentials. Even if only because learning these rules will mean it’s so much more satisfying when you eventually work out how to break them.

There’s only one thing you really need if you want to write or create any other kind of art well…


It’s practising even when we’re sick of it that makes all the difference

If we want to be good at something difficult – play a musical instrument, make pottery, write poems, stories or songs – we need to practise, and practise a lot. This is true regardless of any level of “talent” we may or may not have. Through practise we’re more easily able to develop ways to express our thoughts and feelings in ways that connect with other people.

Sure, practise can be boring. It’s practising even when we’re sick of it that makes all the difference. The problem comes from the fact that when we’re bored, whether in our creative endeavours, work or relationships, we seek novelty; and that’s when we’re in danger of losing focus, or trying something new and exciting that we don’t really need.

Such as a fancy piece of software, without which we simply couldn’t have written that book.

Yes, you could.

People tend to underestimate things: the amount they can achieve in a certain amount of time; the amount of planning that’s required to complete a given project; the amount of work involved. This is especially true when focussing on the result or outcome rather than the steps required to get there. Those who give the process greater importance have more realistic expectations, perform better, and are more motivated.

Modern writing applications offer notes, annotations, snapshots, backups, word counts, reading times and a whole raft of other bells and whistles that, while (arguably) nice-to-haves, are not essential. They increase speed, which boosts output, which makes us feel better about ourselves. And maybe we’re prepared to overlook certain shortcomings. How many posts have you seen expounding the virtues of quantity over quality, of not being a perfectionist, of just getting stuff out there? Applications can facilitate this, but is putting rushed, imperfect work into the public domain what you really want?

With more time available we can be more creative because we’re not trying to force things, which in turn increases the quality of what we do, and allows the subconscious mind to do its work. So trust in the process and make the most of the tools you already have.

If we really want to write that book, we’ll do so even if only the basics are available to us. All that we need to write is a pen or pencil and a piece of paper, not an expensive digital device.

Emily Brontë wrote on small pieces of paper that could easily be hidden should anyone call, so determined was she to hide from the world the fact that she wrote at all. Yet she still produced Wuthering Heights. Maybe she just really wanted to write.

The question is, do you?


My Creative Process
Strategies to let your fiction fly
Ulysses Knocks Scrivener Off Pedestal
John Squire on The Culture Show

I’m a writer, Royal Literary Fund Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach.
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