Connected and disconnected writing

By David Beer

I recall watching a documentary about the popular crime novelist Ian Rankin. It’s a documentary that is well worth watching for any writer. The programme followed him through a year in his life. It began in January, as he started preparations for new book, and followed him through to the completion of the publishing cycle. It was a fascinating account of the craft of a professional writer. It began with him sifting through notes and newspaper cuttings to find ideas for the plot, then we saw him working up the plot and writing a draft. The draft was then honed and we saw his response to editorial comments and suggested revisions. Then, somewhere around the middle of the year, the book went to press. Quite a bit of the latter part of the year was then spent on promotional work of various types. I watched the documentary closely for tips. Ian Rankin is a great author and I hoped that I might pick up something from his practices, something that might help. I’ve already spent a lot of time reading Rankin’s work, and I often try to see if I can find a way to capture some of his style and tone in my own work – I can’t manage it, but it gives me something to aim at. I find that reading Rankin’s work whilst I’m working on a writing project really gives me something to aim at, an ideal of clarity, complexity and direct no-nonsense flare.

One of the things that struck me in the documentary was that Rankin worked on an old laptop that had no internet connection. There was another computer in his study with internet connection, but he wrote on this internet free laptop instead. I seem to remember him seeing this as a way of removing distractions or the temptation of procrastination. Disconnected writing is undisturbed writing. When I was looking for tips I thought about this, and I made sure my email was never switched on when I was writing, so as not to receive something that might disturb the flow. Recently though I was forced to follow Rankin’s approach more closely. My old white plastic MacBook stopped connecting to Wi-Fi. I suddenly became a disconnected writer. Remembering the images of Ian Rankin writing away on his disconnected device, I thought that this malfunction might not be a problem.

I soon realised though that being connected is central to my own writing practices. It is not until I lost the ability to connect whilst writing that I realised how central it was. This was probably why I managed to mirror some of Rankin’s other writing practices with the exception of the disconnected laptop. The problem became clear when I started trying to add and check references. I found I kept opening the failing internet connection to check a passage I thought might be wrong or to find some missing information or check a year or titles, I kept forgetting. Completing references seemed impossible. I also tend to write quite a few short pieces for web publications now, and those require inserted hyperlinks in the text, which proved to be impossible on a non-connected device. Plus, my reading practices have changed. I now read lots of blog posts and use other online resources in my writing. As a result I’m finding that I now frequently cite such sources. This is impossible without being able to connect to that source to pull out the URL for the reference section, or simply to search through the reading to find relevant bits. Its possible to write in disconnection, but it is much more difficult. I found being a disconnected writer to be impossible. It was nice to be certain of no distractions, and to avoid the temptation of searching for music or books to buy. But a connection is central to the way I write. This recalls something I read recently in Les Back’s contribution to the recently published book The Craft of Knowledge. In that piece Les reflects on writing and reading in the context of hyper-connectivity. He highlights some of the costs as a well as massive benefits of the information to which we can have instant access as researchers, writers and readers. I’ve also found, like Les, that over time my writing practices have increasingly been reworked to rely upon having a connected device upon which to write.

The routine of writers is something that we ponder about quite a bit, if you search around there are quite a lot of reflections on writing practices. My broken laptop forced me to break my own routine and to buy a new laptop. I see my laptop as being a central part of my writing routine and a defining presence in my writing space, I’ve had it for years and I’ve written most of my work on it, so getting a new one was a strange. My writing desk suddenly looks different and sitting down to write today feels a bit alien. This is the first piece that I’ve written with my changed writing space. I’m using this piece to get warmed up and to test out my new writing device. I’ve lost the shared history I had with my old laptop, it had become the kind of ‘evocative object’ to which Sherry Turkle has referred, it had seen me through some tough writing days. We do develop attachments with such objects, particularly where there is a prolonged history. I wonder if this new device and the disruptions it will bring will change how I write. Maybe it will freshen things up or alter my perspective, perhaps though it will just quickly mould itself into familiarity. Certainly it is good to be a connected writer again and to take advantage of the speed at which I can link, check, add, search and revise. I can understand why Rankin likes to be a disconnected writer, with the undisturbed time and space that it brings. Much as I admire his writing, this is one aspect of his practice that I’ve found I can’t manage to adopt (whether through choice or a broken laptop). Connected writing just seems to be more productive for the type of writing tasks I have – the tricky bit is enabling this connectivity to enrich my writing rather than it allowing it to get in the way.

David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. His most recent book is Punk Sociology (the first chapter of which is open access here). He is on Twitter @davidgbeer

Categories: Sociological Craft

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