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May 19, 2010, 1:18 p.m.

The iPad as a writing coach’s dream

The tech writer Joel Johnson has a piece on Gizmodo about how he’s shifted to using an iPad when traveling instead of a full laptop. His experience matches my own (I love my iPad more than even I’d expected; it’s taken over 90+ percent of my casual web browsing), but what I was interested in was this paragraph. He’s talking about using an external Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad:

For long typing sessions, I found myself putting the keyboard on my lap while placing the iPad off to the side — sometimes not even in direct eyeshot. For longer writing, there’s a sort of freedom that comes from not even looking at the screen while you type. (My friend Quinn Norton said that on longer writing jags, she sometimes uses her wireless keyboard in a completely different room from her computer, a sort of modern twist on the big-keyboard-tiny-screen experience of early laptops like the Epson HX-20, which were for years favored by some journalists even as laptops with larger screens were commonplace.)

Actually, my first thought was to the Tandy 102. I still have one of those in a box somewhere, saved from being tossed out by The Toledo Blade in the late ’90s.

Obviously, writing journalism without seeing what you’re typing is, shall we say, problematic. But what a fascinating way to change up one’s writing rituals. I’m reminded of Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month, the annual November ritual where thousands of people try to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. As I wrote back in 2008, the aggressive word-count requirements and the video-game-like nature of the word-count goal can actually encourage better writing than you think:

In a sense, Nanowrimo has the same appeal as the free writing your newspaper’s writing coach used to recommend (back when your newspaper could afford a writing coach). By releasing yourself from the normal bounds of quality — by killing off your inner editor — you can release yourself from your old habits and really write. Consider it a cleansing ritual for your writing voice.

Needless to say, something like what Quinn Norton is doing wouldn’t work in any but a small portion of journalistic endeavors. I won’t be writing any Lab pieces blind anytime soon. But I can imagine a sort of long essay where an approach like this could be a useful weapon against writer’s block. And I love the idea of acknowledging that our work tools aren’t invisible — that even if we take them for granted, they still influence the work we do with them. I feel like there’s a lesson for news companies that extends far beyond writing tools: being conscious of our tools (and methods, and patterns, and rules), making them visible, and thinking hard about the impact they have on how we do our work.

POSTED     May 19, 2010, 1:18 p.m.
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