The Tools We Use for Thought Processing

Most people seldom see their words, only hear them. Writing is like capturing thoughts in amber. In the 21st century the common denominator of written communication is the text, which gives scant exercise for thought processing. Writing is our way of making our minds look sharp to others in the same way we edit our appearance with clothes and makeup. Sadly, we judge people more on their physical appearance than on their mental looks. When reading social media, note how your friend’s words reveal their mind’s fashion. Few people realize how unimaginative their inner styles appear, with their clichéd, repetitive, second hand thoughts. Few people on Facebook create original thoughts, but link to other people’s ideas they find stylish.

Learning to write is like learning to put on makeup, eventually you can transform a ordinary mug into something sexy. Learning to write is like going to the gym to buff up your thinking muscles. The tools we use to write, to process our thoughts, are like the tools we use to make our bodies look beautiful. Bodies and minds have a certain degree of plasticity that allows us to shape who we are. Writing is all about shaping the mind to produce clear and precise thoughts.

There is something special about putting words to paper. When humans went from memorizing words to writing them down, a magical transformation happened to civilization, as beautiful chronicled in The Information by James Gleick. Can you imagine the sense of wonder those Sumerians felt long ago putting stylus to clay and realizing their words could last long past their own lives? That must have been mind blowing – sort of like discovering the World Wide Web back in the early 1990s.

As someone who desires to write, I constantly observe my limitations with forming words into structures that communicate what I’m thinking. Our thoughts are jumbled and disorganized, and I assume other people are like me, in that we don’t think clearly and exact. In our minds we don’t automatically generate organized paragraphs. Putting words to paper is a way to crystalize inner chatter, but it’s also a translation from vague mental impressions to a linear progression of words on screen. From first draft to last, our thoughts constantly churn, so writing becomes rewriting, as we seek to recursively shape a single flash of inspiration out of constantly changing insights to that original idea.

Do the tools we write with affect how we express ourselves? Would authors tell their stories differently if they wrote it with pencil, pen, typewriter, computer or by dictating it into their iPhone? Would a novel written on a desktop be different from one written on a laptop? I started thinking about this when Nicholas Carr mentioned Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter in his book The Swallows. Carr’s book is about how the Internet is ruining our attention span for long narratives. Nietzsche switched from pen to an early typewriter that was called The Writing Ball, or The Hansen Writing Ball, a beautiful Victorian era machine that any steampunk fan would kill to acquire.

The Writing Ball 3

Nietzsche’s friends told him his writing changed when he started using this typewriter. Nietzsche got painful headaches from writing with his pen, and the typewriter allowed him to write with his eyes closed. Evidently, the machine altered how he expressed his thoughts. It empowered his writing.  Mark Twain, had tried this twenty years earlier but failed. Twain was one of the first writers to use a typewriter, in the 1870s. He gave them up, claiming typewriting made him swear. But his manuscript for Life on the Mississippi was submitted as typewritten from his handwritten manuscript.

From Twain to now, writers have migrated from pen to typewriter to computer. Some still write with pens. I have met writers, like Joe Haldeman, who prefers to write his first drafts by pen – and he uses many different colored pens, and writes in bound volumes of blank paper, with his own illuminations like ancient monks at their scrolls. When you read or listen to writers talk about how they capture their words, it’s obvious that the tool does matter.

I never spent much time writing with a pen, but I wished I had. I remember in junior high buying cheap Sheaffer fountain pens and trying. Maybe if I had owned a Monte Blanc pen I would have fallen in love with handwriting. Would I have become a different person if I had become a pen and paper writer? People who use pen or pencil claim to have a more intimate relationship with their words. That is probably true, because they shape each word with a skill that is unique to the writer. And I imagine elation or pain shows through in the tracks of the pen unlike the uniform stamp of the letter a typewriter makes on paper, or the lowly pixel leaves on a LED screen.


I adapted to machine writing a very long time ago.  I started with a hand-me-down manual typewriter, but soon my parents bought me a cheap Smith-Corona electric typewriter, probably thinking it would be good for my school work. I spent years with that machine, eventually typing mimeograph stencils to make fanzines and apazines. Typewritten pages captures words, but you must completely retype the page after each edit. Producing second and third drafts were tension filled endeavors because any typo caused outbursts of anger. Retyping was stressful.

I’ve looked through my possessions but I can’t find any relics from that era of my life. How the Smith-Corona allowed me to express my thoughts would have been different from how I express them now. Typing allowed me to write as fast as I think, and I seldom retyped to produce clean second copies. So my original thoughts would have been preserved. If every time I rewrote something in this essay was called a draft, there might be hundreds.


Ultimately, it appears writers get to the same ending when their handwritten, typewritten or computer written text gets set in print. I’m not sure if a powerful AI program could tell from looking at a book what kind of writing tool the writer used to compose his story. I suppose all the editing functions of a word processer can be done with pen and ink and using the mind as a word buffer. But I don’t know. The more I read about how thinking can change the brain because the brain is so plastic, I’m thinking our tools do reshape our minds. I’m just not sure if they effect the final output.

I loved the hum of electric writing, and eventually fell in love with the golf-ball typewriter, the IBM Selectric, the standard writing machine in offices for decades. I could sit for hours just dumping my thoughts out onto paper. I wish I had examples of that writing. I’m pretty sure it was as ugly as a hex software dump. What changed my life dramatically was combining the computer and typewriter.


The first word processor I used on a job, back in 1977, was a standalone machine called an IBM MT-ST machine, which combined a Selectric typewriter with two magnetic tape drives. Although, cumbersome to use, the MT-ST machine was a revelation. It took on the job of retyping drafts by remembering all the perfectly type portions of the earlier draft. You played out tape one that contain the original draft until you reached the edit, skipped over the bad part, typed in the new sequence, which was also recorded on tape two, and continued copying the good content until the next edit. When done you had a new fresh paper copy and a recording of it on tape. This was one giant leap for mankind when it came to writing – word processing.


Using the MT-ST at work made me want to have one at home, but that was out of the question until the price of computers came down.

By 1978 my work bought an Apple II computer which I didn’t get to use in my job, but coveted and borrowed when I could. It converted me to the microcomputer revolution. I eventually got to use a lot of different Apple II and III models, and sadly had the job to surplus a lab with over forty of them, at the end of their era. Writing on early microcomputers was iffy at best, requiring learning a lot of arcane commands, but it was word processing.

Around 1981 we bought a CPT machine to replace the MT-ST, that looked like the one below. I went shopping with my boss and we also looked at the legendary Xerox Star which I really wanted, but they didn’t buy. Man, it would have been great to claim I was one of the early users. Just after getting the CPT machine I switched jobs and got to install and train people on the new IBM PC.

CPT word processor

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had found a way for me to own my own word processing machine, when I started  buying early 8-bit home computers like the Atari 400 and Commodore 64 that had simple word processing programs. It was then when I gave up typewriters. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, I was on a never-ending quest to find the perfect word processor program that suited my personal needs. For a while I thought it would be Word Perfect. But once Windows 95 came out, and I got to use Microsoft Word, that has been my tool of writing ever since. Word has changed a lot over the last twenty years, always refining how words leave our fingers and are stored digitally, only to be reorganized over and over again.

Even though I’m enchanted by the memory of handwriting, I could never go back. Me and my keyboard are one. I sometimes wonder if I can jump into the future and talk to my computer, but I can’t imagine editing and rewriting by verbal commands. I suppose if Word adds a Siri like helper so I can say, “Read me the second paragraph.” And then I tell the computer, “Write this sentence in its place,” and dictate a whole new sentence, I could begin to adapt.

Can you imagine Homer composing The Iliad? He never got to write anything down, and all the drafts were in his head. I wonder if he got friends to help, by reciting a scene to someone and then asking them to recite it back to see how it sounded. I use to have a speech synthesizer read my essays back to me. It was very helpful.

So far I’ve only covered mechanical tools for thought processing. Hypercard, Gopher, HTML, Wikis and blogging all changed how I processed my thoughts for others to see. Now I can add pictures and videos, and I can link to other documents. A document on the web is much richer than one printed on paper. One reason the web is so popular is it does allow for easy self-expression. If you follow your friends regularly on Facebook you eventually get to learn how they think in a way different from just listening to them talk. Young people might be evolving past written words to expressing thoughts in voice and video.

Large books have always been the most complicated expressions of crystalized thinking we have. Some take decades to write and involve interviewing thousands of people and reading thousands of articles and books. They reflect armies of thinkers working towards a single vision. However, the more information we have to process the harder it is to mentally visualize the work. There are tools for that too, like my current one, Xmind, which has just released v. 6.  Writers have been using tools like outlines, index cards, databases, spreadsheets, OneNote, Evernote, and all kinds of software tools to focus research for writing. I think Mind Mapping software is very useful, and potentially can be far more effective than I’ve succeeded with it so far. It’s like putting little abstractions of thoughts into bubbles, and then connecting the bubbles in creative ways.

Blogging has been a wonderful tool for thought processing. I’d recommend making it an integral part of K-12 education. Most kids are required to write, and even write research papers, but they are only read by teachers. If students knew that anyone would be reading their work, including their friends, they might try harder at learning to write well. Peer pressure is a powerful formative tool. As a thought processor, blogging combines the best elements of word processing with HTML, multimedia and networking. Combining a smartphone and blogging makes a kid into a documentary film maker, magazine writer, editor, and publisher, on equal standing with The New York Times with potential access to a world-wide audience.


1 thought on “The Tools We Use for Thought Processing”

  1. I’ve always been suspicous that the large number of huge books since the late 1970s was caused by access to computers. It became easier to do so. So a lot of writers worte large novels. In other words I think you’re right that an AI might have some idea what platform the story got written on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s