Writing with Digital Distractions

I blamed our hyper-connected technologies, but are they really the cause?

Gateway Bubble. Illustration by Leona Hu Hudelson

The steam infused with the scent of coffee wafted from the warm ceramic mug next to me. I inhaled deeply, then laid my fingers on the keyboard. Staring at the empty screen, my fingers stroke the keys rhythmically as my thoughts poured out.

The blinking text cursor began to spit out letters that formed words into paragraphs. To keep myself focused, I turned off all notification alerts remotely connected to the internet. These popping message bubbles are devils. They are ready to emerge without notice to interrupt my steady stream of thought.

By blocking my notifications, I was able to get down 500 words. But distractions were still lurking around the corner. Three simple keywords I typed in the search field: Artificial Intelligence Research — returned hundreds of related articles. Two hours passed before I dug myself out of the sea of hyperlinks — and still, my 500 words remained untouched.

Despite my attempt to prevent distractions, I once again lost my battle to the digital devil. If the internet and digital devices were to blame, should I just go back to the basics of writing with pens and paper? Not so fast.

As of a few decades ago, the evolution of the digital technology has brought us powerful personal computing machines: laptops, smartphones, tablets, and the Internet of Things. We’ve turned ordinary daily objects into specialized that have access to the world’s store of information. As a result, the prevalence of these digital devices has dramatically affected how we write.

With the multitude of software and websites available, we can access endless information and multi-task to the extreme. We can reference any books ever published with just a couple of clicks, and we can cite academic papers from anywhere — without stepping foot in a library. The continuous advancement of speech recognition and spellcheck have made proofreading effortless; Digital books let us jump from page to page and search our highlighted notes by keywords; Digital music pipes in from the cloud creating ambiance for us when we write.

What a dream this must have been for writers before the digital era.

Long before all the connected digital devices, people wrote with pen on paper. Similar to laptops and smartphones, paper notebooks are mostly portable. I have a palm-sized notebook that I carry everywhere in my bag. I jot down whatever I need to remember when my smartphone is out of reach. Even with my deteriorating, messy handwriting, I’m more likely to remember my notes when I write by hand than typing them on my laptop.

According to a recent cognitive psychology study at Princeton University, college student participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests in both factual content and conceptual understanding when compared to those who took handwritten notes. Based on the findings, researchers came to the conclusion that longhand notetakers tend to be more selective on what information to include in the notes.

To avoid digital distractions, some professional writers have turned to writing with typewriters again. Typewriters have the magic of turning sound into letters, rhythm into words. When I was first introduced to a mechanical typewriter as a pupil, I was mesmerized by the clicking sound resulted from each keystroke. Mechanical typewriters print legible and stylish typefaces on papers instantly. It gives a sense of tangible satisfaction. Because of the immediate printing and its inability to edit or revise afterwards, it forces writers to think thoroughly before they type.

“If you want to force yourself to really focus and make every word count, the typewriter is an unyielding tool for forcing your thoughts to take shape before you commit them to the page,” says Jason Fitzpatrick, a contributing writer at Lifehacker.

Writing on non-digital mediums such as paper notebooks or typewriters helps us retain important information and focus; however, the biggest hurdle with analogue writing tools is the limited shareability. Whether it’s accessing references easily or sharing with a broader reader base, writing software and the internet provide an undeniable advantage. With a broader audience, I can receive direct and diverse feedback. The direct connections between writers and readers wouldn’t be possible without digital devices and internet providing the platform to facilitate.

The act of sharing also helps motivate writers. A recent study by Pew Research and American Life Survey revealed that digital devices proliferated plagiarism among the surveyed high school students. Simultaneously, students were motivated to produce more because they were able share their writings with more audience and get direct feedback. As the renowned novelist Paulo Coelho once stated, “writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things — thoughts, ideas, opinions.”

Technology will continue to evolve, and our daily life will inevitably become more digitally connected. As American smartphone users check their phones on an hourly basis, we become increasingly inseparable from the internet. Writing with digital devices such as our laptops or smartphones gives us the opportunity to multitask, as well as open up the veritable Pandora’s Box of distractions of social networks, video streaming and instant messaging.

Instead of going back to writing with non-digital tools and endlessly fighting with the distractions caused by digital technologies, I should probably improve my own attention deficit first.

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