Bashers & Swoopers
How the tools we use for writing are letting us down.
Reading is a linear process. One word after another, from the start to the end. Some people write that way too. Kurt Vonnegut called them Bashers.
“Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”
If you’re a Basher, technology has had you covered for about 300 years. Early writing machines were noisy, unreliable and slow — which made them perfect for bashing.
But they were also inflexibly linear. One word after another, one page after another. The mechanism of the typewriter pulled the writing inexorably forward.
300 years later, the vast majority of our tools are all still organised around this idea of a linear document. Word, Pages, iA Writer, even the editor here at Medium. For all the advances in technology, writing in these tools still has only one dimension.
Tools like Scrivener and Ulysses which have been created specifically for writers are only superficially different. They break writing into smaller chunks, but these chunks are still just part of a linear whole.
Even Scrivener’s “corkboard” is just linearity in disguise. The index cards on the board can only be arranged as parts of a sequential document.
But for most people, writing isn’t linear. Because thinking isn’t linear. For most people, writing looks more like this:
Kurt Vonnegut had a name for this kind of writer as well: the Swooper.
“Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work.”
For Swoopers, writing is about gradually getting a jumble of ideas into shape. And these kinds of writers are used to working around the limitations of their tools. A writer I spoke to recently said “I normally have six different Word documents open at once with different parts of what I’m writing. Then it’s just condense, condense, condense.”
But work-arounds aren’t enough. Because the tools we use affect us in profound ways. Just because the output of the creative process is linear, that doesn’t mean the tool to get there should be. As Marshall McLuhan said, “A typewriter is a means of transcribing thought, not expressing it.”
Where are the tools which match the way writers actually think?