All Write: How Technology Has Turbocharged Writing

I love technology. As a result, I have somehow wound up being the (pro bono) tech support person for my friends. Which got me thinking about how technology — computers, software, fax machines, and cell phones — have affected the writing process.

It’s hard to believe that classic movies such as Casablanca, On the Waterfront, and Citizen Kane were written using a typewriter or even scribbled out by hand. What about cut and paste? Well, in those days cut meant scissors and paste really meant paste. Delete? That would be a little jar of white correction fluid.

photo credit dunetimpact.org

photo credit dunetimpact.org

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage: writing is rewriting. I think that’s true, especially today. But I’d bet that writers back then tried very hard to make the first draft of a script as close to a final draft as possible. Otherwise, ever-accumulating scraps of paper would begin to look less like a screenplay than a jigsaw puzzle of dialogue, action and slug lines. I would imagine writers of that era took their time before committing anything to the page. Thinking then writing. Now it’s more write first and think later. And why not? Words can be made to fly from one place in the script to another with just a few keystrokes.

If a writer wasn’t physically located in Hollywood back in the day, how did screenplays find their way to a studio? Mail, of course, which took an indeterminate number of days. This fact not only presented an opportunity to lie — the script’s in the mail — but also allowed time to decompress before getting notes. Fax machines and Fed Ex changed that. A fax of a script could be in an executive’s hands, page by page, within an hour. And although Fed Ex couldn’t perform in the real-time manner of a fax machine, it’s next day service offered an efficient way to get a hard copy of a script onto someone’s desk in a short span of time.

Just as writers were getting used to submitting scripts via fax faxes and overnight shipping, an even faster method of delivery appeared: Email.

Attaching a screenplay to an email gets it to its destination not in minutes or hours or days but in seconds. If the recipient opts to read the script right away, they can email their thoughts to you within a couple hours. And so, instead of an evening spent celebrating the submission of a new draft, you’re back in front of the computer trying to make sense of network or studio comments.

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, when a writer went  out to lunch, he was unreachable. Someone phoning his home to discuss a script would get no answer and would have to keep calling. But then came the answering machine, and ultimately voicemail, obligating the writer to check missed calls and return them. Thus, the tranquil, message-free writer’s life gave way to a chorus of disembodied voices insisting they be called back as soon as possible.

The coup de grâce in terms of a writer’s peaceful existence was delivered by a small device: the cell phone. Suddenly, there was nowhere to hide. Writers were reachable everywhere, night and day. And with the evolution of cellular handsets into smart phones, writers not only received mobile calls at inconvenient moments, they were followed everywhere they went by text messages and emails that required an immediate response. Indeed, the invention of the cell phone transformed writing into a frenetic endeavor.

But as I said, I love technology. When I travel, I make sure the hotel has wifi in the room. I hate it when I don’t have a signal on my cell phone. I carry an iPad or laptop wherever I go just in case I have to tweak something on the go. Hit me with an email at midnight. I’ll fire off a reply. Call my cell phone while I’m at dinner. I’ll take the call. Leave a voicemail. I’ll get right back to you.

So software and cyberspace have abbreviated the interval between action and reaction. Yet despite all this increased productivity, there is one annoying remnant of early technological implementation that remains embedded in modern communication like an electronic fossil.

Here’s the scenario: My phone rings while I’m in the middle of writing something so I let it go to voicemail. Eventually I take a break, listen to the message, and return the call. But they don’t answer. Actually, I’m happy about that because I’m really on a creative roll and don’t want to lose momentum. After hearing my friend’s brief voicemail greeting, I’m ready to leave a message and get back to writing. But before I can say a word, a recorded female voice offers a set of instructions.

At the tone, please record your message. When you’ve finished recording you may hang up or press one for more options. To leave a callback number, press five.

For a writer who has grown accustomed to operating at warp speed, this woman’s voice represents an anxiety-provoking interruption in the space time continuum. I mean, hasn’t voicemail has been around long enough for people to know they’re supposed to record a message at the tone. And I’m pretty sure people are savvy enough to know they should hang up when they’re done. Have you ever seen anyone holding a phone against his or her ear for days because no one told them to hang up?

Press one for more options? It’s terrifying to think what the female voice might tell you to do if you pressed one. And as far as pressing five to leave a callback number, I don’t know anyone who has actually ever done that.

So please, whoever programs voicemail at the major telephone companies, get rid of that totally extraneous and idiotic set of instructions. You’re slowing down the writing process.

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