A Nation of Writers

Downtown skyline

“Because of computers, we’re suddenly a nation of writers.” — Patricia T. O’Conner

Computers have done for writing what Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press did for reading. Just as the printing press made it cheaper and easier to print books and disseminate information throughout Europe, the computer has made it cheaper and easier for writers to produce their works and share them with the world.

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Architect Douglas Ellington’s S & W Cafeteria, built in 1929, is an Art Deco masterpiece. (iPhone 5s photo)

This is not to slight typewriters, which got me through college (except on the rare occasions when I had access to my dad’s Apple 2e). Typewriters made writing more efficient, but I remember all too well the downside of typewriters: carbon paper, whiteout, fading ribbons, and sticking keys. Aside from an occasional electronic failure, computers enable writers to not only write and revise speedily but also to publish their work immediately. Press one button, and your writing could be read by someone else within seconds.

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Photo taken with a Panasonic Lumix

As a WordPress blogger, I am invariably startled when I read a post via the Reader, go to “like” it, and then discover that the post was published less than five minutes before I read it. I have to fight a reluctance to comment on a post so recently released that I can sense the author’s lingering breath. Blogging as a subset of writing owes its existence to the omnipresence of computers: anyone who knows how to use a keyboard, connect to the internet, and set up a site can become the author of a blog. Computers are the great egalitarian factor in writing.

Without computers, would so many people be dedicated to writing a novel in the month of November? According to the NaNoWriMo site, in 2013 more than 300,000 participants set themselves the goal of writing a 50,000-word draft of a novel in November. Many writers use computers as tools in getting their novels or other works published, whether by a company or through self-publishing. But for countless writers who don’t entertain thoughts of official publication but who nonetheless have something to say, the computer offers a way to share writing with friends and relations, with acquaintances, and with strangers in different hemispheres gazing at their computers.

Before I had a computer, I wrote in notebooks. As time passed, I wrote more sporadically. It is entirely due to computers that I have experienced a renaissance in my own writing. In 2012, my daughter told me about 750words.com, a site for online writing that was free (at the time). I kept my writing private, and I printed my entries, because I felt that I needed a physical copy of the words I was pouring into virtual Neverland. Thanks to the site’s challenges and badges, I began writing for the first time in 20 years. Are my daily “750 words” worthy of sharing? No, but, after two years of writing privately, I started writing publicly on a blog.

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Built in 1926, Asheville City Hall was also designed by Ellington. (Photo taken with Panasonic Lumix)

I am amazed at how many of us are secretly writers — and grateful that the computer is no snob when it comes to who is a writer and who is not. Am I as careful when I write on a computer as I was with pen and paper? If not, I should exercise more caution: someone is far more likely to stumble onto the words that I type here than in any of the spiral-bound notebooks lurking in an upstairs cabinet. One of the pitfalls of writing on a computer is the very ease of writing — and of sharing. With one click, that hasty or erroneous post is out there. Another drawback to writing online is increased vulnerability to piracy of writing or images. The information divulged in a blog could also give clues to the writer’s financial identity. Writing with computers has its hazards.

But I am thankful for an invention that has streamlined the act of writing, increased the exchange of information, and facilitated the dialogue between writers and readers. O’Conner’s quote refers to a “nation of writers,” but blogging has shown me that a veritable global community of writers exists. Despite this international frenzy of writing, I suspect that the ratio of great writers to everyday, ordinary writers is much the same as it has always been: most of us are not Fitzgeralds or Austens, and maybe not even Samuel Pepys with his famous diary. Still we write, for writing lets us take what is inside our heads and share that with someone else. Writing with computers makes the sharing exponentially greater.

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Ellington’s S & W Cafeteria and Asheville City Hall are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Panasonic Lumix photo)

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Asheville City Hall (Panasonic Lumix photo)


O’Conner’s statement appears on page 1 of Writers INC (Wilmington, MA: Great Source, 2001). Patricia T. O’Conner co-authors the blog Grammarphobia.

Note: One way in which computers are not egalitarian is that it costs far more to buy a computer than it does to buy a pen and paper. Economic inequality is not the topic at hand, however.


writers-quote-wednesday (1)Thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting Writer’s Quote Wednesday (and for being patient with those of us who habitually miss posting on Wednesday). Since I’m also behind on Photo 101, I have used pictures from the Architecture assignment throughout this post. All photos were taken in November 2014 by Sandra Fleming. Text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

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15 thoughts on “A Nation of Writers

  1. I keep a notebook going all the time. Particularly in church, I like to get the gist of lessons taught there and study them later for a clearer, non-pressured view. I am not one to just accept something because the preacher said so. Later I give my notes to my children and grandchildren. They may not have time to read right away, but who knows whether those notes might pull them through a tight spot one day?

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    • I’m impressed by your organizational skills. I often take notes during church, but, usually, the purpose of the notes is to keep my mind from drifting off. Consistency eludes me always.

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    • Thanks, Sean. It is mind-blowing to think how much things have changed since the early 1980s, and that I went through college and a master’s program without owning a computer. . . . You couldn’t do it today!

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  2. Pingback: Writer’s Quote Wednesday–Junot Diaz | Silver Threading

  3. You bring up a great point, especially the last paragraph. So great I’ve got it all jumbled up in my head right now. Mostly it has to do with putting “normal” out there and hopefully– collectively that will make it louder than the extreme that gets picked up and spotlighted. You have wonderful insight to lend to that community. Thanks for writing because I am reading you.

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    • Thank you for that very encouraging remark, April 🙂 I am reading you, too — and learning from you. I’ve learned so much from other bloggers that it blows my mind: not just about blogging or photography but about coping with problems or grief, about artists and countries and cultures, and . . .

      Well, I can’t go on b/c of today’s agenda, but all this writing seems good to me, whether it’s “great” writing or not, b/c of the connections.

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  4. Sandi, this is a great posting. I’m a participant in the NaNoWrMo, and after last nights write-in, I’m always inspired by those who participate and gather to exchange ideas on writing. More writers in the group are going to be ramping up their blogs to increase their exposure noticing that writing daily increases thier writing abilities.

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    • Some kinds of writing still work better for me in a notebook. I tried to write a poem on the computer not long ago — but I had to use paper. Glad to hear notebooks are still in use. Someday, when I feel brave, I will go look through some of my old journals.

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  5. Nice post about blogging as writing. It is true that computer have made the mechanical aspect of writing so much easier and user friendly. And I have definitely thought about this lately that we are more exposed with actually no privacy. I have also thought about the security of my writing. That if I wrote something really good that someone else could take it. I think if I were writing parts of a book I definitely would not publish it on my blog unless in snippets like I have seen some people do.

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    • Thanks, Deborah. I came across that quote a couple of weeks ago; I was irritated that there was no reference as to when Patricia O’Conner made that statement — the book was published in 2001, so probably before blogging was so widespread? Yes, I guess it is a trade off: people read our posts — which is amazing, really — and we read theirs, but we are trusting everyone to be honest, which is somewhat naive.

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