Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Choosing One's Writing Tools Carefully

It ain’t easy.

Writing a history of part of WWII is really putting together a collection of endnotes, citations, and index items. A novel is much easier. You just string chapters together. But when writing a history with MSWord, you have to become proficient in several areas.

For one thing, if you install endnotes after every chapter and then string the chapters together, the endnotes tend to flow to the last chapter, not the one they are associated with. It is hell to get them to go where they are needed, and make them stay there.

For another thing, constructing an index is not for the faint-hearted. Only the writer who has an urgent message that will save the world should attempt indexing. All others should retire in fear and trembling. Life is too short for indexing or for cheap wine.

The wonderful writer Wendell Berry once told me that a computer would not help him write any better (than he does now). It wouldn’t help him index anything he wrote, either. Now I know why he writes poetry, essays and novels exclusively. Those works require no indexes.

I know two textbook writers. So when I came to the point in my history-writing exercise where I needed to assemble my book, I consulted with them. They did use a computer but didn’t use MSWord, so they were no help. Indexing was a mystery to them as well. I suppose they hired someone to do the indexing for them. But they wanted me to tell them how I assembled the chapters and indexed the book as soon as I found out.

Now I don’t know whether to give the information to them or to sell it. I don’t want to be a salesman. I don’t want to be an MSWord technician, either. All I want to do was write.

I wonder if Wendell were understating the case? A computer might not help me to write better. In fact, computers use so much of my time that there isn’t much left for writing.

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