The Benefits of Writing across Different Surfaces

Dan McCormick, Consultant

Some writing happens all at once and on only one “surface”—a text, a to-do list, an email, or a short-answer response on a biology test. You have an idea, you write, and then you’re done. But lots of writing happens on more than one surface. A reporter might take notes on a pad during an event, and then refer to those notes as she types her article at a computer that afternoon. A magazine writer might type notes as he researches, write an outline of ideas in a notebook, and refer to both as he writes his feature. A novelist might jot down ideas in a moleskin notebook (or on cocktail napkins), type out character sketches and plot summaries on the computer, and write notes to herself in the margins of printed drafts.

Writers sometimes think that a piece of writing is supposed be only one piece—one document, one computer file—but’s that’s not the case. There’s no rule that says writing has to happen in isolation from other writing. After all, most student writing is in direct response to a specific piece of writing: the assignment prompt. Why not take advantage of the same variety of surfaces that professional writers use?

DSCN1636For myself, I find it helpful to have different writing in different places, on different surfaces—all for one piece of writing. I typically write down ideas in a notebook, write little margin notes in books and articles as I research, type notes and outlines in a Notepad file, and (as I refer to all of these) type my “paper” in a Word file. What’s helpful about all this different writing is having different empty surfaces where I can focus on different aspects of my writing—the ideas, the organization, the research. I can then guide my attention while I write by putting different surfaces in front of me. As I write this post, I’m switching back and forth between a Word file, where I type the post itself, and a Notepad file, where I’ve typed out an outline of ideas and examples.

I’m fascinated by the way these different surfaces do different things for my writing. Paper gives me a certain feeling of freedom (the “empty page”) and of permanence. Digital media give me the ability to re-arrange my thoughts and, of course, to copy and paste from my typed notes. And scribbles in the margins of books and articles—marginalia—let me compose mini-thoughts as I read or review, putting ideas in my own words while giving me quick access to where in the text those ideas came from.

It’s natural to think of these other surfaces as “process” and the final document itself as “product”—but I don’t think that’s necessary. Certainly these different individual surfaces can build up into one—but I don’t think the process is totally separate from the product. Writing notes on a pad, or in the margins of a book, requires thought and volition, just as writing a “full piece” does. And ideas change between these different surfaces, not only because time passes but also because each surface supports a slightly different way of expressing those ideas. So the final document that is turned in for an assignment or for a scholarship application or for publication is, in a sense, one more iteration of ideas and language that has developed out of other ideas and language. You might say that process turns into product only when you decide it does.

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