When I came up with the title for this chapter, the first thing I thought of was all those promises time management gurus made about their system. But then I thought about it more, and there’s a deeper lie, one we all tell ourselves.
I saw it when I first got online, during the gold rush days when everything was new and exciting. I’d posted Microsoft Word for Writers tips, hitting on several features that confused writers.
A woman emailed me with a question about how to do something in Word. I responded and told her how.
Then she emailed me with a second question. I got annoyed. There was enough up on the internet that she could have spent a few extra minutes searching for the answer. Instead, she asked me.
Because she wanted easy and quick.
That’s why tips and tricks are so popular. You can use them as an action list and feel like you’ve accomplished something.
Tips and tricks also means you don’t have to spend a lot of time “fixing” the problem.
Except that you haven’t fixed it. The problem’s still there, with a cheap store brand bandage slapped on a cut that continues to bleed.
Worse, they hide a bigger problem. One that’s eating every one of us and we don’t realize it.
Computers make it easier to do more work.
When I was in the Army, we were in the early years of the personal computer. The 384 had just come out, and my squad leader bought it. We used it to build a presentation called the quarterly training briefing (or QTB, since the Army loves turning everything into acronyms).
After we finished the QTB, we printed it on paper. Then I walked across the street to battalion headquarters with a box of transparencies. I put the transparencies into the copy machine and ran copies onto the plastic. This was a messy process. The copier often got too hot. The slides would jam, or sometimes just melt.
Then I delivered the slides to the commanding officer’s office. He gave the QTB to the group commander (that’s the command above the battalion). If there were any changes to the information, he talked to it while he was in the meeting.
Until computers made presentations a lot easier to create.
Everyone said, “No we can get these done faster!”
I did presentations in my day job for a while. Management started building the presentation a month out from the meeting. We’d do a draft. Five senior people met in a conference room and discussed it. Then I got the changes back and updated it. Emailed it to everyone.
They reviewed it, sent back more changes. Usually this sucked in more people to review the file.
I made those changes and sent it back out. Maybe there was another meeting or three of the senior people. More changes. It would easily undergo twenty drafts.
Day of presentation. I’m trying to print paper copies for the meeting. They’re still making changes. I’m substituting slides, pulling others, and keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t goof it up.
But let’s now take it to fiction writing.
In the days of the Royal manual typewriter, the physical process of typing was difficult and had a lot of steps we’d find tedious today.
- Add a light pencil line to each page so you didn’t accidentally type off the page.
- Insert the paper into the typewriter roller and line it up against the guide. You also had to make sure you started typing in the right place.
- Hit the tab key. Start typing. Once you reach the end of the line, you cranked a handle for the carriage return and pulled the roller back to the left to start on the next line.
- Cursed a lot when you made a typo. You might use a pencil eraser to fix the typo or make a pencil correction.
- Once you reached the end of the page, you pulled out the page and repeated the process.
- Then you proofread it and penciled in corrections.
As a result, pulp writers learned how to write in one draft. Especially since they were getting paid a penny a word. There was no profit in revision.
Today? The computer makes it easy to revise a novel. You can easily write one book for five years, putting it through twenty revisions to the point it looks nothing like the original. The steps might look like this:
- Write a sloppy first draft. You leave all kinds of problems in it unfixed. Like figuring out how the heroine got caught by the bad guys at the halfway point. You put in placeholders for information to research or fix.
- Now you revise it. You fix all those issues you left for the revision. Some of them break other things. You spend a lot of time fixing them. You’re probably doing three to five revisions.
- You submit it to your critique group. They make comments. You zoom back and start a new revision to make those changes. You might bounce back and forth between this and add another three revisions. Or more.
- Off to beta readers. They make more suggestions. Back to the revision board for more changes.
- At last! Now it’s time for the developmental editor. She has more changes yet. Another round of revision.
- Finally! The story is published.
- Reviewers post some comments about the book. You freak out, see it as a call for action, and go back to revise again.
“It’s easy” makes us go on autopilot. And we start adding more work and never realize it!
Mind you, I’m not complaining about having computers. I’m a rotten typist. I typed on an electric typewriter and was constantly retyping pages because I made so many typos. When I did that, I made even more, left out entire paragraphs—arrgh!
I was ecstatic to jump to a computer with an actual spellchecker. I now use a combination of four tools to help me find as many typos as possible (Microsoft Word spellcheck, Grammarly, ProWritingAid, and PerfectIt).
But the tools can easily add more work, and it’s something you have to be vigilant for. The worst part about this lie is that it looks productive while it’s wasting your time.