Column | Feb. 6

Backspace love

You, the reader, will never see the litany of corrections that went into this article before it made its way to publication, because it was composed entirely upon a computer screen — I say “composed” instead of “written” because there is an important distinction to be made between “writing” and “typing.” Almost all essays and papers college students submit are now started and finished digitally — in many cases, one submits the paper by email and receives an electronically submitted grade in return, an exchange that occurs completely within the virtual realm. Perhaps in the days before Microsoft Word, there would have been a few complete, handwritten drafts of a paper before any attempts to type it out, since antiquated typewriters admit no margin for error. But the modern principles of convenience and speed have all but rendered obsolete the idea of handwritten intermediaries between the thought and its expression as the typed word — not the written word. At the most, some prewriting and brainstorming is performed with pencil and paper, but more often than not, the typical student has neither the time nor the patience to write out a single handwritten draft of a 10-page paper, let alone two or three.

Writing by hand is still an essential skill because it forces us to slowly, deliberately choose our words and focus on what we are writing. Past psychology studies have shown that writing by hand helps students learn more effectively and express their ideas more clearly, yet we still increasingly choose the convenience of the keyboard. At the heart of the ubiquity of word processing is its ability to infinitely undo past mistakes and accidents, represented by the all-powerful backspace key. Typewriters had backspace keys as well, but they only performed the literal job of “backspacing,” in which the position of the carriage would move backwards by one space — no deletion or undoing occurred, and the word “backspace” contains no denotation of such an act. It is only with the advent of word processing that “backspace” came to mean “delete”. The act of total deletion — more than simply striking through unwanted words — previously involved anything from throwing one’s papers into a fire to scratching out a mistake with a pen, but now it is inexpensive and invisible. Deleting our mistakes is becoming increasingly faster and easier than avoiding them in the first place, and the result is a collective devaluing of precision and neatness.

The ease of pressing backspace freed us from the dread of having to start over, but at the same time, it slowly conditioned us to start and finish our work without planning ahead clearly or even at all. Over the course of typing the previous two paragraphs, I pressed my backspace key over 100 times, and one can only imagine that keeping count made me more careful and prevented me from having to use it even more frequently. Had I been using a typewriter, I would have wasted a lot of time and ink, or white-out, trying to rectify mistakes that were easily avoidable. The number of backspaces could have been reduced down to 50, or 20 or even zero, had I done some planning before I launched headfirst into typing. But if the final product would have been the same regardless of how many times I pressed backspace or whether I used a pen or a keyboard, why does it matter that I essentially wrote an article by trial-and-error?

If our addiction to the backspace key were solely limited to writing, it’s possible that we could say “no harm, no foul” and move on. Unfortunately, like all addictions, the backspace key’s influence has extended far beyond the scope of writing. It has enabled sloppy, half-baked writing, and the same acceptance of mediocrity has spread to other facets of our lives. For example, cell phones are cheap and fragile, so a cell phone company would rather send a customer a new device than fix an old one, because doing so is cheaper. Why bother to do it right the first time if fixing the mistake is easier? In the case of cell phones, cost is only one of many things we weigh against the quality of the product. However, when it comes to writing, quality is our main concern, and we care much less about how much it costs, in time or effort, to produce a piece of writing. Typing allows us to be indiscriminate and unfocused as we write, but writing by hand forces us to be aware of what we say.

I challenge us all to differentiate between truly “writing” our ideas down on paper and merely “typing” words onto a screen. Perhaps the Writing Program could incorporate this goal into the writing seminars and thereby inject more rigor into the academic writing training that they purport to provide. Every Princeton student, at some point during their four years here, should try writing an essay completely by hand and only type it up at the conclusion of the actual writing. Otherwise, one might graduate from Princeton knowing how to type but not really how to write.

Spencer Shen is a sophomore from from Austin, Texas. He can be reached at szshen@princeton.edu.

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