The Modern Writer: From Quills to Skills

category: Articles
by Alexis Leon

Article first published as Reading for Writing on Blogcritics.

Today, when we think of writing, the image of a man sitting in front of his desk with sheets of paper before him, a quill in his hand and an inkwell on the table, rarely comes to mind. But that was how writers practiced their craft in the olden days. In those days, the only tools a writer needed were an imaginative and creative mind, a powerful vocabulary, flair and passion for writing, a quill (probably many of them), an inkwell, ink, and sheets of paper.

Quill was the writing instrument that dominated the early years of writing — for more than 1400 years. Even now, some calligraphers use quill pens for their craft. Later, the quill was replaced by the fountain pen. Lewis Waterman invented the fountain pen and got a patent for it in 1884. With the invention of fountain pens writers could spend more time thinking and writing rather than preparing their writing instruments and inks. The ballpoint pen made its appearance in 1938; it was invented by Laszlo Biro, a journalist from Hungary. The writing instruments continued to evolve and got better thus making writing less cumbersome. But the power of the words still remains unchanged and the pen still plays a crucial role in shaping and changing the history of mankind and the lives of many.

Writers inspire, motivate, inform, engage, excite, empower, and take their readers through a range of emotions from absolute bliss to utter dismay with their words. Wars start and end, treaties and pacts get signed, people become famous or notorious, heroes are praised and villains punished, courtships start, love bloom and blossom, lovers get married, and some marriages end in divorces, authors are born and influence generations, people gossip, spy on each other, countries flourish and perish, all at the stroke of the pen. The Islamic prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying “The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.” It was in 1839, the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the adage “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Truer words were never spoken!

The power of words cannot be overemphasized. According to Lord Byron:
Words are things; and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions think.

Writers should master the words and should learn everything that will make their writing more accurate, effective, captivating, attractive, and influential.

The modern writers need all the skills their predecessors possessed. The skills remain the same — an imaginative and creative mind, powerful vocabulary, and flair and passion for writing. But the tools have changed. The quill got replaced by the pen long time back. Now even the pen is slowly being replaced by computers.

Stewart Brand, the famous American editor and writer, once said “once a new technology rolls over you, if you are not part of the steamroller, you are part of the road.” This is very true in the case of computers and information technology. In today’s information age, knowledge of computers is a must. We use computers, either directly or indirectly, in each and every aspect of our lives. We use computers on many different occasions in our day-to-day life. Computers, Internet, and Information Technology (IT) are changing the way writers write, copy-editors edit, reviewers review, and even readers read.

Today an author can publish what she has written in a matter of seconds. She can upload it to her blog, which will be read from people all over the world who can comment about the article, recommend it to friends, and so on. All this can happen in a matter of minutes. Writers can work from anywhere in the world and the audience is the entire world. For example, I wrote this article from my home in Cochin (India), which I uploaded to Blogcritics website in San Francisco (USA). It was edited by the Books Editor at Blogcritics from his home in Southern California. He then published it and you are reading it from wherever you are in the world.

The availability of new tools that can improve productivity and accuracy of writers, reduce the time-to-publish, improve accessibility, and provide access to a world-wide audience are changing the rules of the game and if you want to be among the successful, you have to learn the new tools and embrace the new technology.

Nothing can replace your writing skill, creativity, imagination, flair, and passion as there are no substitutes for those. But a mastery over the tools that improve the writing — search engines that will help you in finding facts faster, on-line dictionaries and thesauri that will help you find the right words and phrases, tools that will check the spelling and grammar mistakes, etc. – can give you an edge over the competition.

Anybody who wants to succeed in today’s world cannot afford to ignore computers and information technology. Computer literacy does not mean that you should take a degree in Computer Science. It does not mean that you should know programming and computer architecture. It only means that you should know how to use the computer for your day-to-day activities.

Today’s writers need to be proficient in the use of computers — they should know how to create and edit documents in a word processor, enter and manipulate data and produce graphs and charts in an electronic spread sheet, manipulate photographs and images digitally using image editing tools, create illustrations and flow charts using a diagramming software, use the editing and proofing tools, etc. They should also know how to access and use the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW). They should know how send and receive e-mails, search the WWW to find the required information, create a blog and post blog entries, upload text, files, and images to the Internet, use mobile devices like laptops, notebooks, and smartphones to do all the above mentioned tasks while on the move.

Lois Horowitz, the American librarian has said it well. According to Lois “Not having the information you need when you need it leaves you wanting. Not knowing where to look for that information leaves you powerless. In a society where information is king, none of us can afford that.Thus, for the modern writer, knowledge of computers and Internet is not a luxury, but a necessity.



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