Back to basics


Tired of foraging through the library in search of a seat with a plug, Peter Molloy decides to simplify things and attempt a return to a gentler way of writing

It might differ from person to person, but I’m willing to wager that a substantial proportion of the UCD community, be they students or staff, go about written work in a very similar way.

It probably goes a little something like this: receive assignment. Open Word. Type a header. If you’re in a particularly creative frame of mind, tap your way through an opening sentence. Get up, have a coffee, and stretch the legs. Repeat ad nauseum, and after a day or three of somewhat less than toiling effort, you might be left with something vaguely fit for submission on BlackBoard (or the furtive slide under an office door, if you’ve missed the deadline). All of the above is dependant, of course, on you actually securing the facilities to stare unproductively at a computer screen. The thing is, it’s often easier said than done.

_MG_7514It’s Friday afternoon, and I’ve just emerged blinking into the sunlight after a week of mid-term essays. It’s been about as rough as it ever is.

There’s a certain established etiquette to the art of securing a fully plugged-up seat in the James Joyce library. It took me until Christmas of Second Year to become fully accustomed to the rhythm of that little daily race.

Getting up early is a prerequisite: yielding to the lure of a lie-in is a rookie’s fatal mistake. The seasoned library laptop user is hovering in the lobby outside the main entrance by 8:20am, bag slung over shoulder, half-finished cup of coffee in hand, and determined grimace on face. Oh yes, this is a serious business; make no mistake about it.

As the clock ticks down to the glass doors sliding open, glances are slyly cast. The competition is being weighed up. Eventually, the entrance opens and bags and folders are hastily snatched up as the surge to the turnstiles begins. It’s like some bizarre version of the running of the bulls, but one with hoodied undergraduates instead of riled Iberian cattle.

Once through the entrance, the mob sluices left and right as people dash – or rather walk as furiously fast as dignity will allow them – for their favoured spot. Be quick enough on your toes and victory awaits. At least, that is, if the pressures of college work can warp your horizons sufficiently to render annexing your own little portion of the library on a Monday morning an achievement.

It’s a depressing state of affairs. And I’ve had enough of it. So today, I’m doing something very, very different.

The past five hundred words or so have been written – yes, written. Not typed, tapped, copied-and-pasted or scanned, but written. I have a ball-point pen in my hand, an open A4 pad in front of me, and another sheaf or so of blank pages to populate in my deep, heavy hand-writing.

This is indeed a novelty. I haven’t tried to write anything more elaborate than hurriedly scribbled tutorial or lecture notes since June 20th, 2006. In a possibly related note, I finished my Leaving Certificate on June 21st, 2006.

Since that point, it’s been computer power all the way. I came wide-eyed on to the Belfield campus with little more than a seriously underdeveloped work ethic and a shiny new rectangular lump of metal and plastic, courtesy of Dell.

That September morning was the start of an enduring love affair with the electronic document. Since then, at even a rough estimate, my fingers have moved sluggishly across the keyboard to produce something in the region of forty to fifty essays, take-home exams and in-class presentations.

That’s not to mention the adjuncts. I’m one of those afflicted souls who likes to maintain an almost fascist approach to correct spelling and grammar. In practice, that means I’m anal enough to go to the trouble of typing even e-mails out as a Word document first before copying and pasting them into Hotmail.

The cumulative effect of all of this has meant that my interaction with computers and typing has moved beyond dependence to the frightening depths of addiction. It has been bad. At times, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve even stooped to the level of one of those desperate characters who see no problem in hauling a laptop from their bags to jot down notes in a crowded lecture hall. But no more.

As I turn the page over to a fresh sheet, I’m reflecting that things are going, well, at least slightly better than anticipated.

But the day hasn’t been without its own learning curve. Put simply, I’m not used to this. Looking back over what I’ve written, I can spot glaring errors. Commas and punctuation marks are lying in places they shouldn’t be.

For once, there’s no glowing red line to highlight the words I’ve mangled and spelt incorrectly. Usually, when I bang a sentence out that’s too jumbled or lengthy, or simply doesn’t read well, the green line appears like a discreet head waiter when a patron’s had too much to drink, politely suggesting that I revise my attitude. Not today, though.

It’s taking me longer to write – and it’s far more effort. My hand is already sore and cramped, and the relatively neat script that commenced the article a page ago has degenerated into a loose, untidy scrawl. It feels almost like I’m crouched over in a draughty hall in the RDS in early December or May, feverishly pontificating about Cromwellian invasions or social change in nineteenth century Ireland; all against the clock.

As I push my chair back and get up to slouch outside for a cigarette, I can’t help but reflect on the crowning irony of all of this. For all my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ideas of literally writing a feature about not using a computer for formal writing; I will, still, have to sit down at the end of all this and transcribe my efforts on to a computer.

That’s the niggling thing, you see. Endeavouring to turn the clock back and go and write something for a change is a bit like deciding to opt out of anything involving electrical current in everyday life. It’s an awful lot more easily said than done.

Even the most benign student newspaper editor in the country is unlikely to accept a clutch of scribbled pages as a finished article. And our esteemed publication accepts nothing less than pristine word documents. Things don’t work like that anymore. Emails and attachments are the currency of professional life these days, not coffee-stained manuscripts.

By exactly the same token, there isn’t a school in UCD that will, in 2009, accept hand-written documents for academic assessments. No, typed and double-spaced is the name of the game on campus.

So, am I fundamentally wasting my time here? Perhaps not. If nothing else, setting out to do my best with pen and paper alone has reminded me of exactly why I usually have a preference for Microsoft’s greatest hits.

It’s time-consuming, and not infrequently frustrating. The mistakes and rough drafts along the way can’t be corrected with a just a deft slide of the mouse and a few strategic taps of the delete button. True, they will be corrected when it comes to typing everything up, but then why bother in the first place?

Somewhere along the line between being written out and appearing in print in front of you, what you’re reading will have changed from a rough draft in pen ink to an immaculate, paragraphed and spaced series of neat columns. Symmetry and regular spacing will take the place of splodges of Tippex and lines scored out in red pen. I don’t think I’ll be retiring my fountain pen just yet, but when all’s said and done, I think I know which format of this piece I’d rather read.