Writing - What Has Changed And What Has Not

I attended a friend’s birthday party last night and was talking to a person we know who deals in rare books and manuscripts and art. We got to talking about the old manuscripts he has represented for writers.

It was fascinating to hear about the handwritten manuscripts, often three, four, or five sequential versions with markups before the work was finished. Apparently collectors value the early versions more than the final versions because they can see how the work was shaped into the final product.

It was also interesting to hear about the transition from handwritten manuscripts to typewritten work in the early part of the 20th century and even more interesting to hear about the transition from typewritten work to digital work in the past 25 years.

Typewriters didn’t change much about the writing process apparently. Writers still prepared several versions of manuscripts which were hand marked. Collectors can still acquire versions of works in progress.

Of course the digital revolution has changed that. Now there are hundreds of versions, depending on how maniacal a writer is about saving various versions of their work. The person I was talking to told me how he had recently sold the entire digital work of a famous person to a university. He literally sold a hard drive.

I never considered myself a writer. I went to engineering school and hated writing. I think my dislike of writing came from my severe inability to write as a kid. I can’t hold a pen or pencil very well, I hold it way too tightly, my handwriting is terrible, hard to read, messy, and often illegible. Typewriters made life easier for me, but the big breakthrough came when I started writing on a computer. For years it was just memos, email, business stuff.

But blogging has changed all of that. Now I write every day. I feel incomplete until I write something. Often it’s  hardly worth hitting the "save" button. Sometimes it’s good. Once in a while it’s great. But it’s a routine and one I cherish.

Our conversation last night ended with a discussion of letters. How letters are a lost art. Hardly anyone writes letters anymore. The rare book dealer told me that emails between writers and famous people are rarely well written or as interesting as the letters he sells. I was thinking that it’s a shame that letter writing is done as an art form. But then I realized that it’s evolution at work. We lose something, letters, and gain something, blogging.

I hope blogging will inspire people to compose their thoughts as eloquently as letters have done over the years. It sure has inspired me.

Note: That photo is a letter that Chief Justice John Marshall’s letter to his wife Polly,
dated 8 August l800. I found it here.

#Random Posts

Comments (Archived):

  1. Jerry

    The appeal to collectors is both emotional and intellectual. Scholars love to see the process and few things reveal the process–the sausage-making if you will–better than the manuscript.I own, for example, a manuscript of a poem by Walt Whitman. It’s fascinating to see which words occurred to him first, which he scratched out, and which he inserted after the effect–and how different the poem is with small changes. (Even more fascinating is that Whitman never published this poem. Why?? By the last edition of Leaves of Grass, he could insert anything he wanted and it would have been included.)Letters are equally fascinating. I once owned a letter by the 20th Century American writer Henry Roth (author of Call It Sleep–a truly great novel) to a scholar who had collected his letters to others over the years. Roth is famous for having had failure than success with Call It Sleep but even more for having had a more than 50 year dry spell (his last novels were continuations of the same story and published posthumously so his letters were HIGHLY prized by scholars and collectors for what they revealed about his personality, his selfhood). In the letter I owned, Roth asks, rather plantively, if he could have a copy of of the letters the scholar has collected since he obviously no longer had them (having sent them). In that letter, you can glean a picture of Roth and his tenuous position on the question: who owns the letters one writes but sends? You can also see him struggling to assert his right to, in effect, be on the planet; please give me my own words. It pains me even now knowing as I do how much he suffered, his debilitating depression (and, how much his book lifted me out of mine by simply knowing that someone else understood).Blogging, and it’s inherent transparency, can enable that sort of connection between the writer and reader.Lastly, my friend, you most definitely are a writer.

    1. fredwilson

      Thanks Jerry.I knew you’d lend a lot of a great thoughts to this subjectFred

  2. Charlie Crystle

    My friend Tim Abbott talked for years about getting back to writing. he’s one of the most eloquent speakers I know, full of history and wit. About 2 years ago I set up a blog for him, and he took off from there, blogging up a storm, writing more than he ever has, and with higher quality writing than most bloggers–he’s not your typical blogger.This stuff reads like a novel, and he mixes in his passion for history with his posts. His traffic is significantly higher than mine, needless to say.Worth checking out. http://greensleeves.typepad

    1. leigh

      @Charlie – greensleeves is great. Thanks for the link. 🙂

  3. Jim

    It is a shame that you aren’t hitting the save button more often when a post doesn’t meet your standards. I am sure lots of thought provoking writings are being tossed aside. Maybe you could have a separate section for posts that didn’t make the cut. The beauty of blog writing versus handwriting is that conversations being immediately. Something that is incomplete or vague when it leaves your computer has the potential to become a classic work with the help of the community.

    1. Jerry Colonna

      I agree with Jim, Fred. It would be fascinating to see you unfold without self-censoring….but that might be too much to ask. Or, rather, it might be my own voyueristic desire at play. Fred, the compulsion you describe–“I feel incomplete until I write something.”–is familiar to anyone who’s kept a journal. As you know, I’ve kept a journal since I was 13 (that’s 31 years now for anyone who cares) and as I’ve journaled, I’ve allowed myself to write without censoring. It’s liberating. But I wonder if it would entirely ona blog (and I know I didn’t write like that when I blogged.)

      1. Jim

        Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers. For a guy who frequently gets the answers right, as is evident by Fred’s investment track record, the questions must be just as good, if not better.

      2. charlie crystle

        I bet that’s an interesting read…

    2. fredwilson

      That’s the wrong impression I gave youI rarely edit or hold back stuff I’ve written. Maybe two or three times in four+ years I’ve been writing this blogI also don’t edit myslef very much. Witness the typos and bad grammar that is all over this blogFred

  4. Erik Peterson

    You might want to look into a thing called Dyslexic Dysgraphia- it sounds pretty close to what you describe. Growing up, I also had a really tough time writing. I never held a pencil right, my writing was nearly illegible, and I kept transposing letters inside of words even if I knew how to spell them correctly. There isn’t really a fix (for adults, at least), and, like you said, it is pretty easy to get by with typing these days. However, it is pretty comforting to know the reason behind my poor penmanship.

  5. Michael Beckner

    I firmly believe in writing every day for the simplest reason: Writing helps all my communications, including how I speak to people in any forum. It is a formalization of the entire communication process, IMHO. Anyone process-oriented might enjoy something I was lucky to have taught to me at an early age, calligraphy & illumination. That stuff is hard! But it really makes you think before you put nib to vellum. If nothing else, it certainly forces you to value the mechanics of writing, the process in its most discreet forms. And because you learn by transcribing other works, it transforms the idea of reading, too.Oh, and Fred, learning calligraphy might help your handwriting! ; )FYI, the royal calligrapher to QE2 just spoke at EG. Thought some of you might enjoy this: http://blog.the-eg.com/2007

  6. e.p.c.

    You might be interested in Orality & Literacy by Walter Ong which covers how the “technology” of writing has affected culture, briefly covered in this NYT piece over the weekend: http://www.nytimes.com/2007… .

  7. Owlsley

    I don’t want to blow smoke up your backside but I got into blogging after subscribing to yours. I have no real interest in venture capital but I am developing one. My aspiration is to be as prolific as you are on one blog

    1. fredwilson

      That may be a curse, not a blessing!Fred

  8. Vishy Venugopalan

    When I was little, I took great pains to improve my penmanship, mostly to compete with my sister, who was older and had a lot more control over a writing instrument. My handwriting is still pretty good when I put some effort into it, but I use it pretty much only this time of the year, to write in greeting cards.Writing, not of the kind that bloggers and writers do but the kind that ordinary people do, is probably the last bastion of analog. The upcoming generation is no stranger to reading things digitally, but until we come up with some kind of brain-adapter-to-Twitter (there’s a startup idea: NoteToSelf), we’ll always be writing down all sorts of things: phone numbers, addresses, notes, outlines.@Jerry: On the subject of letters by famous people, I came across http://www.presidentialdood…, which chronicles some of the doodles that came from the Oval Office.

    1. Jerry Colonna

      Thanks for the link Vishy. Doodles. Crossed out words. Edited pieces. Dreams. They are all windows into the subconscious. It takes a brave soul to bare that much.

  9. Mapo

    Fred,It’s funny that you write this as I was just thinking about how I’m losing touch with people the more I use new media to communicate.The more I blog, the more I publish about myself on social networking sites, the less I send group e-mail messages, the less I hear directly from my friends and contacts. In the old days of writing letters or even 1:1 e-mailing you’d always get some form of feedback or discussion.So I called a few people to ask if they’d heard about something I’d published, amazingly they all had but I just didn’t know about it – they’d opted in to my information and were happy to digest it in their own way.Maybe it’s just that I’m ex-pat in London and all of my friends are immersed in the fun of New York in Christmas time. Maybe it’s some evolution in the way we all communicate now and we just haven’t adjusted yet.Not sure this has to do with manuscripts, penmanship or historical writing, but it seems my kids will have a lot better idea of who I am than I will of my parents and with a lot less effort by me.Mason

    1. fredwilson

      Commenting has to be easier and more people need to do itFred

  10. Tony Alva

    I can dig where these manuscript collectors are coming from. I’m a huge fan of what I believe is a British TV series called “Classic Album Series”. You can get most of them on DVD at Amazon. For those that have never seen an episode, the show features a classic record and/or act and folks involved with the making of the album(s) dissect the process. Usually the producer and artist themselves sit in front of the studio console and break the song down and isolate certain tracks so you can hear how amazing the little bits that make the macro sound so great.The best of the series hands down is Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” another. Nirvana’s “Nevermind” yet another. Even if you’re not HUGE fans of any of these particular recordings, I can’t see how anyone couldn’t at least come away with a huge appreciation for what goes into making a record and how fascinating the actual process is after checking one of these DVD’s out. All you have to do is hear the chorus to “Us and Them” soloed on the console to understand the utter perfection and genius.Doesn’t ruin the final product at all for me, only enhances my appreciation.

    1. fredwilson

      Hi TonyGlad to see you in the comments. I’ve missed youFred

  11. David

    Maybe this won’t strike others as powerfully as it struck me, but one of the most memorable examples of written revisions that I ever saw is at the FDR Museum near his home in Hyde Park, NY. It’s a draft of the address FDR gave to the nation after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The original, typewritten draft, opened, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date that will live in world history — the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked . . .And there, on the draft, is FDR’s hand-written edit changing “world history” to “infamy.” What a difference, and the fact that FDR made that change himself tells us something about his wordsmanship that just hearing the speech (impressive as it was) would not.One other comment, if I may, is that as a guy who spent his early career in the news business, starting in the days of typewriters — one thing I saw in the transition to word processors was a significant decline in editing skills. Countless numbers of journalists learned editing by reading the copy vividly marked up by great editors. It’s really how the craft of editing was passed on.

    1. fredwilson

      Both are interesting commentsI still mark up everything we produce in our office by hand with a redpencil.I can edit myself on a computer, but not othersfred

  12. Paul E. Wright

    Hello Fred,Your comment on letter-writing compelled me to share this quick story. First, I agree that it truly is a lost art. It is that exact conversation, which led to my first official date with my now fiance.She was in grad school in DC (American university – SIS) and I was living in Atlanta, in the process of selling my company. While she works in international and non-profit development, she is a fiction writer at heart and a voracious reader. As a media, finance guy I had my work cut out for me to cut through the clutter.After we first met at a wedding and went back to our respective cities, we spoke on the phone ever few days; I did not want to seem pushy even though I could not get her out of my mind. That initial conversation about letters, however, stuck in my mind. Se even though we spoke semi-regularly, I sent her a hand-written letter written in the style of a late 18th-century gentleman courting a young lady.Corny, I know…but she literally tells me the story that after we went out a few times and I finally met some of her friends I was referred to as ‘the letter writer’, which put me at the front of the pack! Because she works internationally often, we still use letter writing as communication of intimacy when we cannot be together. We still email and call; but the letters give that thoughtful snapshot in time.I am a letter fan!Cheers-paul

    1. fredwilson

      Great story. Thanks for sharing it with usFred

  13. jackson

    Blogging has been great for me. I used to write stuff that nobody ever read, now I write stuff that people wish they never read.

    1. fredwilson

      This quote is going on fredwilson.vc

  14. Uday

    A nice article Fred but the letter you posted makes me feel rather happy that handwritten letters are a thing of the past. I can hardly read the content, leave along appreciate it :)For a moment, I thought you were making a mockery of handwritten letters before I read the whole thing :))

  15. jennie