Forming Letters

To better understand the structure and feel of Gothic blackletter typefaces I’ve acquired a couple of broad nib pens. I found the writing both easier in some ways and harder in others than I imagined. It’s very difficult to draw the straight, parallel lines for each letter consistently, and breaking a successful sequence easily damages the overall effect. On the other hand, a few correct strokes produce forms that are really pleasant to the eye, and in just a few moments you have words on the page that are really beautiful even if viewed on their own disconnected from the content, like little illustrations. Each letter has its own distinct shape and method of drawing it, and so the act of writing in blackletter is a calligraphic art, not just a way of putting words down on paper.

With a calligraphic pen, as you ink each letter and each word on the surface of the page you use a lot more of your artistic sense than with everyday writing, you focus just as strongly on the shape and design of each letter as you do on the meaning behind the words that they form. On contrast, when we write with the keyboard, we focus only on the content, not on the construction of the letterforms. There is no artistic sense involved in the design of the words when we type on the keys of our the mechanical keyboards, only on the prose itself. The physical production of the letterforms is separated from us, or more accurately, it is made so simple that our creative instinct and taste is no longer needed. Simply tap on that key and you have the letter.

This measure of aesthetic involvement from Blackletter to keyboard is not an instant transition, it is gradated. Between the Gothic blackletter and the keyboard lie roughly two more types of writing: the fountain pen and the modern ballpoint pen. Writing with the fountain pen, especially with cursive, is similar to that of inking Gothic letters in that the artistic sense is fully employed. It is faster though, and the hand movements are simpler for lowercase characters, meaning that less creative judgement and skill are needed. The ballpoint pen (and we can include the pencil in this category) is much more functional, and modern writing is almost always focused on content, not form. There are of course people with beautiful handwriting, who work to produce elegant lines even with the thin, invariable line of a ballpoint pen, but the tool itself is designed for speed and utility, so on our scale of creative skill involved in producing the letterforms it is at the far end next to the keyboard. Last of all we have the keyboard, which works to produce words with just a tap of our finger. No finesse or creativity needed here.

Could the transition from aesthetically involved calligraphy and penmanship to purely functional have an impact on our writing, either on its style or content? After Nietzsche started using a typewriter, his friend, Heinrich Köselitz, remarked that his writing has become more forceful and mechanical, noting from his own experience that “thoughts in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper”. Nietzsche agreed saying that “our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts”. Writing on paper instead of the keyboard not only introduces the need for aesthetic treatment of the letterform, it also slows down the process, makes it more personal. Additionally, there is an added sense of finality as the writing itself is very difficult to erase once ink hits paper, so the writer has to formulate their thoughts a little more coherently before they begin transferring words from their mind onto the page. This doesn’t mean that writing on the keyboard is better or worse, just that the change in the tool introduces different forces that act on the writer.

On the other hand, it is possible that by taking away the need to craft each letter by hand, the keyboard allows us to focus more fully on the prose. The brain, which would have had to work to plan each stroke, to execute it by coordinating the movement of the hand and to judge whether the final product is satisfactory is relieved of these tasks, able to focus on the content with more ease. Additionally, there there is the ability to edit and delete any piece of our writing, which removes a barrier to begin writing, makes it easier to jot down our thoughts knowing that we’re not going to be wasting ink and paper should content need changing.

Similarly, we have the various writing apps on our computer. The recent genre of simple writing apps (e.g. iA Writer, Byword, WriteRoom) is the first time that developers of writing apps focused on the writing experience itself rather than on their feature set. Microsoft’s Word is often used as an example of a bloated app, a piece of software that focuses on what it can do, rather on how it does it. But if the experience of writing can actually influence the words we write, that is where we should put our efforts. Of course this is anecdotal evidence, but I feel a difference in using iA Writer in full screen compared to something like Word or a window-based app. The full-screen app gets rid of all distractions, and the elegant design of the app, with just the right content width, line height and font selection ensures a pleasant writing experience. The forces of distraction are taken away and a little aesthetic satisfaction is introduced through the app’s well crafted design.

August 2012