The committee talked.
I took notes, flipping the pages up and over as the hours ticked by.
I wrote with a black felt-tip pen. (My preference still.)
* * *
Why felt-tip, you wonder?
Because felt-tips flow easily on a page. I could point it loosely toward the notebook and write quickly without thinking too much about the actual mechanics of writing.
That's a key skill when you are trying to listen
hard and make sure you catch the look on council member Elizabeth Morse's face when the guy to her left rolled his eyes at her as a Hard disagree, Liz... With an unspoken but plainly heard ...you idiot.
I also like how some brands referred to "felt-tips" as "magic markers"—because what
writer doesn't need a little magic in her writing, you know...?
* * *
After what feels like eleventy hours... the meeting ends.
Heated Local Guy and the rest of us disperse. They all go home. But I drive the 6 or 7 miles to the newspaper.
As I drive through the dark, I'm thinking all the way about the night's discussion, and turning over in my mind the focus of the story or two I'd write.
It was late
to be starting work—10 or 11 PM. But in the newsroom there's a party going on under the fluorescent lights. All of us local reporters from the surrounding towns clock in, fresh from our meetings. Sometimes someone brings Dunkin'.
We station ourselves in front of word processing terminals—hulking machines with a single green blinking cursor on a tiny screen. It's like typing on an iPhone attached to an Army Jeep. When you switch the machine on, it groans a little in the warm-up. Like it wasn't planning on working tonight. (Relatable, buddy.)
And then I write.
I flip the oblong pages of my reporter's notebook, back and forth, searching for the moments and quotes that would flesh out the focus of the story I'd already formed in my head during the dark drive
Like: What happened. Who said what. Who voted yea to look into the sketchy (?) behavior of the superintendent of schools. Who voted nay.
But also: Subtle things I'd captured. That eyeroll at Liz. Heated Local Guy's exasperated exhale. The way the room smelled of sweat and supper and floor polish wafting in from the custodian in the hallway.
I press a button. My article is sent by the hulking Jeep in front of me to the Jeep terminal in front of the copy chief. The copy chief sends it to the printing department's Jeep station, one floor below.
Words alighting with a whoosh into the air and moving and swarming in unison like starlings in a marvelous murmuration... magically moving from my machine and roosting in yours.
Now that flight of words is so
common that it's barely worth a mention... let alone a marvel.
But 20 years ago...? Holy. Wow. A miracle.
What a time to be alive.
* * *
I stopped covering town meetings a long time ago. I let go of my habit of carrying that skinny reporter's notebook everywhere, too.
Then, in 2009, I was heavy into interviews for my first book, Content Rules. Only this time I didn't use a notebook for my notes: I used my laptop. It was faster. More efficient. And my notes were more fleshed out and thorough.
But here's the funny thing... they lacked something else.
When I sat to write, I needed to go over each interview a second or third time with a fat yellow highlighter, picking out the key points, mining for the bigger ideas and connective tissue that linked one thought to another. I struggled to
recall from the hollows of my brain... what was most important in this conversation?
Ugh. I forget.
Sure, the laptop was faster. I got more words down. The record was more complete.
But they lacked meaning for me. I'd internalized less of it. My notes read as a transcript. Not a narrative.
I thought back to that reporter's notebook. The felt-tip pen.
I remembered the way I captured nuance: how things were said—not just what was said.
And I remembered the way that I somehow got a better grasp on the key points and main idea of a story. I thought how I'd be ready to write when I arrived in the newsroom. How I easily hit that 2 AM deadline.
How can that be?
* * *
Here comes the science part.
Researchers Pam A. Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found in a 2014 study that taking notes by hand—versus a keyboard—actually deepens understanding and helps retention. [Here's the PDF.]
Pam and Dan write that "when laptops are used...to take notes, they may...be impairing learning because
their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that...laptop note takers' tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental...."
Let's translate that.
When I took
notes for Content Rules, I had a better record. But I was a Shallow Processor. Nothing stuck. In one ear, out... and so on.
(Side note: "Shallow Processor" is such a great slam. Perhaps Heated Local Guy is using it these days.)
When baby-news-reporter-me took notes by hand, I could quickly bang a story out into that Jeep more quickly because I had a richer sense of the main ideas.
note-taking. The drive through the dark, thinking. That was me "actively processing."
THEN! I needed to (and could) write fast: Start getting it out of my head and into the groaning, reluctant Jeep.
* * *
There's always pressure to be faster, isn't there?
Generative AI helps us create faster.
Social media rewards "hot takes" with virality. (Heated Local Guy is in his GLORY!)
SEO traditionally has ranked higher those sites that publish frequently.
Some nuance exists to those rules (especially the SEO
one...), but the idea remains even in 2024:
Publish more. Write faster. Dash off something quickly.
* * *
Generic content has
been bedrock of the internet since the hulking Jeeps grew slimmer and seductive and fit in our pockets. I've been a champion for craft in content since Always. AI scales mediocrity higher (and fuels it with rocket fuel).
Here in 2024, it's never been easier to create mediocrity at scale.
Which leads us back to the Team Pencil vs. Team Screen.
Don't you think we need both?
* * *
Last time, I said we need more nuance in 2024.
We can't fall into the trap of Team Pencil vs. Team Screen. It's not really a debate.
We can't fall into the trap of Never AI vs. All AI. We have an opportunity: To suit up in our Team Screen jerseys and use
AI to enhance our creativity.
But also: To grip our Team Pencils in our fists and know when it's better to slow down.
* * *
The tools are there for us. (It's not the other way round.)
It's up to us to remember that our creative souls crave that Active Processing. That felt-tip pen scratching on a thin notebook. That dark drive through the night.
Sometimes, the slowest way is the fastest way. More often than we might expect.