Technology and Computers for Writers

career indie author

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F. Technology

1. The Lure of the New

I’m not a Luddite.* Really. I love technology … when it works and makes my life easier. Computers that hold millions of words, ebook readers, scanners, OCR software, email; I wouldn’t be able to do the work I love without them.

* Luddite: Self-employed textile workers or weavers who went around smashing the powered looms that were threatening their livelihoods during the early part of the 19th century. Opposition to the money-saving and impoverishing machines grew so widespread that it required military units to suppress the rebellion. The word possibly comes from Ned Ludd, a weaver who in a fit of rage broke a couple of knitting frames. He wasn’t a revolutionary, however. Depending on the storyteller, he acted out of anger from either being whipped for idleness or taunted by the local boys. Either way, the word lives on to describe anyone who is reflexively against new technology.

computers for writers

I dislike tech that complicates my life and invades my privacy.

But I dislike tech that complicates my life and invades my privacy. Apple’s iPod is much harder to use for playing music than my Sansa Clip. Itunes 11 was so terrible to me that I rolled it back permanently to 10.7.0.21. Photoshop CS2 from 2005 does all that I need. The new MS Office 2010 charges a monthly fee; I already own the 2007 version and I’ll keep using it so long as I have a computer to run it on.

So I’m smart about the tech I use. I let it into my life but I’m suspicious of anything unproven or comes with strings attached. So should you. Whether it’s software, your website, or your book, the goal is the same: Own it. Control it.

Nothing is permanent. If your website is built on someone else’s site, it’s there until the company goes out of business. If your blog’s design is controlled by someone else — a publisher or web designer for example — you don’t have as much access to it. If your files are stored in the cloud, they’re vulnerable to hackers or any fluctuations if you didn’t make a backup.

Which brings us to computers, probably the single most important piece of tech. You rely on it for so much, which makes it your most vulnerable tool. This is why backups are important and should be done regularly because anything can happen.

2. Regular Backups

How many backups should you make? As many as you’re comfortable with. Some people are happy with one. Columnist James Lileks, however, makes multiple backups, stored at his office-home and offsite. He even prints paper copies of his web pages.

Personally, I have three. I use two external hard drives (one to store copies of the files, the other as a system image using Windows’ program). I also copy my writing projects to a CD about once a month. When I finish a book, I copy everything associated with it to a DVD.

I admit that I’m pretty slapdash about my archives, but I’ve been working with my files for going on two decades, starting when I was storing by book projects on 3.5-inch discs. I’m comfortable with it.

3. Defending Your Computer

technology computers

Your computer is the most important machine in your business.

A little precaution goes a long way. Your computer is the most important machine in your business. When it goes south, not only can it take your files with them, but it forces you to put everything on hold until you find a solution. Your books go unwritten, your emails go unanswered, and you can’t react to anything crucial that happens in cyberspace, from an invitation to speak at an important event to a slanderous attack on your books on Twitter.

To lengthen the life of your computer:

1. Follow procedures. Shut down the computer the way it wants you to. Don’t turn it off by turning off your power source. Don’t perform a “hard shutdown” by holding down the start button; it is to be used only if the software locks up.

2. Keep the area around the box clear of obstructions. Computers create a lot of heat. That’s why there are air vents on the box. Make sure there’s plenty of room around it so that air can circulate. Keep the computer away from heat. If the office temperature goes above 80 degrees regularly, invest in air conditioning.

3. Keep out hair and dust. Animal hair and dust can build up inside the hardware that can shorten your computer’s life. Vacuum the slots every month or so, and once a year look inside the box, if it will let you and you’re comfortable working around cables and hardware, and check for dust build-up. Use the vacuum cleaner with the gentlest brush attachment to suck it up. It doesn’t have to be pristine, but you don’t want dust dunes crawling across the motherboard either.

4. Don’t kick or knock against the computer or monitor. The box to my computer is on the floor at my feet, and I have to take care not to run my chair or vacuum cleaner into it.

5. Vacuum the keyboard, especially if you have cats. The keys on most keyboards will pop off if you run a knife blade underneath one edge and lever it up. It’ll snap back if you push the key straight down. The larger keys such as the shift, enter, and delete keys might also be attached to the keyboard with a metal loop. They can be pried up, but do so very, very carefully. If you clear around all the single keys, the bigger keys need not be removed at all.

Every couple of years, depending on how much your kitties like sleeping on the keyboard, lift a key and look. If you see a carpet of hair, it’s time to bust out the vacuum cleaner and get to work. You’ll need to remove a lot of the keys to get most of it out.

6. Guard against viruses. If you have a PC with Microsoft Security Essentials on it, keep it up to date and schedule a regular quick scan weekly. Run the full scan at least quarterly. It’ll take several hours depending on the number of files you have. You can work while it’s going on, but the computer will run slower. I try to run it early Sunday morning, when no one’s on the network.

Need I say you shouldn’t visit any dodgy web sites, or download files unless you’re certain you know what they are?

Tip: Do not download a file from an email unless you’re sure about it. Unfortunately, it’s possible for hackers to send you an email with a familiar name on it, attached to a file that will do serious damage to your computer if you open it.

7. Defrag your hard drive (Windows only). Your computer tries to store a file as a chain of data, one after the other. When it can’t, it will scatter the data across the surface of the drive. This creates a fragmented hard drive. Over time, as you add, rework, and delete files, the hard drive becomes fragmented. It has to work harder to reassemble those broken files, and to save the new material where it can. It does that very well; it was designed to do that.

Now, it takes a long, long time for a hard drive to become so fragmented that it noticeably slows down. Depending on how many files you work with, it could take a year of daily use before a significant problem could arise.

Defragging your hard drive every quarter, or even every month keeps that from happening. Microsoft can defragment your hard drive for you, even while you’re working on it. (Apple designed its Macs to not need defragging.)

a. The Best Defense: A Second Computer

If you want a writing computer that never needs upgrading and is protected against viruses, get one that isn’t attached to the Internet. Make sure it has only the programs you need for working. No cat videos, no solitaire games (even the ones Microsoft puts on the computer), and no music except what you need to write to.

technology computers

Props to Dean Wesley Smith from the second computer idea.

A computer dedicated to writing is probably the best investment you can make in your career. Here’s why. We are creatures of habit. We respond to patterns. We see food, we eat it. We lay down, we’re inclined to sleep. We sit in front of the TV, we veg out for hours, longer than we intend to.

Twyla Tharp talked about this in “The Creative Habit,” her book on creativity. When you sit down at your desk and turn on the computer, are you in writing mode? Solitaire mode? Email mode? Check a few websites mode?

The task you do often enough is the one you will be habituated to do every time you sit down.

A second computer could habituate you to writing. When you sit there, you’ll have nothing else to do but your work. No matter how much you want to, you’ll never access the Internet. And your software will never go out of date and never fall prey to viruses.*

* Unless you plug in a flash drive and open a malware program on it. A reminder to practice safe computing!