Think before you start writing

14th November 2007 at 00:00

Six thousand years ago, the Sumerians might have been the bees' knees when it came to building cities, brewing (they had 20 varieties of beer) and pioneering civilisation but - let's be brutally frank about this - their attempts at writing were risible.

It's true that they were probably the first ever to think of the idea of writing things down, but they never developed a convenient way of doing it. There wasn't the equivalent of an entrepreneurial Bill Gates on hand, ready to corner the market with a prototype ball-point pen and primitive pad of Basildon Bond. So, the Sumerians had to make do with the sharpened ends of a reed with which they scratched on a clay tablet.

All self-respecting junior school pupils will have used Plasticine and a sawn-off drinking straw to experiment with this form of cuneiform writing. They will tell you that it is fiddly and time-consuming. And if you happen to make a mistake, there is no alternative but to roll the Plasticine into a ball and start again. But not before you have vented your frustration on your nearest classmates by jabbing them with the straw. It's not surprising, really, that the Sumerians went in for so much human sacrifice or felt the need for 20 kinds of beer.

When writing was such a slog, wannabe authors in Sumeria would have looked long and hard at the virgin slab of clay before making that first indelible stroke. When you can't afford to make a mistake, you are far more circumspect; when writing is such a laborious process, being concise becomes an absolute necessity. A redundant paragraph would not only be a stylistic faux pas, it would have cost you an afternoon - and you don't have too many of them when your life expectancy is thirtysomething.

It's unimaginably different from our experience of writing - especially for those of us who do so at a keyboard. We don't even have to go to the effort of forming the characters. With one Neanderthal thump on a key, each letter miraculously appears, perfect every time. And even two-fingered typists can churn out acres of print with the minimum of effort. The delete key can right the obvious wrongs, the spell-checker can find a few more, and, finally, the wonder of the laser or ink-jet printer can make even the sloppiest prose seem as if it's worthy of being read.

The result is that we are tempted to write too much. Moses managed to express the Ten Commandments in 372 words. But he was writing on tablets of stone. If he had taken a notebook computer when he ascended Mount Sinai, he would have churned out megabytes more of Thou Shalts and Shalt Nots.

He would have desk-top published the document, adorned it with snazzy headlines, and presented each of the chosen people with an individual copy. The trouble is, as with most DTP handouts - no one would ever quite have got round to reading it.

Head teachers who sit in front of a VDU to update the statement of the school's Aims and Objectives, should bear in mind that there is more chance of their words being read if there are only 372 - or fewer - of them. Pupils, too, need to be reminded that there is more to writing than the act of writing.

The word-processor might have made it far easier to generate text but the actual business of thinking about what you want to say and how best to say it is as difficult now as it was in ancient Sumeria. The conclusion, of course, is obvious - and could also prove invaluable in helping schools to balance their budgets. If we want our children to be good writers, we shouldn't give them fancy computers, but a dollop of Plasticine and a generous supply of straws.

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