Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Best Ever Hacks for Writing — Then and Now

Writing hacks have been around for millennia, but I never thought of them as such. Then a sentence from Pat Smith's recent article solidified the approach to this month's theme that had been turning cartwheels through my mind for several days. (If you missed her post, you'll find it's well worth going back for the read.) She said: "This problem began when a caveman chiseled the first petroglyph onto a rock and has persisted right up to modern times."

Unarguably, the chore of creating those first written records has evolved into such ease of writing that it's almost mind boggling. How did it happen? Let's take a journey through the best writing hacks ever.

That rock the caveman used to write on might well have been the wall of his home; and no matter what form of a chisel was at his disposal, it would have been nothing short of a labor-intensive job. We think we have it tough when when we settle down with our electronic devices to write a few hundred words a day. How many words (pictures) do you think he "penned" a day? Yet he persisted in leaving his stone journal for posterity (whether or not that was his intent). Or perhaps he painted his history on his cave wall. In either case, the primary fruit of his labor, at least for us, is its contribution to our knowledge of his life and times. Without his effort, we would know little to nothing about about the daily routines of our distant ancestors who populated his area of the world. Having said that, and as much as I love creating stories, I would have never become a novelist—or a writer of any sort—if I had to chisel each line and curve into solid rock. Nor would I paint a picture of my day's activities. My art is limited to words; my pictures would be indecipherable.

Enter an extension of that hack. Stone tablets made more sense in some ways than cave walls, and very small ones may have been somewhat portable. They also could be displayed publicly. Depending on their size, however, most of them weren't likely carried around. One example comes to mind: the 1680 pound Rosetta stone fragment. What a hack that was! Discovered by Napoleon's soldiers in 1799, it presented (and preserved) a royal decree of Egypt's 13-year-old pharaoh, Ptolemy. Written in three languages about 196 B.C.E., it included ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient Egyptian Demotic scripts, and ancient Greek. The significance of this discovery lies in the hack—a bit different from current writing hacks in that it was a reading hack. The other two languages of identical information on the Rosetta Stone provided the needed key to eventually unlock the meaning of the ancient, out-of-use hieroglyphics and allowed interpretation of other important historical documents written in that lost language.

We must also give a nod to papyrus. Created in ancient Egypt from the papyrus plant, the paper-thin sheets were often made into scrolls, which could then be used to record lengthy passages. This hack revolutionized the task of recording the written word in a semi-portable format and allowed books to be written down and passed to others to read. Because of its fragile nature, however, papyrus was replaced in Europe in the first century by sturdier parchment and vellum, which were made from animal skins. These hacks promoted the creation of libraries to house lengthy documents, as well as personal possession of various writings. We'd come a long way from pictures on stone walls; but still, in most instances, the words had to be handwritten or inscribed, a long and tedious process with no back button to delete errors. Careful copyists and scribes were in high demand to make accurate copies of important works. Writing a book would still be an arduous task. We needed another hack, and we got it.

Paper was invented in China early in the second century (about 105 C.E.), but wasn't available in Europe until the latter part of the eleventh century. With the spread of this new medium throughout the Far East and the Middle East, books became single volumes that could be carried by hand rather than small bundles of book sections that had to be toted around on a cart. The advent of the single-volume book inspired the growth a reading culture, and doors opened to writers who longed to tell their tales or record events that shaped lives, regimes, or countries. Libraries carried thousands of books. Hear ye! Hear ye! Historians, journalists, and storytellers, listen up. The greatest hack to date had been created.

The use of paper made practical the invention of the printing press, an accomplishment typically credited to Johannes Gutenberg, who, around 1440 C.E., revolutionized Europe's writing and reading world with his press that operated on movable lead type. However, Gutenberg's press came along far later than printing presses in China. Some 600 years prior, the Chinese had invented a movable type press to create books. For example, Bi Sheng, who lived from approximately 970 to 1051 C.E., used block type with movable clay letters [Chinese symbols?]. Gutenberg's press improved upon the Chinese version because it solved the problem of ink-soaked clay letters and allowed for even distribution of ink throughout the page. The hacks marched onward.

Fast forward to our modern times and a series of hacks that propelled writing into an era of mushrooming opportunities. By the mid 1880s, typewriters became common and then essential office equipment. First, we had manual machines, followed by the electric variety. The hacks kept coming, each following its predecessor in quick succession. Then it happened—the hack to end all hacks—the advent of the mainframe computer.

Very rudimentary versions of today's models were conceived and sometimes invented in the early 1800s. Most were not successful. However, today's rapid evolution of these electronic devices, as well as their broad applications in so many areas of our lives, has literally changed the world—as well as the lives of writers everywhere. Complementary applications such as the internet have widened local markets into international mega malls with access to opportunities never before available. Talk about the "best ever hacks for writing"! No doubt even greater hacks are waiting on the horizon to change our lives, our writing tools, and our capabilities beyond anything we currently imagine.

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and thrillers. You can contact her through her websites: LSLaneBooks.com and DenverEditor.com.


  1. Great hack! A short history of writing & reading. Thanks, Linda

  2. Thank you, Linda Visman. Researching it was an interesting journey from antiquity to the present. I learned a lot along the way. :-)

  3. I feel as though I've experienced these hacks first hand, Linda. Well, maybe not the stone and chisel.. It is fascinating, however, how much our writing tools have changed in my lifetime.

  4. For many of us who are past retirement age, the changes are mind-boggling

  5. Linda, I love this column! What a fascinating look at the evolution of writing (and reading) over the centuries. And I appreciate the shout-out for my post.

  6. Now the changes are coming faster than I can keep up with. By the way, your post was a keeper, Pat. :-)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook