A Brief History of Creative Writing

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

A Brief History of Creative Writing

by Matt Herron | 19 Comments

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There are hundreds of new programs, websites, and apps to help with your creative writing, but it might help you put them into perspective by examining the history out of which these technologies have emerged.

A Brief History of Creative Writing

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Like all technology, new tools are built on the foundation of the ones that came before them. Let’s take a quick journey through the history of creative writing tools so that we can evaluate modern creative writing tools in a historical context.

Oral Storytelling

Originally, stories were passed from generation to generation through oral storytelling traditions.

In these traditions, the primary “writing” tool was the storyteller’s memory and voice, though stories were often augmented by instruments and dance. Stories were imbued with the personality of the teller, and took on color in the creative exchange with the audience.

Stories  evolved over time through the retelling. They improved, were embellished, or were transformed into myth and legend.

The Written Word

It wasn’t until (relatively) recently, with the invention of the written word (archaeologists place its formation around 3200 BC, depending on location) that we started writing stories down.

This is where the history of creative writing really begins.

Some of the earliest examples of written stories in the Western tradition are the Bible and Homer’s Odyssey; in the Eastern Tradition, the Indian Vedas and Sanskrit poems; in central America, the Mayan Codices.

It’s likely that many of these early texts were simply being transcribed from the oral tradition. The legend that Homer was blind—whether it’s true or not—gives us a symbolic link connecting the oral and written storytelling traditions.

In any case, storytellers started writing their stories down. Once that happened, the process of creative writing evolved.

Instead of telling and retelling stories orally and making them better over time, written language gave storytellers the ability to tell themselves the story over and over again using a drafting process. It gave them a way to record more stories by providing them a physical extension of their memory: ink and paper.

The art of writing was an esoteric discipline for a long time. At first, only monks and the rich and educated classes were taught how to write. Inks and quills were expensive. Paper was hard to come by and difficult to make. World literacy skyrocketed in the second half of the 20th century. As late as 1950, world literacy was estimated at a mere 36%.

Today, 83% of people can read and write.

The Printing Press

Apart from the expense of writing in ancient times, many obstacles to distribution had to be surmounted. The Bible is an example of a collection of stories that found early success and popularity. But access was limited. Bibles were copied out by hand and manually bound.

This laborious process continued for several hundred years, until Gutenberg came along in 1450 and invented the printing press. Though it was not the first printing press (the Chinese are often given credit for inventing the first moveable type), it changed everything.

The printing press made the first mass production of books possible. It’s important to understand that Gutenberg’s press led not to an improvement of the writing process, but to the distribution process. This is an important distinction. Writing a story was still laborious as ever, but now a writer could reach their readers in a more affordable way.

Typewriters

Around the late 1800s, the invention of the typewriter began to develop the creative writing process in earnest.

The typewriter quickly became an indispensable tool for writers. Instead of writing a story by hand, then having it typeset by a printing press, a writer could now push buttons to get their words printed directly on the page. It made the writing process faster and more efficient, and the wide and rapid adoption of the typewriter proved its worth.

It’s not a novel thing to you and I that a writer can push buttons and see their words appear before them—we grew up with computers. Yet, to writers at the tail end of the 19th century, it must have been a magical experience.

Computers

A hundred years later, computers were invented and another dramatic shift in the writing process was made possible. Instead of typing a story on paper, writers could type it on a screen—no more white out, no more wasted paper.

The invention of computers, and the writing software developed for them, marks the next evolutionary step in writing tools. A Brief History of Word Processing explains: “With the screen, text could be entered and corrected without having to produce a hard copy. Printing could be delayed until the writer was satisfied with the material.”

This was followed by increased storage capacity, which upped the volume and number of works which could be edited or worked on simultaneously, spell check, instantly accessible dictionaries, and other innovations.

Non-Linear Word Processing Software

This brief history of creative writing tools brings us to the present day.

And yet, word processing software has not changed all that much in recent years. Modern versions of Microsoft Word, for example, are almost identical to the version from 1997 on which I first learned word processing. That annoying paperclip fellow is gone, but the interface of the software and its core functionality remains the same. Namely, the writer is presented with a single vertical column of digital “pages” on which to type. In most word processing software, that linear structure cannot be changed.

The well-informed among you are now thinking about the exceptions to this rule, or what I like to call the next milestone in creative writing tool history: non-linear creative writing programs like Scrivener and Ulysses.

Instead of trying to imitate the typewriter, these programs approach writing from a structural angle.  They allow you to write out of order and rearrange components (pages, scenes, chapters, etc.) in a hierarchical tree structure. They also give you the ability to apply meta-data to your work—things like point of view, draft status, etc.—in an effective, tangible way that increases understanding and, if used correctly, productivity and enjoyment in the writing process.

In the history of creative writing tools, non-linear word processing software is the cutting edge.

Digital Publishing

Modern authors also need tools that gives them a leg up on the digital first approach. Anyone who has ever tried to convert a Microsoft Word document into an ebook will sympathize with this challenge—Word has a penchant for adding hidden formatting tags and making it difficult for writers to convert their stories into publishable digital formats.

Tools like Scrivener help remove that pain by giving you a compile process that is designed to export for all the modern e-book formats.

I don’t want you to struggle with out-dated linear word processing software anymore. I want you to be an evolved writer.

I want you to think digital first. I want you to write in a way that’s natural to you—whether that’s out of order or linearly—using a modern piece of software that’s designed for both.

When you write, think about digital publishing from the beginning.

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Scrivener is my tool of choice, and I’ve already written several articles about how to use it. Over the coming weeks, I’ll continue to cover the writing process with Scrivener in detail, from planning a story all the way through compiling to publication-ready formats.

I hope that with this historical context, you’ll be able to see the benefits of working with the most modern creative writing tools. And if the learning curve of a program like Scrivener intimidates you, you’re not alone. Stay tuned, and I’ll walk you through it from beginning to end.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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