The backspace problem

The worst invention in writing and technology history was the backspace key.

Before computers, we wrote using typewriters or on paper. They had a restriction. It was really, really hard to undo what you wrote. On a typewriter, you’d have to white-out your errors. On paper, you’d erase your pencil marks or strike out your pen mistakes.

Then came computers. They had this thing called “backspace” where you could just delete a letter, a word, a sentence, or even entire paragraphs with a few pecks at the keyboard. It was a boon to editors who could finally make all the changes they wanted with little effort.

But it came at a cost. You spent time rewriting that last sentence, editing that paragraph over and over. Refining and refining what you wrote over and over again.

You believed that putting more effort into editing would make your writing better. But the issue was that your text didn’t get better. It just churned. Even worse, you kept making changes, but you never felt “done” or “happy” with it.

For tech products, “backspace” meant that your product could be modified trivially. There was always time to get in that one last change, refine that design, tweak that text. But it has the same penalties — time churning on your designs, and the mental strife of not being done or happy with it.

And somewhere along the way, that goal you started with got lost.

I recall seeing Lynda Barry talk about this. She was struggling to write a book on a computer. “The problem with writing on a computer was that I could delete anything I felt unsure about. This meant that a sentence was gone before I even had a chance to see what it was trying to become.”

She eventually wrote that book with a paintbrush. “I was surprised by the instant change in my experience of writing. Without a delete button, I could allow the unexpected to grow.”

So when I wrote this, I wrote it all the way through to the end with just a couple of tiny edits. Then I went back and did an editing pass to make sure it flowed — that it emphasized the points I wanted to make.

You might think punchcards for code and ink on paper are inferior to digital text and software editors. But those old “technologies” forced you to keep going — move past the doubt and reconsideration. You had to fight to get to the finish line. There was no time for changes.

And you were happier when you were done with your ink writing or punchcards compared to people who constantly re-edited their code or messages with “backspace.”

My challenge to you is this: turn off your constant editing mode. Try not to use that backspace key after every mistake. Don’t re-edit word by word.

Instead, work your way through to the end. Find your message. Then you can refine the details to make sure everything fits together — whether you’re writing that text message, blog post, or new mobile app that’s gonna change the world. Your work will be better for it, and you’ll be happier with what you did.

And now to take more of my advice and get to those 100 or so posts I keep re-editing but never publish…

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