Write like there’s nobody reading over your shoulder

I spend two and a half hours each day sitting on a train as I commute to and from my place of employment. For an aspiring writer with a full-time day job and the demands of a bustling young family awaiting him at home, those two and a half hours are a godsend. At least they would be if I used them wisely. Aside from the usual opportunities for procrastination that the exciting new world of digital media provides, there’s one thing that stops me from being as productive as I should be with this wonderful, godsent train time of mine. I really don’t like people reading over my shoulder.

Don’t tell me I’m being paranoid. I know what you people are like. Are you telling me you’ve never snuck a peek at the laptop of the person sitting next to you, just in case they were working on something interesting? And are you telling me you wouldn’t read every single word if you saw that they were working on a screenplay? I know I would, and that means you would too.

Oh, you wouldn’t?


Dirty. Stinking. Liar.

On rare occasions, a sentence will emerge from my keyboard perfectly formed and beautiful, like a newborn baby in a Hollywood movie. More often than that – much, much, much more often – my sentences emerge bewildered, screaming and covered in blood. I need to hang them upside down and smack them on the bottom to jolt them into life, then give them a good and thorough scrubbing before Grandma and Grandpa come to visit (yes, I am an 18th century midwife).

If you read over my shoulder while I’m writing, all you’ll see is what’s on the page. What you won’t see is how I feel about what’s on the page, or what I plan to do with it next. These details are very important. My work in progress is a combination of thoughtfully constructed and developed passages that require no further attention, and hastily thrown together placeholder material that I plan to revisit, reshape and possibly discard altogether in the future. The person reading over my shoulder can’t tell which is which, and the thought of somebody reading my placeholder material out of context disturbs me. I need to be able to experiment in private. I need to be able to bury the bodies. I need to be able to write a lame joke that has a sliver of comic potential then cryogenically freeze it until I either discover a cure for its affliction, or abandon all hope and fire it off into space, never to be seen again.

I’m not a prodigious writer. My word count inches hesitantly upwards like a three-toed sloth with a hangover. But as slowly as I squeeze out the pages now, I’d be even slower if I felt like I had to explain every word to a person who I imagined was reading over my shoulder. If I were to write on a laptop on the train, I’d be turning constantly to the people around me and saying “Just so you know, I’m not happy with this section. This other section is pretty good but this one needs more work. I’m going to leave it here as a placeholder but I’ll need to come back and take another look at it. And yes, I know I’ve used the word “amazing” four times in that sentence but I’m going to get the thesaurus out later and change one of them. Oh, and by the way, this bit over here is a screaming newborn baby, and I’ve frozen this bit like Walt Disney until I find a cure for puns. OK, we good? Great. Damn it, this is my stop.”

My solution to this problem? I write on my phone. Its tiny little screen is the perfect anti-surveillance device. And I shrink the text down until it’s extra, extra small; so small that only Superman could read it over my shoulder, and we all know he wouldn’t be caught dead on public transport.

Snooping super-commuters aside, I like to write on my phone. It keeps my literary experimentation private, and there’s the added benefit that I can have everything that I’m working on sitting right there in my pocket at all times. If I have an idea for my screenplay when I’m out trekking in the wilderness, I can insert that idea right into place at the beginning of Act III, rather than scribbling it down on the back of a rabbit then struggling to decipher it when I get back home because it got all smudged while the rabbit was bouncing around in my rucksack.

Writing on a phone suits my particular set of requirements and neuroses, but it does come with one major drawback. The keyboard. A touchscreen keyboard is fine for composing the occasional 140 character text message or tweet but longer pieces of writing are a different story. I grew up in the olden days, before texting was invented, so I haven’t developed the requisite digital dexterity to thumb-type like one of the gals from a 1960s secretarial pool. I need to have all of my fingers operating in unison to build up the kind of typing speed that I sometimes need to maintain creative momentum, and the only way I can do that is with a full sized keyboard.

So I got one. It’s a bluetooth keyboard that pairs to my phone and allows me to type with all ten of my fingers like a civilised human being; not some recently evolved primate that’s so enamoured with its brand new opposable thumbs that it wants to use them for absolultely everything, at the expense of the other eight digits.

I’m pretty happy with my keyboard so far. I already feel more productive. I’m using it right now, in fact. I’m sitting on the train with the keyboard resting across my knees, and the phone sitting on my right upper thigh, in between the keyboard and my body. Can you picture the configuration? I hope so, because it’s important for understanding my latest problem.

The location of the phone affords me the greatest possible privacy. In fact, it’s positioned in such a way that it’s almost unnoticeable to the casual observer. Of course, what this means is that all my fellow commuters can see is a guy typing away on a disconnected keyboard whilst staring intently into his own crotch. I may as well be wearing a newspaper captain’s hat and working a pretend steering wheel like I think I’m driving the train.

But I guess this is the price I’ll have to pay. It’s the old “perceived lunacy versus actual security” conundrum that has plagued the justifiably paranoid throughout the ages. So mock me if you will, commuters. It bothers me not because I know the truth. My bluetooth keyboard will make me more productive. My writing will flow more freely than ever. And my tinfoil helmet will conceal my thoughts from the approaching alien invaders.

8 Responses to 'Write like there’s nobody reading over your shoulder'

  1. Phil says:

    If you’re a long distance commuting, paranoid wannabe writer like me, and you’re interested in what kind of gear I’m using, I’m currently writing on a Samsung Galaxy S2 smartphone paired with a Microsoft 6000 bluetooth keyboard, and using DataViz’s Documents to Go as my document editing software. There is definitely room for improvement in each of those tools but I’m pretty happy with them overall.

  2. Phil says:

    Reflecting on my typing technique, I actually only use nine fingers. I never use my left thumb for anything. I need to start rotating my thumbs so I don’t wear the right one out.

  3. Mark says:

    I’ll never understand you young people and your gadgets. Piece of stone and chisel has always worked for me. If it aint broke don’t fix it.

    Admittedly the rent-a-cops on the train complain about the mess. And writing all your stories in the form of commandments is a little limiting after a while. Still, you can’t always expect tradition to be easy.


  4. Glenn Murray says:

    Great idea! How does your phone battery go? Assume you have a charger at work?

    • Phil says:

      I keep a combined AC/USB/car charger in my bag for all emergency charging scenarios. If I spend my entire train trip writing, I’ll usually need to charge my phone while I’m at work in order to make it through the day but I think the battery drain is mostly due to the editing software. I’m sure the bluetooth keyboard has an impact on battery life as well but I haven’t noticed a massive difference.

  5. Magda says:

    No proszę. Autor plus 5.

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