Creativity is not an app

Spend much time reading about writing and creativity online and you’ll come across the idea that creativity and efficiency are the same thing, that ‘better’ software can improve your writing. Writers love to talk about the new app that makes them more efficient, or about how they wrote 100,000 words in a month. As if quality can spontaneously arise from quantity and speed.

If this approach helps you, then don’t let me put you off – but let’s stop pretending that the quest for perfect efficiency in the writing process will improve the quality of what we create.

I think this idea arises from a widespread belief that all human endeavours can be understood in the same way as a computer program. As software dominates more and more of our affairs, it’s only natural that this idea should emerge. The busy office worker who replaces her to-do list with an app believes that a computer can effectively manage her workload – maybe even than it can do a better job. In some cases this belief is justified (although I know people who have tried a lot of to-do apps and failed to find one that works for them). In some cases it isn’t, and the computer model ends up being too inflexible, or certain UI design choices end up changing behaviour as the user adapts to fit the software’s quirks. We’ve all been there, right?

Sometimes this is no big deal, but sometimes the user finds the new method or app worse in numerous subtle ways. Maybe they tell themselves it’s fine because everything is an app now. Maybe they’ve come to believe what the world tells them, that computers are better than humans. This message is everywhere.

My point here is that software restricts choices and changes behaviours, because software that attempts to model some aspect of the human experience can only ever be just that – a model. The model may be good enough – or even better than what it replaces in several ways – but it’s always someone else’s idea of what you want to do.

This brings us back to the belief that the perfect writing app will make you more creative or improve the quality of your work. It won’t. Software always drives in the direction of greater efficiency, more features, more speed. These qualities may or may not be beneficial in some way, but they have nothing to do with creativity, because that comes from within – it’s an ineffable aspect of the human mind that can’t be modelled by machine. If you don’t believe that, then maybe you’ve internalised the idea that computers are better than we are.

I’ll finish with a personal example. Over the years I have used many writing apps. I’ve written novels in ClarisWorks and Microsoft Word, composed features in Ulysses and BBEdit. These apps are all absolutely fine – when you’re in a flow state and the words are coming, anything will do – but in the last year I’ve gone back to writing drafts with a pencil. Why? Because I have to pause every few minutes to sharpen it, and this gives my mind the chance to breathe and make connections. The quality of my work is always better when it starts with a pencil. Another reason is that I have to type it into a computer afterwards, which gives me another chance to improve my prose.

Of course, this may very well not apply to how you write – which is precisely my point.

Don’t let the world tell you that your creativity, your individuality, can be modelled by an app. This belief diminishes the standard of what it means to be human just a little bit. You’re better than that. Use any app you like, but recognise that quality comes from the human mind, not the machine world.