Should You Write Your First Draft By Hand?

We’re in a love-hate relationship with handwriting. Some studies claim that writing by hand makes us smarter than keyboarding; others insist that while handwriting remains a relevant skill in general, teaching cursive handwriting has become a waste of students’ time. Still others think handwriting is already obsolete.

Writers are split as well. Some insist that writing by hand is a waste of time, particularly in a world where easy connectivity means you can type or tap out any note at any time and have it instantly stored in a centralized (typically, cloud-based) location. Others, like me, say that you can pry my pen from my cold dead hands.

I write all my fiction first drafts by hand. Here’s why.

Leave The Office ASAP

Writing is Personal

There’s no consensus as to who first penned (pun intended) the image of writing as “sitting down and bleeding,” but that image keeps being invoked because it’s so illustrative of the process.

Fiction writing is intensely personal. Its intimacy can intimidate beginners into never starting, and it can stall veterans who decide to open a vein rather than simply write to deadline.

Since I also make my living by writing copy, sitting at the computer feels public to me. I draft most of the work I do for clients on the computer; when I’m sitting at it, I’m in People Mode, even when there’s no one else in my house. People Mode is necessary in order for me to occupy the same space as my audience, which I have to do in order to ensure I’m writing a piece that will make sense to them.

I cannot, however, both write fiction and be in People Mode. I can edit that way, but forming ideas into words is, for me, incompatible with performative extroversion.

In my notebook, I’m free to write the worst crap in the world. I can fill five pages with crappy false starts. I can doodle until I figure out what I came to say. None of it matters, since nobody but me will ever see it. I’m alone with my thoughts, which is exactly where I need to be in order to tell a story.

Handwriting is More Secure

Sure, I can’t password-protect a notebook. But I’ve never lost a notebook because I failed to hit “save” or had one eaten by the Blue Screen of Death.

I lost my first round of typed fiction drafts in 1998, when my mother’s Gateway 2000 crashed. I lost another round, including two full and three partial novel drafts, in 2004 when my then-boyfriend botched a backup job.

Even files I haven’t technically lost, I’ve lost due to advances in technology and/or the degradation of digital media. I have zip disks from the late 1990s with my work stored on them, but neither I nor anyone I know owns a zip drive any longer. The floppy disks containing my earliest work, from the late 1980s, are probably corrupt – even if I had an Apple IIGS that could read them.

My notebooks from the 1980s, however, are still entirely readable. Embarrassing, but readable.

The problem with preserving digital works and the degradation of media hasn’t pinged only my radar, either. Check out, for example, the 2015 art project that printed 106 volumes of Wikipedia in English – of nearly 7,500 total volumes.

Speaking of Wikipedia….

Ever hop online to check just one little thing, and suddenly you have 83 tabs open, are reading about the social life of aardvarks, and it’s Tuesday?

Falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole is really easy to do, and it’s even easier when you have ADHD. But I can’t fall down the research hole or get wrapped up in a social media argument when I don’t have access to the Internet.

The notebook prevents me from getting sidetracked by the Intertubes. It removes the quick-hit solution to intermittent boredom. And since boredom appears to be essential to creativity, it may also make me a better writer.

I’m Old

I also like the notebook for deeply personal, even idiosyncratic reasons.

For instance, writing by hand angers my arthritis far less than typing on my phone. I like being in less pain.

I also like notebooks because they’re an old habit: I grew up at a time in which computers weren’t a standard household object. My dad bought an Apple IIGS not long after they hit the market, but he was very much in the minority (even my school hadn’t sprung for the IIGS, preferring to stick with the IIe when anybody used a computer at all). My mother was gifted a Commodore 64, but it had no word-processing program.

My computer time was limited until I was in high school, but I was allowed to have all the notebooks and writing utensils I wanted. Today, when I think, “I want to write,” my brain spits out images of notebooks, not of my laptop, tablet or phone.

…And I Used to Be a Smug Little Snot

I also (major confession time) used to love being smug. Loved it. I was one of those college kids who carried around a Moleskine and said “I’m writing a novel” with just the right elitist inflection.

Notebooks let you be smug in a way laptops simply don’t. Look around your local coffee shop: Chances are you’ll see half a dozen people on laptops or tablets. What are they doing? Are they writing, checking Facebook, making dinosaur porn?

There’s no way to know. Everybody buried in a device looks exactly the same, which is how we get endless smug Boomer memes about phone use instead of acknowledging that half the people on their phones in public at any given time are probably doing some kind of business, especially in a world where people think that just because you can answer the phone any moment of the day or night means you should.

But write in a notebook, and everybody knows you are writing. More importantly, everyone knows you are serious about your art. Otherwise you’d bang it out on a keyboard like a Philistine.

(Philistines had keyboards, right? I’m pretty sure they had keyboards.)

Smugness lost its appeal right around the end of my sophomore year of college. That’s when I realized I was filling a Moleskine every month, and that my habit of carrying it everywhere was making it look…no longer smug. Plus my favorite pens are Pilot V5s, which are not smug.

Besides, I almost never write in coffee shops.

Notebook vs. Laptop: Which Should You Use?

Honestly? I don’t know. I’m not you.

Some folks struggle with handwriting for various reasons, or can’t do it at all, making the keyboard their only realistic choice for writing in a manner that can even begin to keep up with their brains. The ability to store things in the cloud is great if you’re constantly losing your notes. And someone, somewhere, probably possesses the self-restraint (or the Internet restriction apps) to write without getting sidetracked by Instagram.

The best method for writing is the one that lets you finish. Everything else is window dressing.

Advertisements

Study: 1 in 40 Autistic People Surprised You’re Surprised That 1 in 40 People are Autistic

A study announcing that the autism rate among children has risen to 1 in 40, higher than the 1 in 58 previously estimated by the CDC, is making headlines. Despite the fact that the study authors themselves admitted they were not surprised (a South Korean study put the number at 1 in 38), we’re seeing the usual uptick in “crisis” rhetoric, along with the usual new spate of bizarre woo-based memes.

fancy-chicken-close-up
Chicken Little.

Since leaving activism several months ago, I’ve scarcely kept up with autism news and I’ve commented on autism-related subjects even less. This one, however, stands out to me because of its parallels with a Quora A2A I received a few days ago: “Have you ever shared a bathroom with a transwoman [sic] and what happened?”

The answer to this question is, of course, “I have been in a public bathroom with a trans person before and so have you, and neither of us probably realized it at the time.” Trans people make up 0.6 to 1 percent of the U.S. population, after all. That’s about two million people. Evenly divided by state (which the population overall is not, so neither are trans people), that’s 40,000 trans people per state, or an entire Big Ten university.

The response to the Chicken Littles scurrying in response to the study results is the same: “Autistic people have always made up about 2.5 percent of the population, you just didn’t realize it before now.” That’s about 8 million autistic people, or about 160,000 per state – a midsize metropolitan area.

Natural redheads, incidentally, also make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Have you met more than one natural redhead in your life? Statistically, you’ve met that many autistic people as well.

Of course, this answer seems to placate no one. In fact, it most often appears to entrench the speaker further in their anxiety that Things Are Getting Worse All The Time.

Granted, “things have actually been as bad as you think for a while now” isn’t exactly comfort food. For someone whose anxiety is driven by a sense of lost control, “it’s been out of control” doesn’t help and can actually make the anxiety worse.

And questions like “why are all the kids turning autistic?!” or “are there trans people in our bathrooms?!” are very much about a sense of lost control. Autistic people and trans people are seen as threats because of their status as Other. When more of those scary Others start to pop up, many people experience a sense of disturbance to their internal order, their sense of how things should be: Men are men, women are women, everyone communicates in a certain way, and all is right with the world.

Reminders that the world has never actually been that way aren’t great. In fact, they’re kinda horrible.

Of course, not everyone reacts to new information in this fashion. Research indicates that our brains can be structured in ways that correlate with our willingness to embrace difference (and with our political views). The concept of fixed vs. growth mindset explores similar differences from another angle.

For the less-fixed types, “Autistic/trans folks have always been in your life” actually can be comforting. Oh, the world isn’t changing at all; it’s always been like this, and I’ve done just fine so far. For those more comfortable with embracing ambiguity and difference, this statement may even be delivered with an edge of annoyance: We’re here, we’re (neuro)queer, please get used to it so we can stop teaching 101-level classes about how we do in fact exist.

But how do we get past the Chickens Little, for whom “hey, we’ve always been here” is a reason to avoid the 101 classroom instead of entering it? I don’t know. I just know that a lot of our modern anxieties aren’t as diverse as we think.

 

Your “Thought Leadership” Was Written By A Freelancer

Ah, thought leadership.

What is it? We don’t know, but it sounds cool. Let’s do that.

How do we do that? We create cutting-edge, inspiring content, and we get it “out there.”

Okay… How do we do “cutting-edge”?

…I have no idea. Just call the freelancer.

your _thought leader_ is actually a freelancer(1)

It’s hard to pin down what “thought leadership” means these days. In some circles, it seems to involve hiring a specific brand of motivational speaker to waste your team’s time in the name of feeling good about not adding anything to your bottom line. In others, it’s all about regurgitating old-school business wisdom in 21st-century packages. Once in a great while, someone will point out that “thought leadership” should, y’know, lead somewhere – but the reason folks are fed up with it is that is so rarely does this in practice.

I first got introduced to “thought leadership” in 2016 or so, when a client asked me to “position [them] as a thought leader in [their] industry.”

At the time, I had no idea what this meant. I was a little intimidated by it.

Like so many others, I assumed that “thought leadership” implied I needed to communicate ideas worth having but that no one was talking about. That’s hard to do when, like me, you write for a half-dozen different industries every week. I’m good, but I’m not a top thinker in six different industries good.

Or am I?

Here’s why your favorite “thought leader” is probably a freelance writer in disguise:

1. Thought leadership isn’t about actually being at the top of your game.

Sure, it helps. But as with everything under the sun of late-stage capitalism, what you know is less important than how well you can distribute your image as a source of that knowledge.

To succeed as a “thought leader,” you don’t actually have to have cutting-edge, five-years-ahead-of-their-time thoughts. You need to be able to rearrange the ideas that are emerging today in a way that makes other people say “Eureka!”

You know who’s really good at finding current conversations, gleaning out the relevant bits, and repackaging them into a shiny, shareable 1500 words of new car smell? Freelance writers.

In fact, I’m about to drop that last paragraph into my LinkedIn profile.

2. Most thought leaders really want to be influencers.

I have never had anyone whose life work was research ask me to “position [them] as a thought leader,” and I never will.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest one is that wannabe (excuse me, “emerging”) thought leaders occupy industries in which turning your own name into a trustworthy brand is part and parcel of success. You don’t just need to be good at what you do; you need people in your industry to know you’re good at it.

The goal of thought leadership, in most cases, is to turn the emerging thought leader into an “influencer,” or someone whose platform is so large that others turn to them for access to their audience. That’s why “thought leadership” itself has become a commodity for which people are willing to pay money.

But how do you make the transition from nobody to thought leader and from thought leader to influencer? The right people to ask are those that sit at the nexus every single day: content writers.

Iv’e been in this business for about ten years now, and in that time, I’ve seen innumerable people, ideas, and methods come and go. I started writing in the “cram keywords into barely comprehensible content” era; today, I wouldn’t dream of writing for anyone but actual humans. I remember when we didn’t have names for “influencers.” Heck, I remember the screechy noise my 14k modem made.

In short, I understand how thought leaders and influencers get made. For someone who wants to make that climb, I’m the one to ask for advice.

3.  Writing is a separate skill set from thought leadership.

Some people who want to become thought leaders are legitimately great at what they do. It’s in everyone’s best interests for these folks to keep doing what they do.

But what they do isn’t building a personal brand, or writing world-class content, or connecting it to the work of others in their industry. To do that, they’d have to step away from what they do and learn how to research trending keywords, identify existing influencers, or strike the right “candid, yet professional” tone.

It’s a waste of their time and talent. That’s where freelance writers come in.

We’re the nerds who buy ourselves subscriptions to Buzzsumo for Christmas. We installed Pocket because we got sick of crashing our phone’s mobile browser with open tabs. We wouldn’t dream of committing to a headline for this post without comparing “thought leader” and “thought leadership” in Google Trends.

(Don’t believe me? This post’s draft headline was “Your Thought Leader is Actually a Freelance Writer.”)

In fifteen minutes’ time, I can tell you what conversations you should be having today, which ones everyone else will be having tomorrow, and which ones have already been consigned to the purgatory of memes and dad jokes. In twenty-five minutes, I can also tell you how your industry’s biggest conversations affect [insert other industry here] and vice versa.

We don’t want subject-matter experts to be able to do that. We want them to go on experting at their subject matter. Context and communication are freelance writers’ area of expertise.

Is it worth taking so-named “thought leaders” seriously? As someone who writes an awful lot of the content that appears under their bylines, I’m going to say:

Don’t take the title seriously. It’s a bit silly these days, and even Google Trends is predicting that it’s had its time in the sun.

But read the work. Some of it cuts right to the heart of topics you’d otherwise have to distill from ten or twenty articles on the same topic. Some of it will frame problems in a way you never considered before, leading you like magic to an answer that has eluded you. Some of it is just plain interesting.

I know. I wrote it.

 

Should You Hire Millennials for Leadership Positions?

A not-at-all satirical thinkpiece.

In my decade of helping brands position themselves as “thought leaders,” I’ve been asked for a thinkpiece on Millennials about once every other month. But this recent request in my inbox gave me pause:

Can you discuss whether companies should train Millennials into their leadership?

Yes, absolutely – and no, absolutely not.

Should you hire millennials for leadership positions_

There are very good reasons not to train Millennials for leadership positions in any business or organization. Here are three:

1.  They’re too young (until they’re too old).

Millennials have greedily occupied the younger end of the workforce, making up 100 percent of all workers ages 23 to 38 or thereabouts.

Their pervasiveness, and the trickiness of their ages, make Millennials a bad bet for leadership positions. Do you really want to put a snot-nosed 23-year-old college graduate in charge of your teams? And that 37-year-old you just hired for a quarter of what you were paying her 67-year-old predecessor: Do you really think your people are going to take someone seriously when they’re practically over the hill?

Millennials are straight-up too young and irresponsible for leadership positions, unless they’re too old to be taken seriously in those positions. It’s best just to give them a miss altogether.

2. They don’t value money.

Here’s a sampling of things Millennials have killed in the past few years:

Oh, yeah. And The American Dream.

What do all these things have in common? That’s right: They’re all sites of “conspicuous consumption,” or methods for telegraphing the unnecessarily large size of one’s paycheck.

Millennials, instead, appear to be spending more on education, healthcare, and rent. Seriously? When did those ever impress the Joneses?

These spending trends should give employers pause. If Millennials can’t be trusted to invest their pay in the sort of status objects that will make everyone on the block envy them, what can they be trusted with? Certainly not leadership.

3. Capitalism is doomed.

Capitalism is dying anyway, and not just because Millennials killed it. Whether you prefer to frame the oncoming problem as the accelerating approach of catastrophic weather changes brought on by climate fluctuations, a Biblical end times scenario, or the arrival of fully automated luxury gay space communism, the fact is that capitalism is drawing to its close.

Sure, failing to prepare a single Millennial worker for leadership will leave a 15+ year hole in your company’s continuity, as your older workers retire or die and the remainder are in no way ready to take the reins. But since your business and everybody else’s aren’t going to survive the coming climate/Bible/Federation utopia apocalypse anyway, why are you wasting time and money training anyone for leadership? Think of the shareholders!

In short: Training Millennials for leadership positions is a bad proposition. Stick to training everyone born before 1980 or after 2000, and leave your Millennial workers to do what they do best: an unpaid internship.

 

5 Things I Wish I’d Known About Freelancing Before I Started

I started freelancing full-time in 2009. When I did, I was unemployed, bedridden with multiple disabilities, and typing on a five-year-old laptop in my parents’ basement.

That is not how I recommend anyone else get their start.

Now, nearly ten years in, there are some things I wish someone had told me when I started – things I didn’t get from all the “how you can has freelancing too!” blogs or the books on how to write. And here they are.

t

1. Job posting quality is directly proportional to client quality.

You may be tempted, at first, to reply to every job posting you can find. You may be especially tempted to respond to the pathetic one-liners from late-night college students: I need some1 to rite my final xam email me plz.

Don’t. The clients you’ll actually want to work with are the ones who write organized, cogent job postings in standard English that summarize the job, its requirements, and its pay.

Why? Because those are the clients who have their business together enough to know (a) what they’re looking for, (b) how to explain what they’re looking for, (c) how to provide useful feedback (if any), and (d) how to pay you on time.

Speaking of your pay….

2. Sometimes you will have to shake clients down.

Life happens. Your contact at a client’s business leaves, their payment processing system collapses, their project management software eats your hours, you think you turned in your hours but turns out you’re remembering last month and not this month. Whoops!

When the problem isn’t on your end, you’ll have to get persistent. Re-send your invoice with a brief note: “Here’s a copy of last month’s invoice, which I sent ten days ago. Let me know when I can expect payment. Thanks!” If they skive off altogether or still don’t pay, a phone call may be in order. And never, never accept more work from a client if they have an outstanding bill.

(Tip 2.5: Make sure you’re getting paid slightly more than your usual rate if the client demands you learn a project management system of any kind. At one point, I had to navigate four different systems just to get paid. Not worth it.)

3. (Certain) lies are okay – even necessary.

“Samples” are the “experience” of the freelance world. You can’t get samples without working, and you can’t get work without samples.

But if you’re just getting started – in copywriting, say – you may not have relevant samples. This is especially true if you’re attempting to work as a freelance writer during or just out of college (not recommended).

The good news? It’s okay to fake your first samples. Write a press release for a fictional company. Write a blog post covering a how-to you already know how to do, like “How to Start a Student Organization That Gets Things Done” or “How to Do Your Laundry In Half the Time.” Ask a friend if they’ll let you guest post on their blog or write some web copy for their site.

Tip 3.5: DO NOT WRITE ON SPEC. “On spec” ostensibly means “you write this and if it’s good enough, we pay you.”  Increasingly, however, “on spec” is code for “we’re going to tell you this isn’t good enough and not pay you but we’re going to use it anyway.” Assume anyone asking for “on spec” work is asking you for free work, and skip them.

4. Don’t quit your day job.

If your day job has already quit you, you’re probably frustrated just hearing this. So let me say: don’t quit your day job if you can avoid it.And if you can get another day job while you boot up your freelance writing business, do it.

I started freelancing with no day job, and it sucked. The stress was incredible. People make bad decisions when they’re stressed, and I was no exception.

Because of the stress, I did some really stupid things in my first few years as a freelancer. I took work from clients who never paid me. I groveled to clients whom I should have quit outright.

Freelance relationships are a lot like other relationships: Clients are more likely to respect you if you respect yourself. Set boundaries around the time and types of work you take. Enforce them.

A Special Note for college students: Don’t plan on freelancing as your “job” when you finish your degree if you have no other type of career experience. Most places looking to hire freelance writers want someone who has actually worked in the field or industry about which they want you to write. Get a few years’ experience doing literally anything, then build your career on that.

5. Treat 50 percent of your income like it doesn’t exist.

I mean it. Set up a savings account. Name it “The Black Hole” or “Where That Half Of My Freelance Income Goes When It Does Not Exist” or even “Steve.”

Honestly, it doesn’t matter what you name it. What does matter is that you put $0.50 of every dollar you make in this business into that account. Put it in right away, the moment you get paid. If you get paid via PayPal, set up an automatic transfer that moves half of it into that account the moment it clears PayPal.

Why 50 percent?

Thirty percent, approximately, goes to pay your taxes. Taxes are the number-one thing that shock every new freelancer, and for good reason: Self-employment taxes are higher than taxes for conventional employment. Between self-employment tax and income tax, you’ll be paying a higher percentage on your income to the IRS than you ever have before. (Now is a really good time to learn what you can and can’t write off as a business expense when you’re a writer.)

The other twenty percent is your retirement fund. Remember, no one else is paying this for you: there’s no pension with this job, no 401(k). Once per year – ideally, right after you pay your taxes – take this other 20 percent and put it in an investment vehicle. A CD. A money market account. An IRA. It literally doesn’t matter, as long as you keep it where you cannot spend it.

If you’re like a lot of freelancers, right now you’re probably saying “but I can’t afford that! I need all that money so I can eat!”

….This is the other reason I highly recommend not quitting your day job. Do whatever you can to avoid relying solely on freelancing until you can live on 50 percent or less of your gross freelance income.

Your future self will thank you.


Freelancing is great once you know what you’re doing. Share this post, support my work, and help other freelancers learn from my mistakes.

The Joy of Writing

“Why do writers always talk about how hard writing is?” lamented an anonymous query in my inbox recently. “Can’t you all talk about the good stuff for a change?”

Sure. Let’s talk about the joy of writing.

thesushiplace

Why Do We Talk About the Hard Stuff, Anyway?

Anonymous Commenter isn’t wrong here: a lot of writing advice on the Internet is about how dang hard writing is. The percentage of “how dang hard writing is” advice appears to be even higher on sites like Quora. And there’s a reason for this.

A lot of people who seek out writing advice want two things:

  • Shortcuts to the hard work, and/or
  • To skip the work altogether and get to the luxurious utopia of Having Written.

The replies, then, are aimed at bursting this double bubble. Because there aren’t any shortcuts, and nobody reaches the halcyon shores of Having Written without first braving the turbulent seas of Doing Writing.

And Doing Writing is hard. If The Odyssey wasn’t an allegory about writing The Odyssey, it should be.

If Writing Is That Hard, Why Does Anyone Do It?

My high school band handbook included the promise that participation in band would teach us “the joy (as opposed to the “fun”) of hard work.” Like most of the high achievers in the room, however, I didn’t learn that joy in band. I enjoyed band because I already knew how hard work paid off.

I learned it by writing.

Writing is…not that fun, actually. At least not for me. Having written is fun. Turning things in ahead of deadline and watching them get published without a single editorial change is fun. Hearing people tell me how much they liked my novel is fun.

Writing is not fun. Writing is joy.

I used to share a rink with several Olympic champions, hopefuls, and hopefuls-turned-champions. I knew from watching them that they skated on a totally different level than I did, and I’m not talking about technical skill. They were driven to excel at every aspect of figure skating in a way that I simply wasn’t. I was content to be good. They weren’t even content to be great.

Writing is my Olympic sport. I’m not content to be good at it, and the moment I achieve “great,” I guarantee I’ll be looking past it asking, “What’s next?”

That kind of joy is tough to explain. Most people look at drudgery and see drudgery. Those of us who look at the same drudgery and see the deepest desires of our hearts seem weird, if not downright insane.

A handful of recent “joy moments” I found in writing:

  • Tossing my manuscript across the room and yelling, “I am sick of finding plot holes in this damn thing!”, while being proud of myself for finding them because it means I can send a stronger book out the door.
  • Realizing why my B plot felt contrived while in the middle of a wind symphony rehearsal and scribbling notes on how to fix it on the back the first clarinet part of Grainger’s Themes From “Green Bushes” (it was a photocopy) instead of actually playing Themes from “Green Bushes.”
  • Reading four cases on expert witness evidentiary standards in order to write one clean, concise, accurate paragraph.
  • Typing up 5000 words of revisions and realizing, hey, these actually aren’t terrible.

But there’s something more important than joy.

Writing isn’t merely joyful for me. Writing is my Hedgehog Concept.

Your Hedgehog Concept, as Jim Collins explains in Good to Great (2001), is the idea, process, or goal that fits into all three of the following categories:

  • You can become better than anyone in the world at it.
  • You’re passionate about it.
  • People will pay you to do it.

Most companies and even more individuals never find their Hedgehog Concept. Some never find the thing they have the skills, character or talent to become the best in the world at. Some never find their passion. Some never figure out how to get paid for what they do even if it meets the first two criteria.

My Hedgehog Concept is writing.

I’m not the best in the world at it, but I have the education, talent, character and drive to become so, if I choose. I’m passionate about it, and I have been since I understood what books were. And people have been paying me to do it ever since I started submitting work to places that paid for it.

Yes, writing is hard. It’s not “fun.” It’s deeper than fun. It’s my Hedgehog Concept, and having realized that, I’d be a fool to abandon it.

Girl Scout Badge Nostalgia: Computer Fun (1990)

The main reason I collect Girl Scout handbooks isn’t their value (which is often negligible). It’s the nostalgia factor.

It’s also the fact that, while some of the content is timeless, other parts of the books aged faster than girls do.

Today’s example: “Computer Fun,” one of the badges included in Girl Scout Badges and Signs (1990).
Girl Scout Badge Nostalgia

Back in Ye Early 1990s, when this badge appeared in Girl Scout Badges and Signs and also back when I earned it, badges were organized into five “Worlds,” indicated by color: The World of Well-Being (Red), the World of People (Blue), the World of Today and Tomorrow (Orange), the World of the Arts (Purple), and the World of the Out-of-Doors (Yellow).

The World to which a badge belonged was indicated by the color of its border: Computer Fun, being from the World of Today and Tomorrow (which focused mostly on the sciences), had an orange border.

Badges were also graded by difficulty for Juniors and Cadettes: badges with a green background were comparatively easier to earn, and were for Juniors only. Badges with a tan background were comparatively harder to earn, and could be earned by either Juniors or Cadettes. Computer Fun was one of the “hard” ones.

Ironically, I suspect it’d still be one of the hard ones today, but not for the reasons it was hard in 1994.

Here’s the first page of badge requirements:

Page 101 of Girl Scout Badges and Signs, 1990. The first of two pages detailing requirements for the

The instructions, “Complete Six Activities,” were pretty standard for badges. Occasionally there were one or two mandatory activities, but generally speaking, we got to pick from 6-10 options.

This page contains Activity 1:

  1. Find computers being used for at least ten different purposes. To do this, look through books, newspapers, or magazines, watch television, or go in person. Share what you have found with your troop members.

Today, I suspect most girls could pull this one off without leaving their own room. In Ye Fabled Land of 1990, however, this one actually did take some research. A few lucky folks actually had computers in their own house. For most kids, though, computers were a newfangled thing we were all told not to bother with, for they would surely blow over.

Ahem.

Anyway, here are the rest of the requirements:

filename-1(2)-page-001

(This page is from my former troop leader’s copy of Girl Scout Badges and Signs, which is why it has her signature and our names in it. On most of the others, she marked which activities we’d done, so I’m uncertain why they’re not marked here.)

Activity 2:

2. Spend at least two hours learning something new from a computer, either by taking computer-assisted instruction at a school or learning center or by using a computer educational toy.

Today, I’m pretty sure every kindergartener who signs up for Daisies has completed this one. In my day, though, there was an excellent chance that most or all of the girls in one’s troop hadn’t used a computer for two hours in their entire lives.

3. Help put on a demonstration of computer toys and games for your troop.

Time Traveling Troop Leader: “Okay, everybody get out your phones.”

Us, in 1990: “What?”

…In 1990, my home phone was still rotary dial. Touch tone service didn’t reach our part of the U.S. till I was in high school. Portable phones were attached to a battery the size of a small briefcase, so no one used them unless they had to.

4. Visit a business, bank, or other place that uses a computer to solve problems.

  • See the computer in action and find out some of the things for which it is used.
  • Find out what language the computer users, how information is put into the computer, and how information comes out.
  • Learn how to use an automatic banking machine.

When I was a kid, ATMs were magic. I’m not kidding. I spent a large part of my childhood thinking there was a person on the other side of the wall who just sat there and handled transactions all day. When free-standing ATMs became a thing, I was very confused.

That said, I’d like to send some of my high school students to do the first two. We’ve reached the flip side of the coin: Computers were brand new for my generation, but today, they’re so ubiquitous that students often don’t realize what software platforms do or how they’re coded.

5. Invite someone who works with computers to talk to your troop or group. Find out what she/he does with the computer, what training was necessary, and what other people are involved in keeping the computer working properly. or Interview four different people and find out how computers affect their lives.

Ah yes, the old “talk to other humans” activity. Some version of this activity appears in every single badge. And I hated then all.

6. Visit a computer store. Compare different kinds of personal computers. Ask someone to explain the basic options available to the average buyer. Decide which one you would buy.

Honestly? I’d have kids do this today. Knowing how to read computer specs has saved me from making laughably bad purchases on a dozen different occasions.

7. Read a computer magazine. Make a list of the types of information that can be found in the magazine and how this would help you use computers.

Magazines stopped being the best source of this information 15 years ago. Unfortunately, now it’s even harder to find, since The Rise of the End-User has somehow meant that we’re all supposed to just know this stuff even though that’s literally the opposite of what “end-user” means.

8. Learn how to do some basic computer operations. Demonstrate your ability to do the following:

  • Format a disc.
  • Insert a software program.
  • Create a file.
  • Print stored information.
  • Save something you have created.

“Disc.”

Is there even an equivalent to formatting floppies today? I think “backing up our files to the cloud” might be the closest most of us get on a daily basis. For the kiddos in the audience: Yes, we used to format floppy disks all the time. It was the only way to reuse them, and because they only held 1.44 MB (you read that right), we needed a lot of them.

Anyway, my dad had an Apple IIGS, so I learned to do all of this much sooner than many of my peers. When Windows 3.1 came along and all my friends were going “WHOA NO WAI LOOK AT THIS,” I was going, “that’s literally just AppleWorks only less ugly.”

Then Clippy appeared. $#*(#& Clippy.

9. Play an electronic computer game at least five different times. Keep a record of how you do. What skills are needed? How can you improve?

or

Be a computer games reviewer. Play at least three different video games and write a brief review of your opinions of each. Include in your review: comments on the objective of the game, the skills required, the eye appeal and the quality of the graphics, the interest level, and the educational value.

…Let me show you what computer games looked like at the time this book was published.

prince-of-persia

Prince of Persia, 1989. I had a similar game for the Apple IIGs, Dark Castle, whose graphics absolutely blew my mind at the time.

indesdx

EGATrek, 1992. This is your readout as captain of the Federation starship USS Lexington. Oh yeah, I’m feeling very 24th century right about now.

indexaaa

And the crowning achievement of early 1990s computer games, Castle Wolfenstein 3D. This game literally changed how we thought about video games: it was the first one to let us move in three dimensions…more or less.

Stare good and hard at Wolfenstein for a while. I’m serious. Imagine a world where these graphics are incredible. They are blowing your mind. You have never seen anything so photorealistic on a computer screen. Ever.

Yes, I just typed “photorealistic” with a straight face.

Castle Wolfenstein 3D really did blow our minds when it came out. Even EGATrek was enough fun that I’ve gone searching for emulators from time to time over the years. But the technology keeps moving further than we realize: in 1994, the year my fellow troop members and I completed “Computer Fun,” these were amazing graphics.

Today, they’re “retro.” Kitschy, even. There are five year olds doing better work on Scratch.

I have no idea what the updated computer badges look like for Girl Scouts today. I imagine they cover an updated set of the same basic skills.

I do think girls would be hard-pressed today to complete the 1990 version. For one thing, where would they find floppy disks?