Shakespeare had to know how to sharpen a quill and dip it in ink. Hemingway had to know how to use a typewriter.
You need to know how to use a computer.
Computer skills are completely imperative for the modern writer. And I don’t just mean opening up whatever word processing application that comes with your computer and banging out a manuscript. I mean basic familiarity with Microsoft Word, navigating e-mail and the Internet, preferably some knowledge of blogs and social networks, and all of the resulting etiquette and formatting rules.
Your agent and editor are going to want to communicate via e-mail. They’re going to want you to send your manuscript in a compatible format. Your editor will probably want to do your line edits by commenting and highlighting in a Word document. Your typeset manuscript may arrive for your review as a PDF. Your cover will certainly arrive as a PDF. Even if you don’t have a blog your publicist may want you to write guest blog posts, and thus will want you to know what makes for a good one. Or they’ll set up a Facebook or Twitter account for one of your characters that they want you to maintain.
None of these people in the chain are going to be happy if you insist on doing this stuff on paper and phone, if it’s even possible to do it on paper. And hopefully you have a sense of how emotion can be difficult to perceive accurately in an e-mail and thus adopt a proper e-mail “tone” when you’re communicating.
Whenever I bring this topic up, people often ask me, “What if an author sends you a completely brilliant manuscript through the mail, only it’s been handwritten in pen and they don’t know how to use a computer?”
Here’s what I’d say: I’d call the author, tell them their manuscript is completely brilliant, and politely ask them to send it to me in a Word document. If they don’t know how: no better time to learn.
To be sure, everyone along the way will be unfailingly polite if you’re learning these skills and no one is going to kick an author to the curb just because they struggle with some computer tasks.
But things are competitive out there, and computer skills should be considered as much a part of an author’s toolkit as metaphors and foreshadowing.
Besides, have you ever tried to write with a quill? Shakespeare would have traded a kingdom for a laptop.