In Praise of the Backspace Key

On our keyboards it stays aloof from other letters.

We never begin a sentence with it, and unlike the Spacebar or Enter, we don’t press it eagerly as we flow with our thoughts.

On the contrary, before pressing it we may sigh inwardly and feel unpleasant, as if we’ve done something wrong, committed a silent act of non-creation nobody will ever know about.

And when we do press it, it’s seldom with joy.

Most of the time, we press it out of necessity, because the words have come out wrong.

Or the word count has grown too large.

Or what we’ve just typed doesn’t make much sense.

It eats the letters as it blinks, leaving no trace of them behind, makes them disappear into the void.

And the word count shrinks, and we know we may have to start writing again.

On our phones it’s marked with an X, as if it was the gravestone of so many dead words and sentences, so many ideas others will never read.

Our thumb is often near it, covering it, and when we press it, it flashes—and gone is a letter.

Sometimes we press it in a frenzy, tap tap tap, as if it was a machine gun killing letters.

As a last resort, we press it all the way, and whole words and sentences, the entire text disappears…

The Backspace key.

We may not like it, but what would we be without it?

Like a gardener’s pruning shears or a gem cutter’s polisher, the Backspace key saves us from excess growth, from rough edges.

Like a handy mop even, it saves us from word vomit.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

It’s not as cruel as the Delete key, not as definitive.

But it’s sharp and cutting, and the letters don’t stand a chance against it. The bad ones at least.

Backspace may have a bad reputation. It may not be our favorite key.

But wouldn’t writing be frightening without it?

And what would editing be without the Backspace key?

Isn’t Backspace liberating? Doesn’t it create endless possibilities even as it cuts away the excess letters and words?

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