Daily Archives: October 22, 2011

Typewriters, Minicomputers and other Writing Tools

When I was younger, I used to wonder how a writer could maintain the commitment and energy necessary long enough to write a novel. Perhaps part of the problem was that I was daunted by the mechanics of typing and retyping a manuscript of novel length. Typing was the only class for which I ever received a D grade. (Fortunately, the college admissions officers at Grinnell College were able to look past that failing.)

I went to college at the cusp of the great change from typewriting to word processing. In my first year, I used a German-manufactured Olympia manual typewriter, of the pre-plastic epoch. (Never was there a more beautiful product of the machining art: the return lever, paper guides, and myriad of small metal parts were finely made, only as heavy as they needed to be, and jewel-like in their finish. The Royal and Underwood machines of its day were boat anchors in comparison.) I still have that typewriter, having a strange attachment to it, despite the still-vivid pain of retyping whole pages to correct errors that it evokes—along with the smell of whiteout.

In my second year of college, I used a Brother electronic typewriter with a small LED display that allowed me to correct mistakes before they were committed to paper—if I caught them in time. It was a great advance in technology, but an utterly mundane device, and it has long since disappeared from my life.

Around my junior year, perhaps inspired by that ability to correct errors which the Brother taught me to appreciate, I learned to use the college’s Digital PDP 11/70 minicomputer for writing my papers. This was not WYSIWYG word processing. The PDP 11/70 and industrial-sized shared printers produced high quality printed output, but you composed plain text with embedded dot (.) codes to control the formatting and fonts. I still think that process, which separated composition from formatting, was less distracting than using the menus and graphical controls of a modern word processor. One effect of writing on the computer was that I produced more text—much of it in the form of bad poetry composed in the college’s computer labs. (I would claim the sterile environment as an excuse for the quality of the poetry, but I suspect youth and inexperience had more to do with it.) In any case, my computer age had begun.

Since then, I have used WordStar, WordPerfect, MS Word, and innumerable other software packages for writing. None stand out as contributing particularly to the quality or joy of my writing experience. All have proved equally capable of distracting me from the text with frustrating formatting concerns. The software I use for writing fiction now—Scrivener—is designed for writers. It helps to keep my mind where it should be, in the heads of my characters. Interestingly, it has a full screen, text-only mode, that looks rather like I could be using one of the dumb terminals of that old Digital minicomputer. Like that old system, it separates the process of composition from the process of formatting. It has a compile function which, once configured properly, produces a properly formatted manuscript or e-book file with the press of a button.

Thus, my writing process has come full circle. I’m still a terrible typist, but my software once again helps me to focus on what’s important. Maybe because I no longer suffer from youthful impatience to reach my destination, I’m also finding it easy to enjoy the long journey of novel writing.