Thursday, May 21, 2009

Typewriter Writer

I am an old writer. Back in the late sixties I started writing stories and poems on school notebook paper in pencil, then in the seventies graduated to pen and composition books and legal pads. Mom bought me a second-hand manual typewriter when I was thirteen, and I used that for eleven years until it literally fell apart. After that I bought a used IBM Selectric typewriter from a yard sale, and used that for writing until 1994, when my husband bought me my very first computer.

I've always thought that my learning to write by longhand and typewriter always put me at a disadvantage to younger, more tech-savvy writers. For most of my life I didn't have the marvels of the modern word processing program to help me write. No backups, no disc copies; just me, the pen or the typewriter, and the single hard copy. I've always felt a bit like the writer equivalent of Wilma Flintstone because of it.

I was explaining this disadvantage to one of my young writer friends the other day, in one of those "be grateful for what you've got" type conversations older writers like to have with youngsters. She was complaining about how slow her printer is, while I'm still riveted by the fact that I can print out an entire manuscript in less than an hour -- something that twenty years ago would have taken me a good two months to type.

"That's why you're able to write straight through everything, isn't it?" my friend asked me. "You trained to write on a typewriter, and you couldn't stop or go back or fix things."

I was surprised, but she was right. It's not easy to backspace and rewrite on a typewriter; with the two I owned I had to use White-Out or correction tape, or rip out the page and start over. I also couldn't review and edit anything I wrote before I printed it out -- naturally using a typewriter = printing it out instantly. Add to that the fact that back then typing paper was expensive, and my mom had a fit if I wasted even a single page of it.

I never thought about it before, but I guess subconsciously I did teach myself to wait until I was clear in my head about what I wanted to put down on the paper because of the limitations of my equipment. When I typed, I wrote straight through the page while trying to make as few errors or mistakes as possible. It's a different way of thinking and writing than what you do when you use a word processor. With a computer, you have an infinite number of chances to correct whatever you write, and you never have to print it out if you don't want to.

I think this may also explain why I'm considered to be such a fast writer. I've never thought I was, but I don't do all that backtracking, editing and rewriting most other writers do. I think if I'd learned how to write on a tool that allowed me to backtrack and edit and rewrite ad infinitum, I'd be a lot less productive. I think it's also helped me be more productive using VRS now, because I'm doing almost the exact same thing I once did on a typewriter -- composing in my head before I try to put down the words by voice.

I appreciate the many advantages the personal computer and the word processing program offer, and I don't think we should go back to using typewriters and carbon paper and White-Out. But now I do think I have a little advantage over younger writers, at least in how I trained myself to write -- on a machine that in twenty or thirty years probably won't exist anymore. Odd to think that mine is the last generation of typewriter writers.

How did you guys learn how to write, by longhand, typewriter or computer? How do you think it helped (or hindered) you as a writer? Let us know in comments.


  1. Hi, Wilma.
    Betty Rubble here.
    As it happens, I still have my old Underwood manual typewriter tucked away here--and it still works. ;)
    I started writing longhand. And I didn't even ATTEMPT to type out the pages until they were what I wanted them to be, since trying to type carefully always seemed to lead to more mistakes.
    Don't think it's made me any faster, but I have noticed that when I'm stuck or need to improve a passage, the longhand works for me every time.

  2. I used to write 20 pages in long hand for Comprehension class in primary school, then learned to type on a manual typewriter when I left high school - it was the best thing I've ever learned. It also taught me the correct way to hold my hands when typing and avoid injury.

    And you're absolutely right: a typewriter teaches you to think about the words you're composing before you commit them to paper.

    But what helped? A particular journalism class where we had to write a story in exactly 500 words - you lost marks if you went over or under. It taught me to be concise. Until you do this exercise, you don't understand how many garbage words sneak into your ms.

  3. Oddly, I had the exact same sequence as you. hand, then second hand portable, then IBM Selectric, then computer.

    Sometimes I write straight through. Sometimes I write very unsequentially. I think I spoiled my sequence by making lots of notes on scraps of paper and in exercise books before I wrote the final, though, and the editing function of a WP program has taken over some of my note-taking as well as the writing itself.

  4. Oddly enough, I wrote much of The Devil's Pitchfork, my second published novel, in longhand. I was still working at the hospital and my nights were pretty busy with nonfiction assignments, so I took my yellow legal pads to lunch and scrawled out 4 or 5 pages each day then I typed them into the computer during the week when I had time. That was only about 5 or 6 years ago.

    But when I started writing seriously it was on a typewriter. I do think it made us more careful, because what a pain it was to retype everything.

    The best writing advice I ever got was from a previous agent, who said, "Think more, write less."

    I also read a book on writing by the late Scott Meredith and he strongly encouraged writers to get out of the habit of allowing their first drafts to be crap, suggesting that if you aim for high quality in the first draft, you're training your brain to create high quality. Now, in my experience, sometimes you have to put the internal editor on hiatus in order to get things going, but I agree that you can train your brain to give you better quality work in the rough draft by thinking more about it before your fingers hit the keys.

  5. I learned to write in longhand and then eventually to type on a manual and enormous Underwood typewriter. That was followed by an orange portable with a wonky E. This doesn't make me old by the way. I was a child prodigy--that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

    I was very surprised when I found out that everyone else didn't just start writing and work straight through.

  6. Call me Wilma, too. I learned to write longhand (used to fill up notebook after notebook) and type on a Selectric. (The manual I gave up on; I needed a hammer to hit the keys hard enough to make that sucker work.)

    The time-consuming part is getting the scene clear to write. I've become convinced that an idea needs sufficient time to gel to get to that point. Otherwise, there's a lot of flailing around on the page trying to make something work.

  7. I too got my start in the pre-processor days, so much of the final draft is original copy. Arthritis in my hands prevents me from writing longhand for more than a couple of minutes, and even the keyboard can be tiring.

    Good quality speech recognition software is in my future, but so far, out of budget range.

  8. Anonymous8:21 AM

    The first novel I ever wrote was an unpublishable and copyright violating tome just to see if I could do it, typed on an old Brother typewriter.

    My first wife had a Canon Wordstar machine when we got married, and I was in heaven. I think my overuse of it killed it.

    In 1994, we got a computer, which I found completely liberating, but...

    My first five or so short stories struggled to stay in the 5000-8000 word range. The last five I've written and subbed started out longhand.

    The longhand stories are shorter and more concise, even if the subbed or current versions look a lot different from the originals.

    A little wrist cramping does wonders for making you cut out all the extraneous junk you don't need in the end. I find these stories easier to polish.

  9. I started my first book while taking my mother back and forth to chemo treatments, so it was literally on scraps of paper and sticky notes that I kept in a shoe box. I'd get a scene in my head, then write it out. When I finally got ready to put the book together, I had hundreds of little scraps of paper.

    I don't have a laptop and don't like to be isolated when I write, so I mainly write in longhand, then type it into the computer later. Growing up, I learned to type on a manual typewriter. Even now, I tend to hit the keys very hard when I type and it drives my husband batty!

  10. I absolutely agree. I'm a young writer, but my family was poor. My mom recognized my writing yen early and bought me - you guessed it - an old typewriter. I learned to type on that when I was around 9 and graduated to a real computer for high school. I think it probably helped me learn to type so fast early on, and there is that quality of just-get-through-it. I'm adjusting now to think even more before I type because I think the word processor let me get lazy - I would blast through but not think like I did. It seeeeems to be working so far. *G*

  11. I started writing in high school, longhand, in three ring binders. I was so addicted to it, that I distinctly remember pulling out my story binder during calculus--just to get some spare paper--and the teacher shaking her finger at me saying, "No. No stories in my class." That was back in 1995.

    I "graduated" to an Acer computer that my parents bought, but, like you, I was used to writing straight through, and I continue to write that way today.

    I've done a lot of beta swaps, and it does seem like the ease of editing has the tendency to make stories a mess. I recently read something (written by someone 10 years younger than I) that had been re-touched so many times that all sense of consistency and flow was gone. So I think your way is best. At least at first.

  12. I still love to write longhand, or on my Alphasmart. Must have a roller ball pen to make it work, though.

  13. I once read a column in Asimovs Online by Robert Silverberg about writing on a typewriter and making backups of novels (column can be found here:

    I have say: I really love my laptop. Writing longhand seems soooo sloooow to me. Oh, and my first typewriter was this portable baby blue thing with black keys and a hard case. Yikes on the color scheme, but it worked great.

  14. Keita Haruka9:49 AM

    U started writing in longhand. I still do on occasion. There's something so satisfying about laying sprawled on the floor or the bed, surrounded by paper and writing whatever comes to mind under your own steam as it were. I never went the typewriter route...I went straight from longhand to computer...back in 2005. Yes...i came to computing VERY late. :P

    I wouldn't call myself "Fred Flintstone" though. I'm not even 30 yet! :P

  15. I can remember playing with my Mom's old typewriter when I was a child, remember being amazed at the way the keys stamped the letters onto paper. I loved the keys before I knew what words were. I sometimes wish I had that typewriter again, even just to remember that simple joy. I believe it is one of the reasons I write today, much the same way painters will say it was the smell of the paint that first attracted them to the art.

  16. by longhand up until 11th grade, I guess. then I started using my dad's electric typewriter and that was what I used up until I got a word processor when I was...i dunno...maybe 20? I didn't get my first computer until I was 21 or 22. I tend to write pretty quick, too, but I don't know exactly why.

  17. What little writing i did in HS was longhand but I don't think that trained me for anything.

    When I started writing it was on a computer, but do a lot of plotting/notemaking on paper and I think some of my best work/ideas have come while sitting in a car waiting on a kid and only having pen and paper around. I think it uses a completely different set of brain muscles than typing on a computer and honestly, is a skill worth cultivating.

  18. Amazing how so many of us learned in such similar ways. I wrote long hand (usually in spiral notebooks) until my mother got me a manual Montgomery Ward typewriter for Christmas when I was 14. It used black and red ribbons, so when I'd type things up I'd make headings and such red. Because I could. :) I didn't like white out or correction tape (bumpy or a strip on the surface? YUCK!!!), so I'd use little white film things. Just set them over the error, retype the error, and they'd cover up the blackened bits of the mistake but leave the paper smooth. They cost more, but I had a job and justified it to myself. Either that, or I'd use erasable bond, which really was messy. Anyway, I'd rarely compose on the typewriter, instead I'd key in my hand written work mostly because I really didn't know how to type, was more of a hunt-and-pecker. That typewriter was my close companion until I married at 24 and my husband came with an electric model that his mother didn't want anymore. It stored a line or two in 'memory' so you could fix typos, then when you hit return it'd type them on the page. I mostly liked my manual better since it had less backtracking, but the other typewriter was faster and less prone to typos. I used both until we got our first computer (an Amiga) when I was 27.

    The first complete novel I wrote on that computer introduced me to Dubric and most of the adult characters in my books, which is pretty cool now that I think about it. Its word processor was called Final Writer and I still believe it was the best word processor I've ever used.

    Fwiw, I'm still not a great typist, but I don't do a whole lot of backtracking and correction, other than fixing typos, when I compose. The endless tinkering some writers do just astounds me and seems a massive waste of time.

  19. In the 90's when I was teenager and first starting writing, there were typewriters and word processors but I had neither.

    I used pen, paper, and almost always dried out bottles of Liquid Paper. That stuff was awful.

    Now that I am on a computer, I am the anti-progress. It's true that the computer lets you revise too easily and too often if you let it convince you to.

    I was just blogging about this, this a.m. If you want to laugh...

  20. I went in pretty much the same line as you, Lynn. But there were a few years when I didn't write longhand and didn't replace my Selectric. I thought maybe it wasn't worth it because my fingers didn't work so good anymore and figured I probably wouldn't be typing much either.. I had to give up my hand quilting because of that.

    When I got my computer, it was much more liberating. Because of the constant variety of movement I get now, I can hand write for a bit, and even quilt some. I could never give up my computer now for writing though. I'd be lost.


  21. Adele Dawn4:24 PM

    I wrote quite a bit in junior high and high school. All longhand. I find that the advantage to the computer is my fingers keep up with my train of thought.

    Disadvantages are as other people mentioned. It is way too easy to edit everything. I can't seem to get anything done when I type only on the computer.

    I prefer longhand and then transfer the ideas to the computer because I don't feel the urge to edit it nearly so much.

  22. Anonymous5:00 PM

    Computers all the way. I've had a laptop for at least 5 years, and my own computer for a few years before that.

    It does let me revise too easily. That's why I've written seriously enough for 5 years and haven't finished a damn thing.

    But I wouldn't change. Don't think I could write any other way -- by hand just...I've spent a little fortune on notebooks and pens to no avail.

  23. Longhand first, and for many, many years that was it. Then I touched heaven with an used Olivetti typewriter around 1994. However, I have been always clumsy and White-Out and correction tape were my closest friends back then. So,when I got my first PC (an used 286,which I managed to update a few months later for a 486) I was in total awe. Never looked back *hugs her PC*.

  24. I've heard that before from other people who primarily write longhand or on a typewriter--that doing so forces them to think more carefully before committing the words, since it's a lot harder to go back and revise.

    I use a computer partially because I grew up with them, but also because it's the only thing that can come close to keeping up with my brain. My problem half the time is that I'll be in the middle of typing one thing and think of something that would go perfectly a few paragraphs later, and being able to skip down a few lines and jot down the idea so that it's there when I get to it is very helpful. (I suppose I could just jot those ideas down on scrap paper if I were writing without a computer though. I just appreciate the computer's speed since said ideas tend to flee my mind a few seconds after I have them.)

  25. I learned to type on a computer, and was horrible at it - until IM became a huge thing. Being a teenager at the time, it was really IM (and ICQ, and the like) that taught me to type. (Fortunately before the era of LOL and such.)

    I did learn, however, the limitations of the computer as I tried to proofread. Spellcheck can only go so far, and it misses typos like "were are you going" vs "WHERE are you going", and in addition, it's simply a strain on the eyes to review page after page of black text on white background.

    That is when I began to hand-write. I found that I thought more about what I wanted to say, and made fewer errors... I guess the brain works harder to process words coming from fluent movements of the hand rather than fingers tapping on a keyboard.

  26. Lynn, have you seen this little program? It's a tiny little program that gives you a blank screen and lets you type, with NO backspace or deleting, so that it emulates writing in a way that typewriters used to force you to write.

    Kinda fun!

  27. Maybe that's why I write better with a pen and paper than I do on a computer. Perhaps I should go back to it. I'm not that productive on my laptop.

  28. When I first started writing, it was all longhand. It's only been the last couple of years that I've been using a computer to write.

  29. Anonymous7:27 PM

    I'm of your vintage (and assume your blog title is from the Beatles).

    I started with pens and pencils and moved on to a manual my dad got me when I was still in grade school.

    I, too, has a selectric and loved it for it's inability to jam.

    However, I began working on computers as far back as 1986. It altered my relationship to words. I was thinking about technology at the same time that I was thinking.

    Guess what: my favorite form of writing now is with a fountain pen. The thoughts flow as the ink flows and that's all there is.

  30. Hello Lynn, nice to meet you.

    As my handwriting was so bad and no one could read it including myself, I learned to type at the age of 15 at night school in 1963 and bought a second hand "huge" Olivetti for 50 shillings. Then I got a proper portable, then an electric, another electric, then a black and white computer, then a colour one and now one with a big flat screen and also a laptop.

    So thanks to bad handwriting I went along with the technological age all the way. However, there are times you simply have to use handwriting, for example I would never type a letter of condolences.

  31. Learned on my grandfather's old Royal manual - which I have to this day - and am glad I did. You're so right: the potential for error and the difficulty in undoing said error compels you to think first, then press the key.

    It's a pace that simply no longer exists in the age of computers. In many ways, I miss working on successive drafts and smelling the ink. It was a very genteel way to get work done.

    Thank you for the opportunity to step back in time. It was a happy journey indeed.

  32. Anonymous9:17 AM

    I just bought a Brother 220, my first typewriter, and I'm amazed how brutal I have to be. At first I was delicate with the keys for fear of damaging them. Now I'm stabbing away like crazy, surprising myself that such violent force creates clean, crisp lettering. Hacking with an axe to craft a toothpick.

    The thrill for me is to be staring at a sheet of paper, rather than a bright screen. The kicker is having to cope with a wonky 'a', though it's the little flaws which make a typewritten page unique. A mechanical fingerprint.


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