Do writing tools matter?
Last typewriter factory (sort of) closes
Tears welled and teeth gnashed last month after the world’s last office typewriter factory — Godrej & Boyce in Mumbai, India — announced that it would close.
(The last portable typewriter factory, Swintec in Moonachie, N.J., is still cranking them out. Swintec survives on prison contracts for clear typewriters in which inmates can’t hide contraband, as well as the occasional model for filling in birth certificates and other forms.)
As for me, I couldn’t be less nostalgic about the passing of the typewriter. I haven’t missed ribbons or Wite-Out® since I sat down in front of a Vydec CRT screen in September 1979.
One look at the dot matrix orange type on that flickering charcoal background, and I was hooked.
Still, the loss of the machine that’s helped writers compose their prose since the 1870s did prompt me to ponder writing tools and their effects on writing:
Does how we write,
affect what we write?
To answer this question, I turned first to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In addition to probing how the Web is rewiring the human mind, Carr also takes readers on a brief tour through the history of writing.
Scriptura continua creates the scribe.
It all started with scriptura continua (that’s Latin for continuous script), an early form of writing that used no spaces or punctuation marks between words or sentences.
Scriptura continua was tough to read — and even tougher to write. That’s why Classical Greek and Latin writers often outsourced the actual reed-to-papyrus process to professional scribes. Face-to-face dictation reduced writers’ urge to reveal TMI, which cut down on erotica and tell-all memoirs.
Word spaces lead writers to write …
But when word spacing and punctuation were introduced in about 1000 AD, the physical act of writing got easier. Writers picked up their own pens and started putting words to the page. The result, Carr says:
“Their works immediately became more personal and more adventurous. They began to give voice to unconventional, skeptical, and even heretical and seditious ideas, pushing the bounds of knowledge and culture.
“Working alone in his chambers, the Benedictine monk Guibert of Nogent had the confidence to compose unorthodox interpretations of scripture, vivid accounts of his dreams, even erotic poetry — things he would never have written had he been required to dictate them to a scribe. When, late in his life, he lost his sight and had to go back to dictation, he complained of having to write ‘only by voice, without the hand, without the eyes.’”
… and edit.
Writing themselves, “with the hand and the eyes,” authors could edit their copy carefully for the first time. (Something that’s a little difficult with dictation.)
Writers could also for the first time see their manuscript as a complete piece. That allowed them to eliminate the redundancies that had plagued literature during the Middle Ages.
As they refined their words, writers also refined their ideas. Their arguments became “longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging,” Carr says.
The typewriter tightens prose.
Flash forward a few hundred years to 1714. That’s the year Englishman Henry Mill created the concept of the typewriter when he filed a patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.”
It took more than 100 years to perfect Mills’ idea. The first successful commercial typewriter, introduced in 1870, was Danish pastor Malling Hansen’s “writing ball.” If a porcupine and a Remington had a baby, the writing ball would be it.
Nietzsche’s mother and sister gave the German philosopher one for Christmas. He hated it. But Nietzsche, an early adopter, did learn to compose using this new technology. As he did, Carr writes, his copy became more dynamic:
“One of Nietzsche’s closest friends, the writer and composer Heinrich Köselitz, noticed a change in the style of his writing. Nietzsche’s prose had become tighter, more telegraphic. There was a new forcefulness to it, too, as though the machine’s power — its ‘iron’ — was, through some mysterious metaphysical mechanism, being transferred into the words it pressed into the page.
“‘Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,’ Köselitz wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, ‘my “thoughts” in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.’
“‘You are right,’ Nietzsche replied. ‘Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.’”
T.S. Eliot had a similar experience when he started typing his poems and essays instead of writing them by hand, Carr reports:
“‘Composing on the typewriter,’ [Eliot] wrote in a 1916 letter to Conrad Aiken, ‘I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences which I used to dote upon. Short, staccato, like modern French prose. The typewriter makes for lucidity, but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.’”
In 1957, Jack Kerouac adapted the 100-plus-year-old writing tool when he set a 120-foot scroll of paper behind his typewriter and fed the leading edge under the roller. Over the next three weeks, he banged out a single-spaced, paragraph-free novel about a series of cross-country trips he’d recently made.
Kerouac edited On the Road heavily before it was published. But in 2007, publishers released the original manuscript to commemorate the novel’s 50th anniversary. Reviewers found the unedited version to be a “dazzling piece of writing for all of its rough edges.” Stripped of the “sort of eager-beaver poetizing” of the edited version, they said, the novel felt “much more immediate and even contemporary.”
Plus, they cooed, in the unedited version, “Kerouac’s jazzy voice is unimpeded by pesky commas.”
Word processing spawns debate.
Less than 10 years after Kerouac’s experiment with Benzedrine and sheets of drawing paper he’d taped together, the next evolution in writing tools commenced. That was the year IBM introduced the MT/ST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter), the predecessor of the modern word processor.
Almost immediately, writers began debating whether composing by computer could possibly be a good thing. Today, an earnest few even clamor for a return to writing by hand.
Shari Wilson, a college English composition teacher, for instance, says college students write better by hand in class than when they compose essays on computers on their own. With computers, she writes in Inside Higher Ed, they get distracted by the mechanics — margins, fonts, line breaks — instead of focusing on writing. Moreover, writing by hand, she believes, may bring writers “closer” to their work.
She doesn’t have to convince crime novelist Richard Price, author of Lush Life. As he told NPR’s Terry Gross:
“It’s too easy to fiddle, and you’re under the illusion you’re working, when basically you’re vamping because you can do all of this stuff. I think I’m going to do this in, you know, Swedish Helvetica, and maybe this would look good in Diablo or whatever the hell that is.
“So you spend like two hours, and you haven’t done anything on the book. When before this, I was always handwriting on a legal pad. And you couldn’t fool around when you’re doing handwriting, like go back and change this and that. It was just too labor intensive, and it sort of forced you to go forward.”
And Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty and other novels, agrees. He says:
“A pen connects you to the paper. It definitely matters.”
So where do we go from here?
New technologies are already influencing writing, Carr reports:
- PowerPoint. O’Reilly Media recently published a book about Twitter created in PowerPoint. And Jennifer Egan used the presentation software to write a chapter of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
- Social media. It’s only a matter of time, Carr writes, before we’ll subscribe to services that update our e-books with comments and revisions added by fellow readers.
- SEO. Writers and publishers will optimize book pages and chapters for Google rankings, Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, told Carr. “Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers,” he predicts. “Chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank.”
- Smartphones. The three top-selling Japanese novels in 2007 were written on mobile phones.
As for me, I can barely compose a tweet, let alone a novel, on my iPhone. But should the day come, I believe we’ll embrace that skill well before the last laptop factory shuts its doors.
One thing we know for sure: Our writing will be different for it.
What about you? How has technology affected your writing? Let me know.
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