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The Typewritten Manuscript

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A while back I wrote an article about collecting typewriters. I only briefly discussed the joys of actually writing on one, and why it works for me.

In my last article I discussed the joys of listening to vinyl records. I made the case that the medium is making a comeback. A commenter rightly pointed out that these claims are dubious at best. I would like to re-state my position and say that vinyl isn't necessarily making a comeback, but instead is kept alive by a loyal bunch of followers who continue to love the format.

The same thing is true about typewriters. Though they are far from making a comeback, there is still a loyal smattering of followers who enjoy the format, either because of Hemmingway-inspired romantic ideals of writing or because of the freedom from distractions. From the Kansas City Star:

The technology may be antiquated, but the typewriter is enjoying a renaissance among young people like Bouchard. Some are turning to the machine to avoid the time-wasting temptations of the Internet. Others, mainly older enthusiasts, are drawn by a sense of nostalgia. Whatever the reason, the continuing popularity of the technology has created a cottage industry for repair shops and has spawned dozens of typewriter Web sites and clubs.

Some find the tactile element of using a solid old machine therapeutic. “I love the sound, the mistakes that you make from using a typewriter, the time it takes to write,” said Nick Findlay, 23, of Sydney, Australia. Findlay uses his portable, shoe-box sized Olivetti Lettera 32 model, which he purchased in the last year, for all sorts of literary tasks, from typing up the shopping list to typing a love letter.

Despite the clunky limitations of the medium — keys get stuck and you can’t rewrite without starting over — many users insist they get more done on a typewriter than on a PC.

I, too, find myself relying on the typewriter for more writing, depending on the finished format. For instance, when writing a weblog entry, I usually write the first draft in a word processing program such as MS Word. I then edit and post into the weblog interface. Since the format is made to be read digitally, it makes sense to write it entirely in that format.

For more creative writing, though, I prefer to write first drafts on a manual typewriter. It slows me down and makes me think more of what I am going to say. I then edit and retype the manuscript into the computer.

I do find the clackity-clack of the type hitting the platen, the bell at the end of a line, and the ziiiiipppp sound of the carriage return very soothing. Like rain on rooftop that produces sleep, these machine sounds seem to induce creativity in the writer.

Another byproduct of the typewritten first draft is that it frees you from distraction. As advocates of a better night’s sleep insist on using the bed for sleep and sex only, and avoiding reading, eating, and watching TV in bed, having a dedicated machine only for writing helps me be a better writer. Not having the distraction of iTunes, e-mail, and high-speed web browsing makes me stick to my craft. My only distraction at a typewriter is my own thoughts.

From the same Kansas City Star article:

That feeling was echoed by Weston Allen, a high school senior in Lawrence, Mass. “I feel when I’m on the typewriter, I’m only thinking about one thing,” he said, “writing.”

That doesn’t surprise Timothy Pychyl, a psychology professor who has done research on procrastination at Carleton University in Ottawa. Pychyl said social networking sites, in particular, have proved addicting to many young people – and a typewriter offers the chance to go “cold turkey.”

As I am writing this article on my computer, I have found myself checking my e-mail, the indictment of Gov. Eliot Spitzer on prostitution charges, and the status of my QVC order. So much for committing myself entirely to my writing.

As you type your manuscript on a typewriter, your pages instantly appear. Physical pages measure your progress as they are stacked. As your pages continue to pile up, you can see your project grow. It makes the work more tangible and real.

When it comes time to edit, I take my typed pages, sit in a comfy chair with a red pen, and go to work. When a project is written on a typewriter, I tend to do my editing on the computer, cutting and pasting as I go. I never really read the manuscript or get a sense of it as a whole, as I do when it is in a printed format.

My favorite machine is a bulky 1939 Underwood #4. I also like my two Royals: a 1933 portable deluxe complete with carrying case, and a 1946 Quiet Deluxe. All three are fine machines, and harken back to an older day when you had tools that served one purpose. Writing is what they are best at helping you do.

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About Tom Bux

  • Before the days of PCs, I had an Olympus self-correcting electronic typewriter. At that time I was still a firm believer in writing everything out in longhand first, scribbling it out, correcting it, scribbling that out, adding little notes and inserts in the margins, and so on.

    My reasoning was that if I struck something out, at least it would still be there if I later changed my mind and decided that what I’d written in the first place was better after all.

    Only when I was absolutely certain that I’d got down what I wanted to say would I turn to the typewriter. I found typing a hugely frustrating business because my Olympus, which was supposed to be able to remember the last half-page of what it had typed so that it could go back and erase it if necessary, had a hard time remembering even the last letter. Many a tree suffered a futile death because of my literary screw-ups.

    I was very glad when affordable word processing came along. So was my brother, who worked shifts and threatened to put my Olympus to a use for which it had not been designed if I didn’t stop bashing away at it till all hours of the day and night.

    When I first got a computer, I’d still write everything out on paper for a while, reasoning that on the PC, once something was deleted it was gone for good. Then I came to the conclusion that, really, if I was honest with myself, if I’d gone to the trouble of deleting something, it probably wasn’t worth keeping anyway.

    I haven’t written creatively with a pen in many years, to the point where my handwriting, never beautiful, now looks like the St Valentine’s Day Massacre for spiders.

  • Bennett

    “looks like the St Valentine’s Day Massacre for spiders”

    Not to mention the hand cramps!

  • Tom

    Thanks for reading the article!!

  • You’re welcome, Tom. Always love to read writing about writing!

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Tom, DD,

    One of the most difficult times in my life was when an Adler Electric typewriter that we had was stolen from our apartment. That Adler had gotten me through all the courses I took at Baruch College to get my B.A., it had gotten me into grad school, and had gotten me into law school in Minnesota (a fact I only discovered the same day as the break-in).

    But truth be told, the ideal medium for me would be not a typewriter, but a word processor – I make too many mistakes typing, and need to move too much around on the page when composing. The word processor would get rid of all the distractions of the internet (like Blogcritics) and keep my weak typing under control…..

    Nevertheless, this was a great article. Perhaps, one day, when I’m rich and famous, I’d like to get a typewriter that types in Hebrew.

  • great article tom. i went through an “i’m going to be a writer” phase way back when i was in 7th/8th grade. i had an old round-keyed underwood. it was really a blast to write on.

    strangely, the period between that phase and when i started again was over 25 years. when i restarted, it was with a pencil, which i still use quite often.

    recently, there have been some articles about software environments for writers. they try to keep distractions to a minimum. don’t know if this is a good tradeoff or not.

  • Probably even over typewriters a word processor would be ideal. My main thing against writing on a computers is the distractions! E-mail, web, etc.

  • oh, that’s absolutely the problem.

    ever seen these neo writing computers?

    an interesting alternative, though i’d still prefer a pad and pencil.