William Zinsser, bestselling author of “On Writing Well” and many other titles, was a guru to writers and journalists of my generation. I still have a copy of that book and his 1983 sequel, “Writing With a Word Processor.”
As you can imagine, I haven’t touched “Writing With a Word Processor” in years. It’s older than any of our now-adult children. Two entire generations have grown up using screens instead of paper to communicate. And writing on today’s screens is far different from the bulky and cumbersome dual-floppy drives and monotone screens that Zinsser and I had to learn on.
“Writing With a Word Processor” is Zinsser’s first-person account of leaving the world of paper and ribbons and scissors and glue. I bought the book when I was going through a similar transition, although I had spent most of my early writing career on electric typewriters rather than Zinsser’s manual ones. That gave me a slight edge.
Now, thanks to my friends who remembered my collection of vintage (but unusable) typewriters, I’m having fun reversing the process that Zinsser described in his book. I am re-learning to use a manual keyboard.
As I told my friends, it’s like riding a bicycle. You don’t forget, exactly. But if you saw me trying to ride a bicycle nowadays, you’d get a good laugh.
Tapping the flat, noiseless keyboard of my MacBook Pro is quite different from the gently sloping array of separate keys of the Singer Scholastic. The size of the keyboard is similar, but touch typing is out, unless I slow down and concentrate. Usually if you type too quickly on a typewriter keyboard, you jam the type bars. This isn’t my problem now. Even when touch-typing, I move slowly. I have to press hard enough to get the bars to strike.
Even so, my left fingers are not as heavy-handed as my right. Q, w, e, r, t, a, s, d, f, g, z, x, c, v, and b come out lighter as a result.
Even though the QWERTY letters are arranged the same, the other characters are different. As with most typwriters of the day, there is no numeral 1 key. That’s a lowercase l. And to make an exclamation point, you have to hit a single quote ‘ (no smart or curly quotes here), then backspace, then a period.
If you type the wrong letter, you can backspace and type it over and your reader will get the general idea. For bigger errors, you move the carriage all the way to one side. Then you can erase or use whiteout or, as I used to do, a correcting ribbon.
Can you imagine life without the Delete key?
The flip side
Still, as Tom Hanks and many others have discovered, there’s a romance to the old-fashioned clackety-clack. And a manual typewriter can have advantages for writers. It forces us to slow down. It demands precision. And it implies a sense of permanence to your work instead of making it too easy to wipe it out and start over.
So I’ve seen keyboards from both sides now. And as Joni Mitchell put it:
Well something's lost but something's gained In living every day
This has been so inspiring that I’m re-reading “Writing With a Word Processor” this week, just for fun. Zinsser is entertaining and the book is a contemporary look at a major shift in our culture.
I’m also looking into a manual typewriter as old as I am. It’s the same model used by Ian Fleming for his James Bond books. His was gold, but this one is different. It’s a twin to the one used by the heroine in my first National Novel Writing Month novel, “Welcome to Betelgeuse.” It might even inspire me to tune up and rewrite that book for publication. Stay tuned.
Have you ever used a manual typewriter, or any typewriter at all? What is your preferred technology for creative writing? Many people write out first drafts in longhand. I did drafts of my play in pencil on a spiral-bound notebook, and later in fountain pen in a blank book, for a gift. Let me know in the comments section below!