‘Writing with a word processor’ – a Review

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“Analog and Digital, August 5, 2022” By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

My recent experience re-learning how to use a manual typewriter prompted me to revisit a book I bought nearly 40 years ago: William Zinsser’s “Writing With a Word Processor” (1983). It’s out of print now. I bought the Kindle edition rather than fish my original copy out of my writing library and risk an avalanche.

Zinsser was a seasoned journalist who started his career pounding typewriters for the New York Herald Tribune. He moved on to freelancing for major publications and serving as executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

During the 1970s, he taught non-fiction writing at Yale University. I was a contemporary of his students (albeit at a smaller rival). His “On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction” was an indispensable guide to writers of my generation–and subsequent ones. Now in its third edition, it is still a top seller in instructional books for writers.

Alas, this was not in the stars for “Writing With a Word Processor.” Critics on Amazon — even the five-star ones — note that although the reviewers loved Zinsser, the book is “obsolete.” One even suggested that an update would be great.

Two reasons why that won’t happen:

  1. The man is dead. William Zinsser died in 2015 at the age of 92.
  2. This isn’t a how-to book. Zinsser made that point repeatedly in the text. It is the first-person story of one author’s transition from the typewriter to the early digital age. It should be read as autobiography, memoir, and history.

A turning point

In it, Zinsser takes the reader from the moment he realized that word processing was the wave of the future to the day, 10 months later, when he delivered his manuscript to the publisher:

“Tomorrow, when I deliver my book to Harper & Row, dodging the ghosts of Herman Melville and Thomas Wolfe and dozens of other writers who walked through the streets of Manhattan looking like writers, nobody will mistake me for a member of the clan. I’ll have no fat manuscript–just two small disks.

“Writing With a Word Processor,” Chapter 18

Along the way, Zinsser the writing coach narrates his own story and concerns. What happens when the computer crashes and his work is lost into the “electricity?” (Today’s more succinct word would be the “ether.”) What will this mean for his practice of rewriting each paragraph to perfection before going on to the next? Will he lose his writer’s voice and become more mechanical?

Today, of course, computers still crash. Rewriting is simple and the biggest risk is that we won’t back up earlier drafts. Our voices are still our own (although spelling and grammar checkers are beginning to fill in the words for us.)

Some things, he says, will never change:

The main thing — whether you’re writing one page or five hundred — is to try to write clearly and warmly and well.

Writing is a personal transaction conducted on paper. It is one person talking to another person. Readers identify first with the person who is writing, not with what the person is writing about. Often, in fact, we will read about a subject that really doesn’t interest us because we like the writer. We like the warmth or humor or humanity that he brings to his subject. We may think we are responding to the writer’s “style”; actually we are responding to his personality as he expresses it in words.

“Writing With a Word Processor,” Chapter 17

The future is now

With cloud computing, direct-to-print publishing, and terrabytes of storage, we no longer have to worry about squeezing a “manuscript” onto floppies that each store only 125 pages. Zinsser even anticipates this: “What this will mean for a writer or editor with a word processor is a future that will save time and labor in countless ways that I’ve only begun to glimpse. Right now it’s enough that I could write and set a book and get it published in less than a year.”

This book does not need an update. You are living it. But you can’t see where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re coming from.

I give this book five stars for its writer’s voice, his advice, and his ability to capture an important turning point in our modern culture.

What do you think? Is it time to tell an updated story? Where would you start and what would you say? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “‘Writing with a word processor’ – a Review

  1. This blog took me back forty years when I first saw a Word Processor. A Wang machine, clunky – and all it could do was typing, editing, saving and printing documents with sort/merge feature, which was a big deal then. The firm I was working with then procured this machine. Quite a gizmo and only the Sr. Assistant to our CEO was given the privilege to use it.

  2. Thanks, Shekhar! Our first word processor was B.C. (Before Children) at my wife’s solo law practice. It was also a Wang (which many considered superior to IBM’s) and also did nothing but word processing, although Wang also made units that did math.

    And yes, in most offices only one person, usually a favored secretary, was elevated to Keeper of the Word.

    I remember Wang’s massive headquarters in the 1970s near the Massachusetts-New Hampshire line. They would advertise in the Boston Globe with the heading “WANG NEEDS PROFESSIONALS.” Wang’s system was proprietary, though, and didn’t keep up with changes in the industry when IBM started adding features like spreadsheets. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1992, just before the beginning of the personal computer boom.

    Interestingly, the last typewriter factory in the world was in Mumbai. It closed more than a decade ago: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/04/last-typewriter-factory-in-the-world-shuts-its-doors/237838/

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