I was working as a magazine writer and editor back in the late 1970s when one of my colleagues told me about this great new tool. “Word processing” he called it. I tend to be a skeptic where technology is concerned, not quite a Luddite but more like a 100-million-sold adopter. My response then was, “I don’t get it. How is this better than my Smith-Corona?” We debated the issue for months before the day arrived when our office’s publishing system (controlled by powers far above our grade level) changed and suddenly we were all word processing.
I realize this will sound ludicrously quaint to anyone born Gen X or later, but the question of whether word processing is a good thing is one that matters to serious writers. A month or two back Garrison Keillor, on his radio show the Writer’s Almanac , quoted the British-American poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) warning against word processors for poets in particular. Her take:
If you copy something out by hand, before you move onto the typewriter, you’ve already gone on making minor changes. This is an intuitive part of the creative process, and one that’s eliminated by the use of word processors. People get such a completed-looking copy that they think the poem is done. The word processor doesn’t take as much time as actually forming the letters with your hand at the end of your arm which is attached to your body. It’s a different kind of thing. They don’t realize that this laborious process is part of the creative process.
I know what Levertov means because back in my youth working on that magazine, I wrote my first drafts by hand. That was mainly because I was lousy typist and I could get my thoughts down on paper more quickly that way. Then for the second and “final’ draft, the one to be preserved, I’d type up my messily crossed out and emended draft, revising once again even as I typed. This style of writing is like slow food – laborious, hand-crafted, and presumably leading to a high-quality end result. Speed is not of the essence. Interestingly, however, this is exactly the method the prolific John Updike used during his entire career as a novelist.
Hatred of the typewriter (a less sophisticated form of word processor when you think about it) may even have played a role in generating much conventional wisdom about writing. William Strunk, Jr., the Cornell professor who wrote the original version of that universal manual for writers of all types, The Elements of Style, disliked typewriters intensely. When E.B. White added his revisions years later to make the second edition of the book most writers know fondly as “Strunk and White,” he was working from Strunk’s original handwritten manuscript. Seen in that light, their famous prescription for good writing may have been influenced by Strunk’s animus against the logorrhea machine-writing seems to inspire.
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Just so. He who handwrites his sentences would want no unnecessary words.
As I look back over my own long history of attempting to put words on paper, or at least onto a computer screen, I recall many cases of writer’s block induced, I suspect, by a combo of the always awe-inspiring blank page and a dread of the messiness inherent in handwritten revision. A worst-case memory: when I took a scholarship exam for college with a roomful of other applicants, we were given an hour to write an essay. I managed to get only seven sentences down in that hour. Eventually, over the course of college, I did learn to force myself to do frantic, hand-cramping brain dumps into blue books to get through “essay” exams. One of many reasons I’m glad to be beyond college is that I no longer have to perform these churning regurgitations.
The point is that word processing, despite my initial reluctance, turned out to be crucial in busting the words loose for me. It helped turned the act of writing from what I dreaded most up to about age 30 into one of my greatest pleasures these days. I’m not sure of the precise psychological adjustment, but it’s encapsulated in my current creed: “Just slap some words down on that screen. Do it fast. Revisions will come later. Just get started.” That attitude, fostered by the word processor, has made all the difference.
Levertov is right about the pseudo-permanence that words in type can acquire. Word processing does make revision marginally more difficult because the words somehow seem legit, final as soon as they become typefaces on a screen, far harder to change than my handwritten scrawl. But we’ll save the art of revision for a future post.
For a fascinating account of the roots of word processing, which one might say started with Gutenberg, see Brian Kunde’s 1986 college paper, “A Brief History of Word Processing.”
And what about you? Do you still write by hand?