The Technology of Writing

The NaNoWriMo is about to launch. This is a kind of mass psychosis in which writers try to knock off a 50,000 word manuscript) in thirty days.

It’s got me thinking about how much techology has changed. (I seem to be waxing nostalgic this month about the past.)

When I first started a law practice in 1981, I had a full-time secretary who worked on a manual typewriter. She had to re-do letters if I wanted them changed or if she made a mistake (the technology then was a hard eraser, and it left marks). This of course, drove her crazy. I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, a happy wife makes for a happy husband? Well, in my practice, a happy secretary made for a happy lawyer, and I often sat uncomfortably with clients, listening to my secretary curse from the adjacent room.

The amazing invention that made her life easier was white-out, that nifty little liquid in a bottle that allowed typos to be hidden and typed over. But that didn’t help us much with documents that were on coloured paper. And it was time consuming and messy. The cursing continued.

And then came the IBM Selectric. A sleek looking typewriter that had a sticky tape that pulled errors off the page if you hit backspace. Other than a small indent on the paper, usually typed over, there was nothing to show that a mistake had ever been made. I think it cost me $ 1,600, which was a ton of money in the early 1980s.

After the Selectric, the memory typewriter hit the market. Magic! It stored an entire line of type on a narrow screen, about the width of a ruler, just above the keyboard. This allowed the typist to review and change a sentence before it even hit the page. At that point, my secretary was easily able to handle more work, so I brought in an associate.

And then came the IBM PS1. With that computer (little more than a word processor), you could type and correct your entire correpondence on a blue screen with white letters, re-format it, alter it, and totally change it. I think it even did envelopes. It was almost prohibitively expensive at the time: almost the cost of a secretary.

Well, come to think of it, it did cost a secretary, because with a PS1, I didn’t need a secretary anymore. I began doing my own correspondence.

I had that PS1 for years, as my flirtation with new technologies quite comfortably stalled.

My brother finally dragged me kicking and screaming into the (then) 20th century by buying me a desktop computer for my 40th birthday. That computer, loaded with Windows 95, worked fine for me until last year, when I bought my first laptop. And this year, I purchased a Blackberry, which takes phone messages left on voice-mail and automatically converts them into written text, which I think is pretty amazing.

Back in 1981, it would have taken a full year to type a 50,000 word manuscript, maybe longer. I shudder to think of the errors that would have been in it, or how long it would have taken to correct them.

Maybe that’s why so many people are willing to engage in the insanity of NaNoWriMo. Because they can.

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3 Responses to The Technology of Writing

  1. Jerome Dumont says:

    You couldn’t be more right: technology has evolved so much these last 15 years…
    I remember speaking with other belgian lawyers hating so much that damn fax thing, which allowed one’s other party lawyer to send his writings more lately than ever… This has gotten even worse with email…
    However, to get back to writing, I would add that nowadays, with the amazon website and the apple iBook store, everyone can publish its own books or novels quite directly ! The las update of apple’s word processor, Pages, allows you to save your document in a .pdb format, which allows you to send it directly after to apple’s iBooks library…


  2. Yes, Jerome, everyone can write a book and get it published — or at least pay someone to publish it. Which is why increasingly it is almost impossible for anyone to make a living writing. It’s not that there are so many more good books out there but because of the continual application of Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) it is impossible for the good books to rise above the noise of the bad.

    Sorry, feeling a tad dyspectic these days.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      Of course, back in the 1800s, when the population here was much smaller, the same thing applied. Anyone could produce a broadsheet, and I’ve seen many hundreds of rather dreadful journals and books about this or that visit to North America that were self-published.
      At some point in time, I suspect the new technological advances that are creating the noise that you refer to, Hayden, will also create filters for them.
      At least one hopes …


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