From Typewriter to Word Processor: On Becoming a Writer 3

Lives change, as I said in Part One and Part Two of my previous posts on this continuing thread. If you haven’t read these, you might want to skip over there first.

“The tools we write with change the way we think.” Friedrich Nietzsche typed this sentence–or something like it, on the first commercially-produced typewriter in 1882, exactly a century before I sat down to my new Apple IIc and began learning to write with a tool that enabled me to record my thoughts almost as fast as they appeared in my mind. And to revise, recall, reconsider, review, and reorganize what I had written–without the labor of retyping the whole freakin’ page.

Remember how that worked, back in the day? You’d type a page, make corrections, and retype. Then do it again. And again. And again–until you got it the way it was supposed to be or you ran out of time (usually the latter).

But the word processor changed all that, astonishingly. I began, in 1982, with an Apple IIc and then IIe, and Apple Writer. I wrote a half-dozen or more of my early young adult novels on those machines. It was a single chapter to a floppy disk, which meant that the ability to search was limited to about 5,000 words. And I remember losing whole chapters when the floppies disappeared or malfunctioned. Oh, the agony . . .

But primitive as it was then, the word processor was a watershed event in my writing life. What was wonderful about it, of course, was the ease of editing. You could type at the speed of thought, then take as long as you wanted to revise–and revise and revise. Of course, for some writers, the best part of the game is getting it down on the page. But I am a writer whose first drafts are pretty crappy. My enjoyment of the craft arises from the pleasure of making that first stuff better. After decades of typewriters, I adored those Apples.

And then I married a data-processing guy who disliked Apples (on principle, mostly), loved his KayPro, and used both WordPerfect and WordStar–the two non-Apple word processing programs of the day. Since we were writing together and he knew more about computers than I did, it made sense to move to WordStar–which I liked, because all of the commands were keyboarded. No mouse. No fonts choices, either–but back in the day, who cared about fonts? We were lucky to have upper case and lower case. As for printers, the dot matrix with the tractor holes down the side–that was it. Remember?

After 1987, all of the young adult books, the early nonfiction, the first half-dozen China Bayles, and the first three or four Robin Paige mysteries were written in WordStar, on various DOS machines with a great deal more memory than my baby Apples. But even though the books were composed (and revised) on the computer, the publisher still handled the manuscripts as if they’d been typed. We printed the books on a temperamental laser printer and FedExed two copies (at great expense) to the editor in New York. The copyeditor used a red pencil for corrections. I used a blue pencil to correct her corrections. Lots of physical labor, lots of mailing, lots of chances for error.

Then, some time around the turn of the century, the publisher let us know that their computers didn’t speak Wordstar. Microsoft Word was the preferred software. In fact, while it never came down to push and shove, the message from the big guys in New York was pretty clear. We’re using Word here, people. It’s time you switched. That message became unmistakable when they asked for electronic copy and the copy editing and proofing process was moved to Track Changes and pdf files. No more paper and red pencil, no more mailing manuscripts. Nothing on paper now, folks. Pixels only, please.

So I switched to Word, not without resentment. And since pixels can’t be FedExed, we had to get hooked up to the internet (back then, it was the Internet, with a capital I). Which was complicated by the fact that our corner of the Texas Hill Country was not digitally connected to the rest of the world. Which is a whole other story (and another installment).

If you remember your first word processor (fondly or otherwise), I’d love to hear about it. How do you feel about Nietzsche’s claim? Do our writing tools have the power to change the way we think?


Update, 12/20/19. Mary Karen Euler sent me a fascinating note about Jane Austen’s editing, accompanied by a photo. I’m posting it here because Mary Karen couldn’t get the photo to post with her blog comment.

Jane Austen didn’t have a word processor (or Whiteout or even a paperclip), so she used what was handy: straight pins. From a description of her unfinished manuscript, “The Watsons,” comes this:

“With no calculated blank spaces and no obvious way of incorporating large revision or expansion [Jane Austen] had to find other strategies – the three patches, small pieces of paper, each of which was filled closely and neatly with the new material, attached with straight pins to the precise spot where erased material was to be covered or where an insertion was required to expand the text.” 

Pins? Like these:






But it turns out that Jane wasn’t the first to pick up her pins when she wanted to make a change. Researchers say that writers were using pins for revision as early as 1617. (Maybe this will help me better appreciate Track Changes?) Big thanks to Mary Karen Euler for sharing this interesting bit about an earlier writer’s editing strategies!

16 comments on “From Typewriter to Word Processor: On Becoming a Writer 3

  1. I know I am lagging, but my first “computer” after the IBM Displaywriter (with 8 inch disks I used in the law office circa 1982) was the Kaypro. I loved Wordstar, and I still feel the WordPerfect is far superior to Word. But the world moved on and I finished my degree (@ age 60) with Libre. Love your series books and especially the Dahlias! I vote to publish the next book ASAP and not simultaneously hardcover, soft cover, Audible, etc. the sooner the better😉

  2. I have a long love/hate relationship with computerized writing and editing. My first exposure to a computer was at the reception desk of an emergency room in a large urban hospital. As the weekend ward clerk, I checked in patients on an old IBM electric. It worked just fine. Then I left for several months of maternity leave. While I was integrating baby two into our family the hospital staff was integrating a computer into the check-in process. I tried to adjust but after a few frustrating attempts to adapt to this new-fangled contraption I decided I could handle a new baby and a toddler or a new contraption, but not both in the same life time. The babies won. Those babies were both double-digit ages before I was forced to figure out how to deal with computers. I am writing this on an Apple laptop, so obviously, I’d adapted. A little. I love the ease of editing and the convenience of corresponding electronically. However, I encounter as many obstacles as advances communicating via this method. My mantra is “I know a lot more than I used to know, but still a lot less than i need to know” when it comes to all things electronic.

    • I think all of us will join you in your mantra, Kathryn. We never know all we need to know–but somehow we muddle along, using what we know how to use and ignoring the rest (until it wakes up and bites us). But on balance, don’t you think the word processor has made a huge difference in our writing lives? I know how much you do: if you were doing it on a typewriter, it would surely take much longer.

  3. Oh, my heart…and nerves…..recalling The Switch from typewriter to first computer (…old Kaypro, discarded by a writing friend who upgraded, and I didn’t have the capability to print with it….just…..type…..and, yes, I am still asking, along with all of you….Why??). My Need-To-Enter-The-Next-Century-Moment came, painfully, while I was banging out my submission copy of an important manuscript that could get me included in a hard-cover anthology….big for me in the 80’s and my first days of submitting! I pulled my paper from my typewriter, did an edit….and saw that I needed five words, important words, to make the story hold together. These words belonged in the first few pages of a LONG manuscript….and changed the spacing of the whole, d***** thing. My last day to Priority Mail was tomorrow. After some epic moaning and swearing, I rolled the next piece of paper into the machine, switched it on….and, nothing. It was dead. So was I. I’m still not really sure how I got the typewriter into my car and drove into town, to our only machine repair shop, but I did. They were closing. I opened the door, anyway, and walked into the dark shop. The chap on duty, closing out his till, looked up with raised brows. I don’t know what my face looked like, but it must have made an impression on him. I simply held out my dead typewriter, and said: “I will give you my car.” The rest of that afternoon/evening is a blur. He took my machine, made it work, and I paid him something, don’t recall what – though, I drove home in my car. I did retype the entire, corrected manuscript, made the next day’s post. I can’t say I sold the piece, though it was a nice rejection. I was told I had a “powerful story here, and, with some work, this is going to sell.” That experience convinced me to overcome my terror of technology enough to, at least, never go through anything like that again. I am sharing this from the comfort of our home wi-fi system, which frustrates me only a little…..all I have to do is recall those awful, important five words…..

    • I think we share a storyline, Connie. Too many losses, vital ones, too. And your phrase “My Need-To-Enter-The-Next-Century-Moment” is just right! When we’re not out there in the career culture in a job that keeps us technologically-current, it’s a yuuuge challenge not to fall behind the curve. Did your story ever sell (even without those five essential words)?

  4. I was blessed to return back to work with an electric typewriter. A year later we had one apple computer for the office and everything was on a true “floppy” disk. We all attended classes and learned all the ins and outs.

    Next came a word processor! DOS was our operating program and I wasted time (but not money, the company paid) to learn how to write programs on DOS. The only one I vaguely remember is how to write a message on your screen saver in DOS. We used an elementary version of WordPerfect and had the printer with the dotted margin paper.

    I got a new job and they had – real computers with windows! No more DOS and I had to learn what the little icons meant. This time we had a bank of 3 computers with for use by about 8 people, used WordPerfect, and all connected to one printer, but still had electric typewriters on our desks. Slowly we phased out typewriters and all had desktop computers with all the Corel products loaded on everyone. I remember when we got dial up interent! It was installed on only one of the laptop and we had to take turns. We had a dedicated phone line installed for the internet.

    I feel very fortunate that I returned to work as computers made their way into offices. All of my employers paid for us to learn how to use them, we had classes when new programs came out or were updated, and we all were able to learn together and help each other out. If I had been out of the workplace for 3-5 more years, I would not have been able to resume office work and I would not have had the money to take all the necessary classes myself.

    • Sounds like your timing was excellent all along the line, Maryellen–and at no $$ cost to you. It’s a challenge to keep our skills current, especially for those of us who are working for ourselves and aren’t out there in the workforce. I’ve often thought that if I don’t keep up with (at least) the major changes, I’ll get so far behind that I’ll never catch up.

  5. My own writing, of college and later papers, was done by hand, with corrections made that way, too, and then typed as a clean copy to hand in. When we got our first computer–a gift of my husband’s parents, who’d been to a college reunion and decided our children must learn this wave of the future–I did eventually learn to compose on it. It was a PCjr (I think), and the salesman assured us we’d never need more than the 256K memory it had. Its biggest drawback was the need to save before the end of the fourth page (roughly–I forget exactly how many words). Once you hit the limit it froze. Completely. Everything not saved was lost, also completely, as the computer had to be turned off and on to get out of that dilemma.

    As computers improved and laptops emerged life got much easier. I do historical research and writing, and not having to transcribe notes saved a tremendous amount of time. My current MacBook Air has been wonderful since 2011, but is now having trouble connecting to more modern programs. I’m procrastinating getting a new one because of the hassle of learning to work on it, but one of these days I’ll work up the energy.

    Thanks for this series and for all the posts on life in the Texas hill country. We’re in New England, but have visited San Antonio and environs.

    • Pat, my only paper/pencil work was poetry; I’ve preferred typing for everything else, always–just think better through my fingers. Your comment about that PC jr reminds me of the limits of those early machines, mostly file size. Your description is unfortunately apt. We’ve had so many computers over the years that it’s hard to remember: wish I’d kept a list. (Odd: I can remember our cars’ make/model but not our computers.) I got out of Apples and into PCs after Bill and I married but bought a MacBook Pro a couple of years ago and don’t like it. And I am so with you on learning a new machine–and especially hate getting a new machine set up (cloning the desktop to the laptop). Ugh. And don’t get me started on the problem of finding the right computer guru!

  6. Back in the day, computer operators had to make corrections from back to front. Otherwise, the lines were so skewed, they were unable to find the text to be corrected.

    • Not sure what you’re thinking of here with “skewed lines,” Liz–maybe wordwrap? If memory serves (often it doesn’t), the early WPs didn’t do reliable line breaks, so lines sometimes wandered off the side of the page. I don’t remember if my early AppleWriter had a search/replace function. But for all the frustrations, the ability to revise so easily felt like a miracle–at least to me.

  7. I have written two thoughtful posts here, from my Smartphone. Both have disappeared before I could hit REPLY. So there you go! I stand by old typewriters and real paper (and liquid paper for mistakes.) They, at least, stayed put. And I thought more carefully when typing on paper. I had to do it. Now, I get lazy with electronics.

    • Oh, Smartphones–a complete mystery to me. I do well to text and do simple email. You’re right, of course, Peg. Print on paper stays put (at least as long as the paper is viable), although its circulation is much more limited. Life is just one tradeoff after another, isn’t it?

  8. I used all these processes except Wordstar – we has some other program. The way in which the tool changes my life is that as editing became easier, I relaxed and enjoyed being able to revise before sending whatever I was working on. I felt freer to just “get it down” and then go back to improve it. And I was more motivated to write when I didn’t have to make corrections in difficult ways. More got done.

    I look forward to the next installment!

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