The Classic Typewriter Page

Typewriter Tributes

Why I've Returned to the Manual Typewriter


Brian Drake

After the pencil, the typewriter was my writing tool, as native to my hand as knife and fork. I may have been eight years old when I received for Christmas a toy typewriter, one of those tin affairs where you turned a wheel to the letter you wanted, then pushed down the entire one-piece keyboard to put ink to paper. My parents didn't always understand me, but they had my number early.

A few years later and I was writing real stories that required real typing, adult typing, so my mother typed them for me on a faintly remembered portable. She was annoyed by my frequent use of the exclamation point--type the period, backspace, shift, type the apostrophe. I was annoyed because they didn't look like real exclamation points, not like the ones in books. They looked like periods with apostrophes. So I learned to be sparing in my use of emphatics.

I started typing my own stories soon. Even with two fingers I was capable of sixty words a minute. I took typing in high school, because, of course, I was a writer, and a writer must know how to type. By the time I finished the semester I was doing 70-80 wpm on the big, clunky, blue Royals we used in class (with one row of electric typewriters that we rotated through so that we had one week's experience on a buzzing, rattling machine). My graduation present was not a car, not a trip to Europe, or even Mexico, but one of those big, clunky, blue Royals, reconditioned to a state of perfection. I was more thrilled by that old typewriter than I would have been by a Porsche.

The Royal saw me through many drafts of many stories and plays and poems, and I still run across old pages in my files with the recognizable elite typeface. But it was now the 1980s, I decided I needed something state-of-the-art. I bought an expensive plastic Swintec portable. It had a repeat key. When I typed on it, it felt plastic. But it saw me through multiple drafts of my first novel and my first full-length play. When the play received a staged reading, the director's wife commented to me, "You know, your script has no typos. None!"

"Of course not," I said. I had proofed the pages in the carriage so I could correct any mistakes without shifting the paper.

"But that's unheard of."

I was proud of my perfection.

But typing four drafts of a 400-page novel on that little plastic Swintec convinced me that I must have an electric typewriter. I found a little Brother that even had a memory of sorts--you could type a line of text, proof it on the tiny screen, then push a button and commit it to paper. Very space age. Of course, dedicated word processors were now available, but I couldn't afford one. And who had room for one in a tiny New York apartment? The first word processor was the Vydec, an 800-pound monster steel desk with built-in impact printer and tall, skinny monitor with little rubber buttons alongside the green screen to format the text. Then came the CPT, a wonderful machine that I could literally make sing, with the proper coding. Wang. MiCom. Casualties of the battles that left only Microsoft and Apple, Word and WordPerfect standing in the techno age.

Finally I borrowed money and bought my first PC. The Swintec went into the closet. The computer became my glory and my millstone. You could revise so easily! Print multiple copies without schlepping to the corner copy store! But every story took so long to create, not in the writing, but in all the fiddling, adjusting, tweaking required on the computer. Why won't this print right? What stray code is fouling things up? And the inevitable hard drive crash.

But a computer is a requirement for a writer. I was hooked on digital. Or trapped therein. Easy to use? You bet! But there's always another program required, another machine to invest in, more upgrades, printers, toner cartridges, floppy discs, CD-ROMs, memory keys.

I'm a philosophical Luddite of sorts. I remember the world being a better, easier place before computers came along, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn the world was more pleasant before Ford got his assembly line going. But I'm pragmatic as well, and a collector. I confess, I love burning CDs. I love email. And I love the Internet. I was cruising eBay one day and stumbled on some typewriter listings.

I realized I hadn't written much of anything worthwhile in a long time, and I was beginning to suspect the computer had something to do with it. Writing on the computer is so easy, almost no physical effort required, I can easily do 120 wpm when I barely have to touch the keys. It breeds laziness: I can't produce a manuscript now without typos, even with spellcheck, grammarcheck, multiple readings. The human eye wasn't meant to read on a screen. Pixels aren't natural to us. And the computer tempts conspicuous consumption. If a page isn't perfect, don't worry--print the whole document! Every secretary over a certain age can testify, there is no question that the computer has increased the waste of paper exponentially. Hundred-page documents are printed over and over because of minor changes, and everyone needs the printout now, even though they know it will be changed again in an hour. Or you print out the document again because someone misplaced it. Misplaced it! When we were on typewriters, let me tell you, no one misplaced a hundred-page contract! That meant another two days of typing, and tying up at least two secretaries to get it done then.

And my writing's quality comes too easily as well. It becomes glib, smarmy. Smart-ass. Whatever profundity I'm capable of, I can't unearth it through the thickets of verbiage. A lot of today's writing strikes me that way. It's rare that I pick up a new novel that doesn't strike me as smart-ass. It may be amusing, or tedious, but smart-ass is the main flavor. And always expressed in too many words.

Gore Vidal said he could tell when a book had been written on a word processor. I can, too. Sometimes I can see the cut-and-paste. And cutting and pasting in Word doesn't even take the effort that William S. Burroughs put into his physical cut-and-paste technique!

I've worked as a professional proofreader and copyeditor, and I can attest that the computer has not led to better writing. What it has led to is more writing, acres and acres of it. Books have grown fatter and fatter while their content grows slimmer and slimmer. The average volume now is longer than the Bible! Most of them could be five-page short stories and the reader would get just as much out of them, and save a lot of time as well. I'd rather read a short book that makes me think for a couple of weeks than a book that takes a couple of weeks to read, and that I forget about the day after I've finished it. In the old days they would have been aggressively edited down, but nowadays the texts are submitted electronically and aren't edited at all, just given to the copyeditor to clean up the inevitable poor grammar and misspellings that the spellcheck can't catch, then typeset, proofread, and sent to stores as unthoughtfully as they were written.

Yes, writing on a typewriter is more work. A mistake, an addition, requires retyping, not backspacing. But every retyping is an opportunity to revise. Most current writing would benefit from being physically retyped several times. (I've drafted this essay four times already. I hope the effort shows.) I'm willing to wager that if David Foster Wallace and Neal Stephenson manually typed every draft from scratch, their novels would be half as long.

These books run 500, 700, 900 or more pages. To no purpose that I can see except to gratify the wallets and egos of the authors, give the reviewers something to do, and give Barnes & Noble something for the remainder tables. I think of the dead trees and weep. To my mind, if a book is going to be more than 500 pages long, it had better be Moby-Dick or War and Peace. Even Anna Karenina would benefit from judicious pruning.

(Long novels aren't the fault of the computer: remember the triple-decker Gothics and Victorian sensation novels, and those were written by hand. But they're abetted by the computer and the slovenliness it instills.)

Anyway, back to eBay:"typewriter" in the search bar, and up came more than a thousand listings. I giggled. My coworkers looked at me, wondering what I'd browsed to this time. I searched the listings, saw a hundred beat-up examples of my grandparents' Smith Corona Clipper, '30s Underwoods straight out of His Girl Friday, lots and lots of Royals. Finally I found a beautiful, pristine, 1930s Continental with a German keyboard. My heart skipped more than a beat. Umlauts! Accents! The Z was where the Y should be! I bid and no one else did, so I won. When the box came and I opened it up, I stared at the gleaming black in awe, then ran my prize around to all my friends to show it off.

They shook their heads with that chuckle we typewriter fans quickly get used to.

Next I won a mint, still-in-the-box Webster XL-800, with the "Interchange Language" key, interchangeable slugs that fit into a keybar and offer all sorts of odd diacriticals and typographic marks. Too neat for words. It even has a repeat spacer, but it's a metal machine, not plastic like the old Swintec. I'm typing on it now. It's a little tinny, and it skitters across the desk when I slap the carriage return. So I'm now awaiting eagerly my giant Underwood Touch-Master 5--that sucker won't budge when I advance the carriage!--and a Scheidegger portable with European keyboard. I want a Cyrillic typewriter as well, Arabic, Armenian, Ukrainian. A music typewriter, too. Most especially, I want a Greek typewriter. If anyone knows where such a thing exists, let me know! I won't be sane on the subject.

There are many reasons I'm back on a manual. I love the smell of the things, that mix of oil and metal and ink that makes you feel like an honest-to-God writer. I love the effort it takes to smack those keys into the paper. The first time I tried to type on my Continental, after years of computer keyboards, I could barely hit the platen, and after five minutes my fingers cramped. Pathetic! But I persevered. Typing on a manual is a skill, and an important one. It's a sin to lose a skill.

But the most important reason is that I write better on a manual. I have to work harder on a typewriter, and I have to think harder. My mistakes are there, unavoidable, on a piece of paper. Evidence of sloppiness. So I think harder, work out my thoughts before committing them to physical space. It's a good thing to think hard. It's what makes us, or should make us, human.

I tell myself the two new typewriters will be the last I buy, at least until they break down forever. But I'm still dreaming of an Olympia SG3, so I can pretend to be Philip K. Dick or Harlan Ellison ("Art is not supposed to be easier! Art should always be tough."). I'd love a Hermes 3000. And if that Greek typewriter ever comes along, you can bet I'll the top bidder.

You can't have too many typewriters, especially now, when it's harder than ever to get them repaired. Every computer is an invitation to cruise the Internet, to play Solitaire or FreeCell and wonder where the last four hours went. But every typewriter is an invitation--no, a demand--to write.

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