Five steps to quality writing while invoking the lost art of typewriter

It’s less than two decades since computer swept typewriters away. Gone, like an old shoe, but not forgotten. The imagery of writing – of creative fiction, especially – still revolves around the old dieselpunk-era Smith Corona Portable or the Imperial upright.

Now this is a typewriter I didn't wear out. Largely because I got a computer. But I still typed around a million words on it.
A typewriter I didn’t wear out. Largely because I got a computer. But I still typed around a million words on it.

It’s easy to forget the lessons of typing too. Typing made revisions hard. I remember bashing out “first draft” stuff on double-spaced newsprint style paper. Then would come pen-and-ink changes; then maybe a second draft. Maybe a third. Finally it would be time to copy-type the final on clean, white manila paper.

These days it’s too easy to just change stuff.

I can’t complain. If done right, it makes it possible to achieve tremendous quality quickly. But it also makes it possible to write rubbish very quickly.

That’s because the permanence of the typed word on paper meant writers had to think first, type second. It meant every sentence had to be considered. It meant structure had to be planned. And the act of re-typing the pen-corrected manuscript gave a further opportunity to review the words in their minds – slowly and carefully.

All these things remain true of good writing today. The question is how they’re achieved – whether by careful consideration, then writing  – which works just fine on a word processor – or by blurt-and-amend, which also works fine, but may take longer, paradoxically, than the other way.

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)
Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

The thing is, it’s too easy to blat words into a word processor without considering the structures of sentences, paragraphs and – most important – of the overall work. I think the ease of typing and revising lends itself to unstructuring the writing, if we’re not careful.

My advice?

1. Stop, pause, plan – then write. Just like in the old typing days.
2. Do what typewriter-age writers did: print the draft out and go through it in pen and ink.
3. When keying those changes back into your word processor – think about how they can be improved.
4. Rinse and repeat. Seriously. You get the luxury of a clean version at the touch of a button. Quality counts, and two pen-and-ink reads are better than one.
5. When you get your work proof-edited, make sure the proof-editor does the same.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 


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10 thoughts on “Five steps to quality writing while invoking the lost art of typewriter

  1. Excellent tips and post, Matthew! Seeing your words printed out does help in editing. Thank you for sharing.

    I did love the IBM Selectric typewriter way back when I was a secretary. It was the sound of the clicking of the keys that was melodic and soothing to me. I wouldn’t give up my laptop though for anything! It is so easy to edit, cut and rewrite in a shorter span of time.


    1. I still own one of those – a Selectric II which I bought second hand in 1986. It doesn’t work any more, but it has to be one of the best typewriters I’ve ever used.


  2. In my closet, within about twelve feet of where I sit typing this on my faithful Toshiba laptop, is a Smith-Corona portable typewriter. It’s just like the one I had through high school and college.

    I remember when I finished my first novel-length MS., on my first desktop PC, I gave it to my great-uncle, Roger D. Aycock, to read. He took it gingerly, reverently, and asked, “Is this the only copy?” I don’t think he actually understood that a print copy was no longer an “original.” But if you started writing in the 1930s, maybe you could be excused for the survival of old habits.

    Don’t know if my habits actually changed when I got my first PC. As I recall I kept writing, writing, writing, because what I wrote wasn’t quite good enough. I wrote a lot of longhand stuff in those days as well. I also had the opportunity to learn writing and editing techniques working in a law office, writing motions and appellate briefs. Pretty much like you said; write it up on screen, print it out, pen and ink corrections, enter corrections, print and review.

    I LOVE writing on a laptop. It’s more or a difference than switching from writing longhand to using a typewriter. Is it actually easier than writing on a typewriter, do I plan less? Can’t say so — but then I only wish I could plan and organize things like you brainy types do. (Really. I do!) For me that’s what editing is for.

    But I will NEVER get rid of that typewriter. You never know!


  3. What an inspiration to have Roger Dee as a great uncle!

    That pic of my Adler Gabrielle…it’s kind of recent. It still works after a fashion – I can’t get a Type 1 ribbon for it these days. But I couldn’t write these days without a computer – the efficiency of editing is incredible, and auto-correct fixes my unerring ability to mangle words when typing. And yet for me, at least, the pen-and-ink world still offers avenues that the screen does not.

    I wouldn’t call myself brainy! I just do stuff – and there’s lots of stuff I absolutely cannot do, and which I know is trivial for others. When I was at school, I used to get punished for my failures on the basis that I was deliberately not trying hard enough, but the reality is that there are basic skills like getting letters and numbers in the right order which I have never been able to master to this day. I know what they are, but something gets lost in the translation.


  4. I completely agree, it’s too easy to write without thinking on a word processor especially given how easy it is to change things. I always print out a copy of my MS for editing – I find it almost impossible to edit on a screen – and I love typing it back up because it gives me time to think about the changes I’ve made.

    Great post!



    1. It’s a good approach. Typing forces the mind to focus. Handwriting does the same, only more so. Our writing will always be framed by our tools and by hand writing we break away fromm the homogeniety of the computer.


  5. My writing is too bad to do much on paper. You should see my class notes! Anyway, I wrote a short story for the Writers’ Guild meeting. I read it out loud while it was still on the computer screen, made a few corrections and printed it out. At the meeting, I discovered that reading it off the paper was different. I noticed a lot of things wrong that I hadn’t when it was on the screen. From now on, I’m printing each chapter and reviewing it that way.
    I still have my typewriter. It has a computer screen big enough for 2 lines of type. I can edit and type lines as I go before printing. I still have a new ribbon in its plastic-wrapped cardboard, but I’m sure it’s dried out by now.
    Good article.


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