Tuesday, October 11, 2016

And then came the word processor

Alan Jacobs remembers. I was one of those who procrastinated on major writing assignments. The night before an assignment was due tended to be an all-nighter or at least an early hours of the morning night. At least I had thought about what I might write and composed much of it in my head. My salvation was erasable paper. The computer and word-processing didn't come along until I was well into my teaching career. I recall almost losing a lease because the neighbors beneath me objected to the pounding of my typewriter at 2:00 am. Jacobs on the typewriter:
“Each of us remembers our own first time,” Matthew Kirschenbaum writes near the beginning of his literary history of word processing — but he rightly adds, “at least...those of us of a certain age.” ....

The heart of the matter was mistakes. When typing on a typewriter, you made mistakes, and then had to decide what, if anything, to do about them; and woe be unto you if you didn't notice a mistyped word until after you had removed the sheet of paper from the machine. If you caught it immediately after typing, or even a few lines later, then you could roll the platen back to the proper spot and use correcting material — Wite-Out and Liquid Paper were the two dominant brands....

Moreover, if you were writing under any kind of time pressure — and I primarily used a typewriter to compose my research papers in college and graduate school, so time pressure was the norm — you were faced with a different sort of problem. Scanning a page for correctable mistakes, you were also likely to notice that you had phrased a point awkwardly, or left out an important piece of information. What to do? Fix it, or let it be? Often the answer depended on where in the paper the deficiencies appeared, because if they were to be found on, say, the second page of the paper, then any additions would force the retyping of that page but of every subsequent page — something not even to be contemplated when you were doing your final bleary-eyed 2 AM inspection of a paper that had to be turned in when you walked into your 9 AM class. You’d look at your lamentably imprecise or incomplete or just plain fuddled work and think, Ah, forget it. Good enough for government work — and fall into bed and turn out the light.

The advent of “word processing” — what an odd phrase — electronic writing, writing on a computer, whatever you call it, meant a sudden and complete end to these endless deliberations and tests of your fine motor skills. You could change anything! anywhere! right up to the point of printing the thing out.... [more about the advent of word processing on a computer and its effect on writing]