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July 24, 2004 2:20 PM   Subscribe

Why I use a typewriter. All this talk of retro technology! Great essay from Bill Meissner on why he uses a typewriter. Also worth checking out is Ian Frazier's piece in The Atlantic about typewriter man Martin Tytell, and this interview with Harlan Ellison about why he can't use a computer to write with. (via Sassone)
posted by braun_richard (33 comments total)

 
Sorry, but Meissner obviously knows nothing about writing on a computer, or is pretending not to know. Saving paper by using a typewriter so as to avoid printing multiple copies...it's just so dumb that I'm really not convinced he wasn't kidding.
posted by bingo at 2:49 PM on July 24, 2004


Actually, he's not kidding. Why do you think that using a typewriter wastes more paper (or just as much) than printing multiple copies from a computer? He explains the difference, that when you use a typewriter you use Wite-Out. Also, if you make a mistake on a typewriter, it's not as easy to take out the paper, throw it away and put a new one in, so you're not apt to do it. Unlike using a computer, where you can easily make a change on the screen and print out another copy and another and another.

If you've ever worked in an office, you know that paper is used at an unbelievable rate when you use a computer.
posted by braun_richard at 3:05 PM on July 24, 2004


Are you kidding me? I do work in an office. Using a typewriter doesn't waste more paper than printing multiple copies from a computer. It wastes more paper than printing a single copy from a computer, after corrections have been made on the screen.

The article about Tytell is very nice, though.
posted by bingo at 3:28 PM on July 24, 2004


p.s. I like the computers in the Animatrix; they look like manual typewriters connected to monitors.

Also, the typewriters in Naked Lunch are pretty cool. They turn into aliens.
posted by bingo at 3:29 PM on July 24, 2004


I will eat these people's entrails.

Er, pardon me.
posted by abcde at 3:42 PM on July 24, 2004


By the way, for any typewriter people who don't know about him already, this guy runs an interesting and apparently popular site.

I wrote him once after I had seen some idiot do an onstage mime of using a typewriter in which he returned the carriage from right to left. Polt verified that unless the imaginary typewriter was set up for a right-to-left language like Hebrew, the guy was confused.

I wrote the performer a letter with which I enclosed diagrams from Polt's site showing how a typewriter works. Surprisingly, I never heard back.
posted by bingo at 3:50 PM on July 24, 2004 [1 favorite]


Bingo: it's true that using a typewriter wastes more paper than printing a single copy after making corrections on the screen. But that's in a perfect scenario. It's been my experience that people print out whatever they want to print out THEN realize they've made mistakes only after printing it out and go back and make corrections or want to change something else for some reason. And I stand by my theory that if you use a typewriter regularly you don't want to keep putting more paper in so you use Wite-Out (using the same paper over and over again in a typewriter is just par for the course).

Besides, you've picked out one aspect out of a rather nice, logical (I think) piece about why he likes typewriters.

I like that Tytell piece too. Very interesting.
posted by braun_richard at 4:00 PM on July 24, 2004


that smell of an inked silk typewriter ribbon, a smell combining sootiness with a medicinal volatility


For writers of a certain age, that is certainly an evocative olfactory image Frazier comes up with. The power of nostalgia, though, is not enough to lure me back to a typewriter.

Why do I prefer a computer? NOT because of the primary reason everyone trots out in defense of the PC: "Because you can move paragraphs around." I rewrite the hell out of everything I do, but only once in a blue moon (coming to us a week from today, BTW) do I have to "move paragraphs around." Is this just me? I dunno. Maybe other writers "move paragraphs around," but I agree with Ellison that this function has not much to do with the natural creative process.

No, I use a computer to write (when I'm not writing in longhand, but that's a different subject altogether) because: a) I'm a terrible typist and opening up a little bottle of white-out and blowing on it until it dries has lost its charm for me and b) I have a computer at work.

And insofar as the first link goes...I've never brought a typewriter with me to a breezy spot under a cherry blossom tree. That's why God made back-to-school sales where you can get two spiral notebooks for ninety-nine cents.
posted by kozad at 4:26 PM on July 24, 2004


Typing on a real typewriter, with the keys banging against the paper is very satisfying. The whole relatively silent tap of computer keys just doesn't compare. Certainly, the computer is so much better for editing your thoughts on the fly. However, for some folks the noise and the feeling of keys tapping is somehow a stimulant to the next sentence. It works for me and I can not explain it. I hardly ever use a real typewriter anymore because of its inability to edit, but they are great. When I do, I type double space, handwrite my edits and then have my secretary type in the result (only try this when your secretary is not busy).
posted by caddis at 4:34 PM on July 24, 2004


Excellent post.

One thing he doesn't mention: I'm pretty sure that the quality of what I write on a typewriter is superior to what I type electronically. Knowing that correcting is a pain leads you to pay a lot more attention to what you're doing. When I type electronically I tend to go back and make corrections to words or phrases within a sentence, but that disrupts the rhythm and flow of the prose: a typewriter gives you a more fluid and organic style. On a manual typewriter I tended to do two drafts of anything important: the discipline of re-reading, and the opportunity to rework things holistically helped the quality.

Plus of course, I was also able to do a lot of writing while living in a house in the mountains without electricity.

All of which makes this seem pretty pointless.

Death to word processors! Long live the typewriter!
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:37 PM on July 24, 2004


No, I use a computer to write (when I'm not writing in longhand, but that's a different subject altogether) because: a) I'm a terrible typist and opening up a little bottle of white-out and blowing on it until it dries has lost its charm for me and b) I have a computer at work.

Liquid white-out? How 1980. I always used correction film.

Landauer's The Trouble With Computers was the first work I read in an HCI class a long time ago, and has stuck with me ever since. He describes a great study it which trained typewriters performed basic communications tasks quicker and with fewer errors than secretaries using computers. The typewriters only needed one revision. Granted, there are issues with mail merge but this was done back in the days in which a "dear madam or sir" form letter was still acceptable business correspondence.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:07 PM on July 24, 2004


When they say "Gee it's an information explosion!", no, it's not an explosion, it's a disgorgement of the bowels is what it is. Every idiotic thing that anybody could possibly write or say or think can get into the body politic now, where before things would have to have some merit to go through the publishing routine, now, ANYTHING.

And all you're getting is an explosion of useless crap, which added to the other useless crap that was being done originally, only makes it that much worse.
Never a truer word was spoken.
posted by dg at 5:36 PM on July 24, 2004


Thanks, Theo and Kirk. Yeah, as a college student in the early seventies, it was "correction film." White-out occupied the years in the early eighties when I was too cheap to buy a self-correcting typewriter.

On a barely related note, I cry for the demise of the mimeograph machine (especially the hand-cranked one, giving teachers some much-needed physical activity) every time our principal lambasts the staff for its excessive copy machine usage. Just give us a few reams of paper, a couple of gallons of mimeo fluid, and we'll provide our charges with cheap copies and a pleasing olfactory experience!
posted by kozad at 5:50 PM on July 24, 2004


all i can say is my typing skills are pretty bad and writing on a typewriter was frustrating torture for me ... i didn't get good at typing until i got a computer and got online ... and i'm still only 40 wpm ... if they like typewriters, fine, but keep them the hell away from me
posted by pyramid termite at 6:00 PM on July 24, 2004


I wrote him once after I had seen some idiot do an onstage mime of using a typewriter in which he returned the carriage from right to left. Polt verified that unless the imaginary typewriter was set up for a right-to-left language like Hebrew, the guy was confused.

I wrote the performer a letter with which I enclosed diagrams from Polt's site showing how a typewriter works. Surprisingly, I never heard back.


That has to be one of the strangest things I've ever read on Metafilter.
posted by toby\flat2 at 6:04 PM on July 24, 2004


*remembers sniffing the handout sheets from school with fondness and a certain amount of longing for more simple times*
posted by dg at 6:12 PM on July 24, 2004


Modern electronic typewriters are... eh, okay. They're still slow, and do very little to keep the effort cost of multiple drafts low, but at least they have a bit of a buffer so you can type ahead of the clanking machinery. I couldn't imagine using one to get serious work done, though. How the hell do you lug a usable electric typewriter on the subway, to the park, to the airport?

I'm deeply familiar with typewriters, particularly the venerable Selectric III, but my nostalgia for the thing isn't strong enough to make me consider using a typewriter for actual work. They're neat-o for whipping up a quick grid of Dots, though.
posted by majick at 6:32 PM on July 24, 2004


p.s. I like the computers in the Animatrix; they look like manual typewriters connected to monitors.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil did this back in 1985. Note also the miniscule display with the cheesy magnifier in front.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:18 PM on July 24, 2004


Arg, extra quote at the end of the first URL. Make that Brazil.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:20 PM on July 24, 2004


I will never trust anyone who uses a typewriter in the 21st century. They are...not quite right.
posted by rushmc at 8:25 PM on July 24, 2004


Typewriter, shmypewriter. Give me some fresh-hewn papyrus and the blood of an Israelite for ink!

Seriously, dude, are we having this conversation?
posted by grrarrgh00 at 11:17 PM on July 24, 2004


A guy made a working Brazil-style computer.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:57 PM on July 24, 2004


Make mine a Dvorak.
posted by johnnyace at 3:47 AM on July 25, 2004


Where typewriters are no good is when you're producing multiple copies of forms. Correction fluid won't fix the pages underneath.

On the other hand, back when that was all there was, typos weren't all THAT important; I remember seeing lots of things just crossed out and written over.
posted by JanetLand at 5:40 AM on July 25, 2004


I think people are missing the point of these articles, which is about writing. Not working in an office where you need multiple forms or desktop publishing or anything like that. The act of writing itself.
posted by braun_richard at 7:44 AM on July 25, 2004


Seriously, dude, are we having this conversation?

Stuff like this always reminds me of one time when I was hanging out backstage with the guitarist Leo Kottke, and this guy came up and started trying to convince him that CDs were better than vinyl. Leo didn't think so. And the guy kept nagging him about the glory of CDs until finally, trying to be polite, Leo said words to the effect that "Look, at least I like record players. Leon Redbone wants us all to go back to the hand-wound gramophone."

If you think you write better using a certain process, go ahead. If somebody else prefers a different way, let them enjoy that. Despite what Harlan says, his way is not better. Neither is yours.

p.s. johnnyace is right. The real thing to discuss is that keyboards were deliberately laid out to slow people down, and are the most obsolete part of the typewriter.

p.p.s. I visited a guy in Vermont once who collected old typewriters. (They do, in my opinion, belong only in museums.) The coolest one, a Maskelyne, had the keys jumping out at the paper, in what's called a 'grasshopper' keyboard.

p.p.p.s. MetaFilter: An Explosion of Useless Crap!
posted by LeLiLo at 10:03 AM on July 25, 2004


If you think you write better using a certain process, go ahead. If somebody else prefers a different way, let them enjoy that. Despite what Harlan says, his way is not better. Neither is yours.

Uh...well, two things: one, isn't using your own process what it's all about, no matter what you do in life? I think if someone wants to use a computer, go ahead. Want to use paper and quill pen? Go ahead? Typewriter? Go for it.

Two: Harlan doesn't say that his way is "better," he says that people should work at the level of technology that they are comfortable at. What's wrong with that?
posted by braun_richard at 10:23 AM on July 25, 2004


Oh, and this quote:

I visited a guy in Vermont once who collected old typewriters. (They do, in my opinion, belong only in museums.)

Give me a break.
posted by braun_richard at 10:36 AM on July 25, 2004


A lot of people, especially a lot of audiophiles, would agree with Leo that vinyl is better than the CD.
posted by caddis at 12:46 PM on July 25, 2004


The typewriter/computer thingies in Brazil really aren't much like the ones in Animatrix.
posted by bingo at 1:53 PM on July 25, 2004


Some prefer handwriting and there is even a contest (word of warning, embedded sound). Long live the fountain pen.
posted by caddis at 7:15 AM on July 26, 2004


If you've ever worked in an office, you know that paper is used at an unbelievable rate when you use a computer.

This is true; the per capita use of paper has only increased since the introduction of the computer.

Arguments that typewriters are wasteful miss the the point. The potential for error makes people more accurate typists, which results in far fewer mistakes. Also, the time and effort required to bang away on such contraptions also means that they act as natural filters: one only bothers with the hastle of typing only those things truly worthy of being recorded.

Assertion: Computers generate lots and lots of useless, thoughtless, pointless crap.
Proof: The Internet.

QED.
posted by ChasFile at 10:02 AM on July 26, 2004


As a 21 year old who has the very great pleasure to be in an environment that utilizes mimeograph, letterpress, and typewriters, I will say that I prefer them in a purely aesthetic sense. Having lacked the opportunity to really grow up with them, I have the ability to rediscover them on their own merits, I feel. Apparently I have some issues with conformity, and nothing pleases me more than to be able to print something that looks, well, different.

I am enamoured by the ability of the mimeograph to incorporate hand drawings and type (as well as my beloved half-tones) into a print that may be messier than a photocopy but retains a spark of uniqueness. It pleases me. As for the sweat-of-your-brow letterpress? I have dreams about the letterpress. Beautiful dreams. It's so damn classy as a brute machine, and it spits out such laboriously enchanting product.

However, it is important that I remind myself that if these things were the norm, I probably wouldn't fawn over them quite so much.

But unless I'm battering away at my Triumph in my room, hammering out some personal issues in steady black and red type, I'm probably going to do all my major story writing on my computer, where I can manipulate and save and print multiple copies from the security of my own home for others to peruse. Not that my story writing isn't useless, thoughtless, pointless crap. 'Cause sometimes it kind of is.
posted by redsparkler at 12:51 PM on July 26, 2004


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