Typewriters v. Computers: the argument revisited (again).
May 8, 2014 11:24 AM   Subscribe

How the typewriter is/isn't better/worse for your writing. A little bit about ye olde handwriting in there as well.
posted by JanetLand (33 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Research has demonstrated that people who take notes by hand have far greater retention and ability to describe and relate information they've learned than those who type their notes.

That's assuming the laborious note-taking process is able to keep up with the pace of the subject being taught...something that never worked out well for me in school.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:31 AM on May 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

"The speed, complexity, and efficiency of our writing and communication have increased, but are the actual and potential costs — including bad sleep, memory and mood problems, sexual dysfunction, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, highly toxic e-waste, disposability-by-design, loss of privacy, and an overall diminished ability to engage in linear thinking — worth the advantages?"
posted by mr. digits at 11:31 AM on May 8, 2014

"If men learn [how to read and write], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows." --- Plato
posted by kyrademon at 11:41 AM on May 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

That's assuming the laborious note-taking process is able to keep up with the pace of the subject being taught...something that never worked out well for me in school.

Well, the way I did it was to take notes (not transcriptions) freehand, and then type them up within the next 24hrs. Still fresh, but I had time to digest what was really important.

I've never had a subject flummox me, but a couple professors did.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:42 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Typewriters don't browse, stream, feed, log or record, or issue distracting alerts

Typewriters developed from and co-evolved with devices designed to stream and record distracting alerts and other messages, originally over telegraph lines: teleprinter
posted by XMLicious at 11:52 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I depends how well you type. I have a tax final tonight and I spent a good chunk of today basically just re-typing my notes because, well, I've been doing this my whole life and I know how the words feel and there seems to be something between that and my memory. To the point where I sometimes now I have to spell stuff by trying to remember how it feels to type. Writing by hand is distracting because it's slow and clumsy. But a couple times a year, even so, I get back on this kick of trying to make mine legible again, just because it seems like something a person should be able to do. For me, the most important part is just being mindful about it.
posted by Sequence at 11:55 AM on May 8, 2014

I still have my old typewriter and use it to write my I Am Jane Doe short stories on it because the sound, rhythm, actions, and pace puts me in a specific frame of mind. I then retype it on my laptop, but it does get me to think differently...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 11:55 AM on May 8, 2014

I dunno about anyone else but my handwriting was always so awful and so slow that being able to type my notes on anything is a godsend to me.

Also there are all kinds of apps to block off problematic functions of your computer so I'm not dying of sympathy here. Writeroom, Freedom, Scrivener has a built-in fullscreen function...

But here's where I admit I've used a couple apps that make the CLACKITY CLACK CLACK sound of the typewriter when I type because that machine gun sound when you get rolling, ahh, nothing like it in the world.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:05 PM on May 8, 2014

My handwriting is terrible, mostly the result of moving to a town where writing with the sinister hand was frowned upon, ruler-style. A switch to the right failed me, left me stuttering. Now, when I laboriously scratch out something with my left, my hand clutches a pen with a grip suggesting that it is afraid someone will yank the instrument away and strike as a punishment for dare holding such a thing; a bone spur, courtesy of Wolff's Law, mars my middle finger. I do not enjoy hand-written notes but they are sometimes painfully necessary.

Instead, I like typewriters. I rarely use them but there is something personally enjoyable about the rhythm. Manuals were my first; we were only allowed near the electrics once we displayed competence and speed. Our typing teacher could floridly keyboard at an astonishing rate. After I moved to computers, I still enjoyed occasionally banging out a short story on an old typewriter we had, one which could be stowed inside of the desk by a special spring-loaded tray that swung it in and down, out of sight. Writing felt different on it, more punctuated and physical. A rhythm could be established between thinking and periods of movement, with that little sway from the hip on a return.

Naked Lunch caricatured (and perhaps fetishized) this sensation. Is a Clark Nova really very nice for writing reports? No, probably not so much more than a Krups Dominator. Typewriters range from poorly to well-designed and from maintainable to impossibly fussy, but the content surely would not matter.

And yet, when a red IBM Selectric appeared abandoned on the loading dock — where the outdated machines go for a last chance at utility before rain and scrappers get them — in a portentously short interval after the death of Hunter S. Thompson, I pulled up my car, opened the trunk, and took this heavy crimson wedge home. Who knows what frictions and eases it will apply to any fictions I bang out?
posted by adipocere at 12:09 PM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a couple of typewriters, which also means I have a semi-ongoing relationship with a typewriter mechanic.* He mentioned that business has picked up for him in the last few years, compared to the steady decline in the 1990s that looked like he'd be out of business long before he was ready to retire. He attributed it mostly to being basically the 'last man standing' in the typewriter-repair business, but also that there was some home business that hadn't existed much before.

There were a fair number of government agencies using typewriters up until very recently. My local guy had one of the US State Department contracts up until they got rid of their Selectrics; supposedly the last users there had them for typing official-letterhead correspondence and transcribing (presumably sensitive?) diplomatic cables. The FBI also had them for form-filling until quite late in the 90s as well.

Although I don't see them coming back into offices -- even for envelope addressing and stuff, label printers take up a lot less desk space -- but they do have a lot of appeal for more creative writing, because of their relative simplicity and also because of the very different workflow that they force you into. On a word processor, it's easy to type a few words, edit, type a few more, edit, etc. A typewriter -- for better or worse -- forces you into one linear "writing" activity, followed by repeated editing iterations through the whole piece until you decide it's done.

Sure, you can get that same process by writing manuscripts, assuming you use a pen anyway, but I can't handwrite nearly as fast as I can type on an electric typewriter. So the typewriter provides a sort of middle ground between handwriting and the modern computer / word processor: it forces the traditional write-revise-retype cycle but without the painstaking handwriting.

* My personal weakness is IBM Selectrics and they benefit from a periodic hot solvent bath, which is really not something you want to DIY. They last forever if maintained though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:21 PM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Kadin2048: "There were a fair number of government agencies using typewriters up until very recently. My local guy had one of the US State Department contracts up until they got rid of their Selectrics; supposedly the last users there had them for typing official-letterhead correspondence and transcribing (presumably sensitive?) diplomatic cables. "

I had a relative in the State Department typing pool lo these many years ago, and one of the benefits of typewriters was that they could simply remove the ribbons at night and lock them up (so nobody would reverse-engineer the typing from the imprints on the ribbons), and the ribbons could be burned at the end. (She typed kinda-sensitive but not REALLY sensitive stuff; I'm sure it was stricter for really sensitive stuff.) But yeah, it's hard to make extra copies when you have to make each copy individually by typing it out (rather than just running off an extra one on the printer or copier), and it's trivially easy to disable typewriters' ability to transcribe words and to dispose of the transcription mechanism.

I suppose you'd have wear patterns on both the key and the strikers, but they all typed so much stuff that I don't imagine it'd be very useful except for telling you the frequency of letters in the English language.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:21 PM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm in my mid-30s, and I learned to type on a manual typewriter, Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country., taught by my grandmother who must have had typing classes in high school in the early 1940s. By the time I got to 7th grade when we were taught to type--Wordperfect 5.1--I was completing lessons before half the class had started.

And yet, I absolutely can't take notes except by hand. I just don't absorb it. Typing is a very different process for me. I can write, no doubt--when I'm really in the groove words just pile up--but if I'm listening and trying to remember, typing notes does nothing. Which is just as well, because I finished college just a year or two before everybody seemed to arrive with a laptop on their knee.

I haven't tried writing on a typewriter in years, though I think I wouldn't like it; I'm fast, but often inaccurate. I'd spend half my time backspacing and x-ing things out.
posted by uncleozzy at 1:23 PM on May 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I learned to type on a manual typewriter, then swichted to a Selectric.

My GPA in undergrad, on the IBM: 2.0

My GPA in Grad School with Word Processing: 3.7

Sure, those 3 years at ASU didn't help the GPA, but my ability to move things around as I typed papers, the error check and correct, and the Spell Check made such a HUGE difference in the quality of the papers I turned in, it isn't even funny.

What I love most about word processing is that I can type as I think (like Kerouac) but then I can go back and arrange the thoughts cogently. I used to write things out on yellow legal pads and then transcribe. Then I'd read what I had typed and I'd think, 'that paragraph would be better over there.'

Typewriters are cute, but MAN I don't miss them!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:25 PM on May 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I too take notes by hand. Mostly because I doodle.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:25 PM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

A typewriter -- for better or worse -- forces you into one linear "writing" activity, followed by repeated editing iterations through the whole piece until you decide it's done.

Yes, waterfall writing.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:36 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of the things I was forced to do (by family) was to take a typing class in high school, which for me was back in the paleolithic age of the mid 80s. Which meant electric typewriters. While I hated having to do it, I wound up being very, very good at touch typing.

I've made a living and pursued many passions via the keyboard. And while the romance of the typewriter (the glorious Selectrics I learned on, but especially those beautiful pre-WWII models) is certainly compelling, the ease of use of a modern computer keyboard and word processing is just too good. You can always turn off the network to eliminate most distractions.

Writing in a full-screen terminal window in vim will also work, but that might just be me. ;)
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:46 PM on May 8, 2014

It seems the ideal approach is to learn typing on a typewriter (thus, discipline), and then move on to computers for daily work. That way you get the best of both worlds.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:49 PM on May 8, 2014

I'm amused how often people want to come to some magical scientific conclusion about typewriters and how they're better or worse in some definitive way, usually coupled with some continuation of the tiresome anti-hipster cultural thread that's the new "I hate mimes," but the thing about tools and those who use them, particularly when it comes to creative endeavors, is that there's no disputing tastes and preferences.

I write on a computer often enough, but it's not pleasurable.

It's functional, after a fashion, but there's no joy in it.

Writing on a well-maintained Hermes 3000, particularly at a desk by a window of a little dump of a place out in the woods with no electricity and trains passing by at the foot of the mountain, is pleasurable. Hell, it's actually joyous. Why? Maybe it's the lack of distraction, the sound, the fact that I am using actual muscles in my hands instead of flailing limply at a keyboard that's so plasticky and flat that I might as well be typing on a photograph of a keyboard. Maybe it's the je ne sais quoi, or the shade of green of a well-maintained Hermes 3000, or the the fact that it doesn't hum or turn into a sweat-inducing plastic hot-plate under my fingers like a laptop.

Until I get myself published and out in the world of doing this sort of thing for a living, I find I have to work on the computer by necessity, because of time and the need to switch maniacally between writing and editing, and I have a nice, clackety buckling-spring keyboard that's got as good a feel as you'll get from a computer, but I am driven by the fantasy that, one day, I will be doing well enough as a writer that I can hand over my raggedy, marked-up, X-ed out, margin-notated typescript to an editor or even just a secretary who'll type it into the computer for the final editing stage.

I type as fast on a manual typewriter as I do on a computer, and when I slip up, I either X out the mistake or cross it out on the platen with a red pen. It's a first draft, so who gives a shit if it's as perfect as it's supposed to be? Besides, when if I fall on hard times, I'll be able to auction off my picturesque first drafts to keep from being foreclosed, right? There's also a very worthy reading process, with an enforced delay for rethinking passages, that happens when you retype drafts, but we think that's just a wasted effort these days, alas, which is why novels have metastasized into carbuncular thousand page obligatory drags loaded with gas and particle board pulp.

It's all neither here nor there, though. Lots of people don't find joy in a big mechanical typewriter, and that's okay, too. Hell, people eat food ruined by microwaves and find it delicious, so it clearly takes all kinds to make a world.

What's better?

Honestly, I think computers kill writing careers, with everyone so possessed of this bred-in hyperactive perfectionism that stops them from ever writing anything because they just sit there, writing and editing and writing and editing, stalled in a loop forever, and they never finish anything, but that's just fine. Less people writing is less competition.

The best tool is the one with which you do your best work.

It's poetry, not science.
posted by sonascope at 1:49 PM on May 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

My personal weakness is IBM Selectrics

Oh shit I have a Selectric! We should get them together for a playdate! My Selectric gets lonely with only manual typewriters for company.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:59 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Looking for pics of my dad's Coronamatic I typed high-school papers on in the 80's, I found the typewriter waffle iron

That thing had such a great feel. It whirred the whole time it was one, ready to pounce when when you gave it a little peck. Kurt Vonnegut used one.
posted by morganw at 2:34 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe it's the lack of distraction, the sound, the fact that I am using actual muscles in my hands instead of flailing limply at a keyboard that's so plasticky and flat that I might as well be typing on a photograph of a keyboard.

Well, this part I can understand, but the solution for that is a mechanical keyboard. While I accept the sort-of necessity of a lesser keyboard on a laptop, I only use mechanical keyboards on desktops for this reason.

I occasionally used typewriters when I was younger, but we got our first computer in 1979 or so when I was only a couple years old, so we always had both available. They were always more of a curiousity than a tool, so I don't have any real nostalgia for them the way I do for the C64 which was my computer throughout most of my childhood.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:37 PM on May 8, 2014

Laptop keyboards are horribly flat. I don't use portable machines often, but when I do it always helps to put something under the opposite edge, so the laptop tilts forward. It's a bit precarious, but the added angle makes typing much easier.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:48 PM on May 8, 2014

I work with a group of writers (the Typewriter Rodeo) who take our manual typewriters to various events and write spontaneous poems on the spot for people, based on whatever word or phrase they give us. It's the easiest and most fun writing I've ever done in my life, for a lot of reasons, but one big one is the look, feel, and sound of the machines themselves. So satisfying!!! And the words are immediately available on a printed page, which feels awesome too.

On the other hand, poems (ours anyway) are short; I can't imagine writing fiction on one of these things. Then again it's hard for me to imagine what it takes to write fiction in any circumstance, no matter how many books I read on how to do it...
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 4:10 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Messagepad 2100, schmucks!

I've been fascinated by writing mediums since churning out my thesis. I think we under-appreciate the performance elements of writing, or at least, mediating words between the brain and the external world. Pencil and paper are a classic fallback, a medium inviting play and non-verbal annotation like no other; the effortless switch between words and picture, between meaning and space. It also, to me, feels a dead-end - a medium requiring review and retranscription.

I spent a long time trying to love handwriting and verbal (speech to text) input methods. Speech recognition horrified me; much as I love the 'we're in the future' aspects of it, the interface between thought and text is too thin. It becomes a public spectacle, taking the internal dialogue direct to screen via a horribly public medium, exposing mistakes and reminding me of how ungrammatical and meandering my thought process is. To produce useful text via speech recognition forces you to slow down, consider your words, and adopt an odd rhythm. Thin walls and housemates made this all the more awkward. I think this is a lesson that the Siri engineers didn't consider, and why we don't see this magical input system used more. Real-time, spoken English is just a wreck.

Word processing, and keyboarding, has its own strengths and weaknesses. Spoken input lays your mistakes audible; but equally, what's the sound of a sentence falling in the woods? The word processor removes this, but by granting easy and private correction, it also lends itself to premature correction and editing. Endless textual tinkering is the risk of the word processor. There is no public performance to your creation, no passive audience to flag your internal grammatical and linguistic police officer. The tinkering is allayed by the typewriter, but the checks and transcription hurdle remain.

I'm moving back to an old Newton 2100 and handwriting recognition now. It's a fast and fluid entry system, but I'm still training it to understanding my scrawl, which is far worse than it once was. There's still issues; like speech, you need to commit to chunks of input at a time and not waver as they are delivered. The oddest thing is that the clunky Newton keyboard has been a rediscovered joy to use, clattering like a proper keyboard but with the free-form spatial magic of pencil on paper. It's the power of keyboard with the non-mediated layout power of pencil on paper. This is an odd feeling, that it's almost 180° from the intended design. Equally, the haptic experience of handwriting is a better way to commit to memory - but I'm still working though a phase of unifying my writing and the Newton's expectation of writing, and so a good chunk of what I retain isn't the text I wrote but the minutae of correction activites. These are very precise and repetitive actions and the muscle memories override the content being perfected.

But typewriters? Damn hipsters.

Disclaimer: written on a quiet chiclet keyboard.
posted by davemee at 5:08 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

slappy: I have a poem written like that on my fridge! I bought it from a woman in Arcata who made it up on the spot and typed it out on what appears to have been cash register receipt paper.
posted by Mars Saxman at 5:30 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe it's the lack of distraction, the sound, the fact that I am using actual muscles in my hands instead of flailing limply at a keyboard that's so plasticky and flat that I might as well be typing on a photograph of a keyboard.

Well, this part I can understand, but the solution for that is a mechanical keyboard.

I've actually got a set of nice mechanical keyboards—a Matias Tactile Pro (the early kind, with the creepy clear housing that becomes a terrarium of your sheddings), a Model M for writing on the Raspberry Pi, and a small stack of Apple Extended Keyboards (the M0115 model) that I use via a Griffin iMate ADB-USB adaptor.

They're good, but there's a kind of vigorous typing that you can do on a decent Olympia SM-9, Hermes 2000/3000, or Smith-Corona Super 5 series with the keyboard tension set high that's just...different, like the difference between dancing to a song you like a lot and dancing to a song that sets your hair on fire and puts your ass into the cosmic realm of the funk.
posted by sonascope at 6:14 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love my Model M keyboard and my Parker 51 fountain pen. If I'm lucky enough to live that long I'll be using them to write my last will and testament in 40+ years. Bic pens and the keyboards that come with computers nowadays are nothing but landfill fodder and frustration magnets.

*threatens with cane*, *moves along*, *mutters about kids and lawns*
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:01 PM on May 8, 2014


"I think computers kill writing careers"

Yeah, no. I've written exclusively on computers since I was fourteen. I can't imagine not writing on a computer; indeed, the idea of writing on a typewriter fills me with dread. There are so many things about my process that are native to writing on a computer that writing on a typewriter would be excessively detrimental. I mean, shit. The idea of writing and rekeying multiple drafts instead of doing a rolling draft on a computer? Kill me now.

I think it's nice that you get joy out of using a typewriter, but for me the joy of writing is in the flow of the writing, not the action of tool. I want the tool to get out of the way so I can get to the writing. The best way for me to do that is to use the tool on which my process was developed, i.e., the computer. As you note, the tool on which you do your best work is the best tool for you.

Also, mind you, career-squelching perfectionist tendencies existed long before the computer. The pathology is independent of the tool, but how it expresses depends on the tool and the process of the writer. There is a flip-side argument to be made that computers allow for fast, sloppy writing because writers don't have do multiple drafts, i.e., spend time with their prose and fix it.

In point of fact, there have been fast, facile writers and slow perfectionists in every writing era. Writers don't need computers or typewriters to sabotage themselves. They can do that on their own.
posted by jscalzi at 7:07 PM on May 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Isn't the essence of fetish that the objects of desire must be difficult to obtain? Unwieldy, impractical.

Typewriters. Man. No thank you.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 9:03 PM on May 8, 2014

I have a learning disanlibity , this is what my whichwtwertng loohks like which when i can;t edt is. it. FUCK typewritrts.
posted by happyroach at 11:33 PM on May 8, 2014

Honestly, I think computers kill writing careers

Not enough.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:50 AM on May 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

To be fair, I'm fine with computers killing writing careers, because the careers that get killed are usually those of romantic dilettantes who simply adore the idea of being writers but just aren't. I'm also fine with people disliking typewriters, because that leaves more for those of us who enjoy them. I'm even fine with all the other ways people squelch their own attempts at being writers, because things that are destined to get written will be written by whatever means work best for the writer. Things that aren't done with intention and focus will be undone by that lack, and it's a worthy reduction in the blizzard of chaff.

I think some of the mechanism depends on what kind of process one uses in writing, and my bias comes largely because I'm a Walter Mitty writer, occupying the open air in boring careers by telling myself stories in my head, over and over, moving characters around and adjusting plot lines and narratives and carefully tweaking voices, and letting it all sort itself out until it's time to sit down and bang out eight to ten thousand words at once in an explosive torrent of depressurizing text.

My skepticism about computers comes from the nine-year process of working on a book that I finished writing in 2005, then spent two years vandalizing with a computer before putting it all aside for several years in a haphazard collection of hundreds of versions and revisions and inversions and perversions that came about because the digital writing environment is completely weightless, without inertia or momentum or the slightest sense of difference in mass between sections. All that wonderful freedom without the need of effort or any resistance to changes can be a terrible, destructive thing for some of us, and I've had a lot of bleak moments in which I have to wonder if I'm being culled by the same selection process of prosaic survival that I'm prone to celebrate.

Then, fortunately, I decided to print it all out, from the last pre-vandalized version of 2005, double-spaced and with nice note-friendly wide margins, and bought a box of red pencils. I also did what I've always done in essay-length writing, which is to read every single word aloud, a step most people would find horribly tedious, but which exposes the awkward transition, the iffy sentence, and the stilted dialogue in a way that no amount of interior monologue can do, at least for me. I'm typing it back into the computer, for the simple sort of editing, but that step of physical presentation, manual markup, and transcription will make all the difference, I believe, though time and the market will tell if I got it right.

So I should clarify that when I say "I think computers kill writing careers," I don't mean that in the sense that computers kill all writing careers, but for people like me, they're a speedy route to decade-long wrong turns that produce ample quantities of doubt and self-disgust that could be avoided by observing the unpopular idea that sometimes, things happen more quickly when we slow down.

There are no simple, single solutions. For me, constraints, inconveniences, and responsibilities are essential parts of writing well. For others, this is not the case. I have a closet full of typewriters, a large box of red pencils, and the thing I've learned from the frustrating misstep of writing, then destroying, and then returning to a book after wasting years in the process of destruction is that I'd rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.

Your mileage may vary, and that's as it should be.

Also, people should send me their unwanted typewriters and red pencils.
posted by sonascope at 4:50 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Writing in a full-screen terminal window in vim will also work, but that might just be me. —Celsius1414
I love my typewriter at home, but this is my fallback at work when I need to write simple text documents or take notes. The bare black screen is also less jarring than a glaring white page and I've noticed an improvement in my concentration. I also read articles on occasion, like this one, in the lynx browser because it helps me focus. If the medium helps you, use it. Just try not to be a hipster about it.
posted by ungfru at 7:22 AM on May 9, 2014

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