Beyond Typewriters
May 15, 2016 11:05 AM   Subscribe

How Literature Became Word Perfect First encounters: writers and word processors and processing words.
posted by kingless (18 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I was musing just the other day about my wife's first word processor, which appeared at her work around 1984 or so. Pretty sure it was an IBM DisplayWriter.
She was not happy with it at first, but I think after a few weeks of not having to completely retype everything for just a few changes, she felt differently.

Anyway, what I was musing about that the screen of this machine was in portrait mode, rather than landscape. I never see anyone using a screen in portrait, even though it makes more sense for the typed page.
I guess the TV/Movie view of the world wins out over the printed page view.
posted by MtDewd at 12:41 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

My mother had one of those dreadful dedicated word processors with a little LED display and like 32 kB of memory. I can't imagine that that was anything but a struggle to work with! But they were pretty popular for a while. Maybe solving the finger errors printed to paper problem made it all worth it.

The period when PCs were gaining currency in society was very interesting. I remember that many academics were hostile to the idea that part or all of their research or teaching workflow could be better done on a computer, which seems bizarre now. People published cranky screeds with tenuous, overworked metaphors, which were supposed to show that there was more scholarliness in boxes and boxes of index cards. Harper's Magazine carried on with this into the 90's ("What are we doing online?" They weren't sure, and they didn't like it).

Older business people often seemed to reason as follows: computers have keyboards, secretaries use keyboards, so computers are Beneath My Station. Hence the old joke of the boss making people print out his email so he can read it; this kind of thing really happened.

The topic of how literary writing was changed by word processing technology seems fascinating! I also wonder if writers have figured out that software version control systems are also ideal for preserving drafts and changes in their work?
posted by thelonius at 1:53 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I started out as a typesetter using a JustoWriter for a newspaper (1965). You typed onto a paper roll that set the type in a column for newspaper, and you could back-up to correct, and a bong sounded within 5spaces of the margin so you could decide whether to hyphenate or not. Then I worked for a publisher of social science journals (1971) and we used the MT/ST-SC (input on mag tape and output on clay-coated paper). After that came the true computerized machines but we were using 8" floppy disks with rigid sectors, and then 5-1/2" disks with more flexibility. Then came the Mergenthaler-Linotype machine (c.1984), a professional level typesetter with lots of memory and bells and whistles. When I then transitioned to a PC with Word Perfect (1987), I felt as though I was slumming, it was so simple and unsophisticated.
posted by MovableBookLady at 3:12 PM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

Some of the authors profiled clearly geek out to the equipment, others write despite it . Maybe simple information appliances like Jef Raskin's Swyft and the Canon CAT would have lowered the bar.
posted by scruss at 5:00 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I never see anyone using a screen in portrait, even though it makes more sense for the typed page.

Back in the day, Radius (I think) made a monitor for graphic artists that could swivel from portrait to landscape orientation.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:04 PM on May 15, 2016

I have an old Dell monitor that can swivel to portrait; I love it for reading from PDFs while I'm working on my laptop; sadly since most monitors are widescreen nowadays I don't see that anymore.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:07 PM on May 15, 2016

Rotating monitors are definitely still a thing.
posted by clorox at 5:21 PM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I love the fear that everything would become to perfect too easily. The future is never what we think it will be. It's the rare book I've read in the last decade without obvious typos, and the ability to construct cohesive structures seems to be degrading constantly.

Some of that may just be because of the volume of stuff published today, but it certainly didn't become foolproof or automatic. I rarely see the same problems in older books.
posted by bongo_x at 6:58 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

anyone using a screen in portrait, even though it makes more sense for the typed page.

Except, you know, smartphones. And tablets. More and more of the web is being designed to look good in portrait. MetaFilter reads great in portrait on one of those oversized smartphones that are popular now—has for years, even in Classic Mode (which I still prefer).
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:30 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

anyone using a screen in portrait, even though it makes more sense for the typed page.

My primary computer setup is dual screen with one larger screen horizontal and the smaller screen vertical--exactly for word processing, email, etc that is better formatted vertically. Reading web pages, too, for that matter . . .
posted by flug at 9:12 PM on May 15, 2016

In the mid-80s, I'd gotten used to working on the Compugraphic terminals at my university's student newspaper. So I got myself a Smith-Corona Messenger typewriter and later bought their PWP (Personal Word Processor) kit, which included a green-screen monitor (12-inch, I think), a command pad, and micro-wafer cassettes for storage. All hooked together, this made a nifty setup for writing papers for classes. The typewriter was, obviously, for input, and it was a workhorse of a printer. Here's the only photo of this system I could find.

My department chairman insisted we learn something about the coming computer age, so those of us doing theses for our master's degrees were ordered to learn to use the department's computer and sign up for time to use it. By virtue of having my own word processor, I avoided that fate and wrote my thesis in the comfort of my own home on my own time.

I did find, though, that such creature comforts dulled some of my natural writing talent. I was known for a one-and-done-and-correctly approach to class papers, due to my natural distaste for retyping. With the word processor, I was correcting typos and moving sentences and paragraphs like a fiend. A fiend who could no longer be bothered to think a little more before writing. Eh. I've learned to cope.
posted by bryon at 11:16 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

The last paragraph is awesome:

In the mid-1980s, Terry McMillan was working as a “word processor” in New York, at a law office, while writing her novel Mama. There, she used the law firm’s system after hours to “print and send literally thousands of promotional letters to bookstores, reading groups, and review outlets, especially those with a record of supporting black writers.” These kinds of automated functions were “precisely the sort of task the technology was designed to expedite.” McMillan mastered this technology as a professional, and then she used it to let the world know that she had written a perfect novel.
posted by Monochrome at 9:28 AM on May 16, 2016

There are quotes at the end of the article where male authors talk about how valuable their female secretaries are. And it sounds like they were doing much more than accurately transcribing what the author says. It sounds like a lot of them were contributing to the creative process. So it seems like, when word processors came along, some authors may have lost their excuse to have these uncredited co-authors.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 11:24 AM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Dot matrix v Daisy Wheel. I started on a CP/M system, Kaypro II. 64kb of ram, and disks large enough to be shingles on a barn. A: drive held the operating disk. B: drive held the data disk. On screen formatting, a bit like HTML tags. The word processor had a program that checked to see that you had closed your italic, bold-face, underline tags, and looked for stray quotation marks. The spell checker put a star next to words it didn't know, and you could go back and correct them, remembering to delete the asterisk. The stuff you saw on your screen was not formatted. You set your margins and spacing by hand.

The word to wise in those days was that editors wouldn’t accept dot matrix submissions, so savvy writers used a Daisy Wheel printer with a tractor feed. It was a fast, but brutal, noisy, desk shaking piece of machinery. I could print a page of double spaced text in less than two minutes, and it looked like it came from a typewriter—in those days appearing to have been typed was a good thing. Tractor fed paper was sort of neat, in one side of the platen and over the bail and into a box on the floor behind my desk. I could get about twenty five pages of text into a file, before it became too unwieldy for the WordStar to manage; when printing, I put in a code that conflated several files into one run. Word to the wise in those days was that editors didn’t like to handle tractor paper. Okay, this was before Snopes, so keep some context in mind.

The post-print routine was fun mostly because it was novel: crease and tear the margins on the paper; I liked to roll these perforated strips up and use them for cat toys. I could manage to tear about ten pages worth at a time; any more was like trying to tear a phone book. Then put the S-folded paper on the desk and carefully tear the papers apart one at a time.

WordStar. Yeah. No graphics; using a green screen about a foot across. But it also addressed envelopes out of a batch file (Mailmerge, don’t forget to insert the program into Drive A: ), also, I could get it to count words, and make lists of unique words--do you really want to know how many times you use the word "anyhow" in your essay? But the search and replace feature let you smooth your style, and chase down pesky homonyms and apostrophe mavericks.

Then, in 1996, I found Windows. This is where our descendants will point to when they want to show where, in time, Pandora opened her Box. I was stupid with avarice, but I won’t carry on about the death of CP/M.

Cut and paste has modified my writing. Yep. You bet it has. The old WordStar had improved my spelling (I had to manually change the words it marked for me). But Word lets me ignore my shortcomings, and autocorrects me into vanilla so well that I have to go back and deliberately impose my own eccentricities of grammar and spelling. Annoying baggage, and I lop off its attempts whenever I can figure out how to disable them. It’s just a tool, like a shovel. Like a stylus. Like a pen. But with the word processing function I can put ideas next to one another as fast as I can type, and I can type really fast. The edit is the thing. The edit was always the thing. Usually I delete about two thirds of anything I write. The devil nowadays has changed his tactics: makes me click Send or Print too soon. Here’s some advice from the eighties: leave the manuscript until the next day, and edit it cold. We are getting ahead of ourselves, maybe we'll lose the ability to harvest second thoughts and become collectively vapid.

By itself a word-processor is just a slick typewriter, and a typewriter is just a slick fountain pen. Hooked to the internet, the word processor becomes a tool that’s as different from the typewriter as the atom bomb is from a hammer. It's a collaborative tool, made to collect and disseminate information. Even now, in its infandy, it’s almost as good as telepathy. The paradigm is in flux. Our grandchildren's kids will not even understand what a telephone was good for.
posted by mule98J at 1:05 PM on May 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

  Smith-Corona … PWP … micro-wafer cassettes

Some of them had the spectacularly non-standard 2.8" disks, too.

ms scruss wrote her colossal PhD thesis on an Amstrad PCW. This cheapo 8-bit word processor used the screen memory as a temporary buffer while spell checking, so you could read the text scroll by as it was checked. She used it as a final proof-reading tool, and she was so! mad! when we ported the files over to a PC and the spellchecker didn't scroll the text …
posted by scruss at 1:11 PM on May 16, 2016

I also wonder if writers have figured out that software version control systems are also ideal for preserving drafts and changes in their work?

Spoken like one who has never tried to diff a .doc file. It's actually shocking how primitive version control is for writing tools. Word's proprietary track changes is the closest you get to it outside expensive enterprise document control stuff, and it's still pretty garbage.

Word Processors aren't the new hot any longer, but man could they, like email clients, ever benefit hugely from another decade of serious development effort. If only you tear VCs away from throwing money at Medium to make their multi-megabyte Javascript talking dog of an editor. I hear it can show you bold and italic now.
posted by bonaldi at 4:29 PM on May 16, 2016

Spoken like one who has never tried to diff a .doc file.

Plain txt for me, please.

I remember in the 1990s dreaming of a portable writing machine that would let me use powerful word processing or page layout apps, preferably with a color screen. Of course, the fact of the matter is that all I needed was something that could save txt files.

Now I look for the lightest, quietest, longest-lived machine that will run Sublime Text and Dropbox. That's all. And it works, too, because I actually write now, where before I wasted deep time dicking around with fonts and layouts.
posted by Pliskie at 7:04 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, my heavens, another computer history book. It is a bell, and I am Pavlov's dog, salivating.

I went through WordPerfect, WordStar, and innumerable versions of Word. I've written on a couple of different Alphasmarts and even on my phone. Now, like Pliskie, I'm all about plain text, which lets me move seamlessly between my iPad and my laptop.
posted by lhauser at 7:13 PM on May 16, 2016

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