The Lost Art of Typewriting

Today’s article in typescript form

One of the most common questions asked of authors, apart from where do your ideas come from, is how do you write. What time, what place, what method, and any other quirks that might give us an insight into that particular writer’s creativity. How much it tells us beyond satisfying our general curiosity is a little suspect, but it is a question that always remains strangely interesting. The rarest answer nowadays is what used to be the most common one: with a typewriter. Once the classic mark of the twentieth century writer, typewriters are now stuck between being antiques and hipster statements. But, just as there’s much a greater difference between letters and emails than whether there’s paper and ink involved, there is more to a typewriter than being an outdated word processing program.

They are also surprisingly easy to get a hold of. Ebay is flooded with them, although it’s hard to have any idea of what differentiates all the various makes available apart from how they look. If you’re lucky, and you shop around, then for under thirty pounds a huge, heavily-wrapped parcel could soon be making its way to you, and once you’ve clawed through all the layers of padding, one of these strange relics that seems to have got lost on its way to the set of Mad Men will be yours. What is most immediately disconcerting, however, is the fact that this heavy piece of machinery doesn’t seem to have any way for you to plug it in.

There then comes the slightly panicked few minutes as you try to get it to work, wondering if your purchase has become a random donation to a stranger on the internet. But they’re simple enough that it’s working soon, and with time you eventually learn what the more obscure buttons and levers do. Now, the real problem comes once the novelty has worn off, figuring out how this contraption can help you to write.

Kingsley Amis, in his posthumous book on the English language, The King’s English, includes a conversation with a word processor advertiser who was trying to get a quote from him on its benefits. In a delightfully unhelpful exchange, he explains ‘how after x-ing one’s first thoughts on a typewriter and putting in a corrected version one could still see what one’s first thoughts had been and perhaps derive benefit from them’. When forced to answer whether such a process would be at all possible on a word processor, the advertiser awkwardly answers ‘No’. The point, despite all the advantages of word processing programs on a computer, is that the typewriter is simply a purer device for writing. It combines the pleasure of physically creating something while writing that a pen and paper hold, while also providing the efficiency of typing.

Of course, this efficiency is nothing close to that of the word processor. Kingsley’s son, and famous novelist of our own time, Martin Amis, has talked about how gloriously ideal the word processor is for the novelist, or indeed any kind of writer. We might be used to the ease of moving a paragraph here or changing a sentence there without having to retype the entire page, but this is still a relatively new luxury for writing. Nonetheless, the typewriter’s lack of efficiency provides a discipline that can be extremely helpful.

It was equal parts alarming and shocking when I realised just how terrible I was at spelling when I first started using my blue Smith-Corona. Without the cushion of the red squiggly line, and correction just a right click away, dozens of words became a vague phonetic gibberish upon rereading my articles. This problem might be immediately solved just by opening up my laptop instead, but forcing your brain instead of your computer to think more about the words you use can only be a good thing when it comes to writing.

There is also something inherently focusing about using a machine that only serves one purpose. Many successful authors in the last few years have acknowledged gratefully their debt to programs that forcibly block their internet access while they are writing. From Zadie Smith to Ned Beauman, they appear to have become an indispensable tool for the novelist who does not resort to Jonathan Franzen’s more extreme method of gluing shut his ethernet port on a laptop that already has no wireless access. While I suspect that the next generation of novelists who have grown up with the internet will be able to handle it with more self-control than the methods of these writers imply is possible, the typewriter seems a much more simple solution to this problem of a writing tool that can do so much more than just write.

Nonetheless, there is a reason everyone traded their typewriters in for Microsoft Word. Throwing the paper stand back and forth after every line looks like enormous fun in the movies, but it does become a lot less fun when you forget just how much space it covers and inadvertently start to use it as a battering ram to send books, mugs and glasses flying off your desk. It’s also extremely annoying when you forget to push the lever that moves the script down a line and see that you’ve written over yourself to create a thick, black mash of letters across the page. My Smith-Corona’s tendency to twirl slowly off to the left as it is used is also slightly less than desirable.

But working through these kinks is part of what makes it yours, in a difficult but much more emotional way than the smooth functionality of your computer. It’s tactile and imperfect, and gives writing a physical process that makes it seem more real, giving you something to engage with. Of course, writing is writing, and when authors exasperatedly talk through what notebooks, fonts or pens they use, having been asked how they write yet again, it’s hard to believe any of it really makes much difference. Romanticising every part of the writing process into a delicate ritual is a great way of putting off the actual act of writing.

It is true that, realistically, there is only so much I am going to do with my typewriter. I am not, for instance, going to attempt to write my dissertation on it. All my typescripts get typed up again onto my laptop anyway to be emailed on to wherever they need to go. More importantly, the editing work also always takes place on a computer. There is a great amount of discipline, and a great amount of benefit to go with it I’m sure, to editing through retyping every single page with changes, but it is too much discipline for me. Through this, however, I have found my typewriter’s ideal spot for my writing process as a first draft machine. Efficient and physical, yet with the messiness and impracticality to slow the writing pace down, it is the perfect creative tool to counterpoint the smooth technical tool of the editor’s laptop.

All of this may be a long winded way of saying that if you have ever wondered about a typewriter, you don’t really need one. They’re far too heavy, tricky and unnecessary to be practical (and I live in fear of the day I will have to muddle through changing the ink ribbon when it finally runs dry). But if, even in spite of all that, you’re still curious enough to want to give them a try, then take the plunge. You’ll be surprised at what they can do for you.

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