Typewriters ~ A Trip Down Memory Lane

In an online writer’s group the other day, one writer stated she loved the sound of the keyboard clicking as she wrote. A few of us admitted to liking the sound of typewriter keys, but agreed we wouldn’t want to use one for our writing. Yet I’ve heard other writers say they prefer a typewriter to a word processor. And not just any typewriter, but a manual one.

Are you kidding me? A manual typewriter over a computer?

I’ve often said I probably wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t have my laptop. And I certainly wouldn’t attempt to write a novel without a word processor. I started thinking about the days before PCs.

When I learned to type, we used the state-of-the-art IBM Selectric II. The Selectric was a vast improvement over manual typewriters.

  • Rather than type bars, they had typing elements or typing balls. The typist could easily change fonts by switching the element.
  • At the flip of a switch, one could change from single to double spaced lines.
  • Press another key to set tabs and indentions.
  • The return key was conveniently located next to the keyboard. No more reaching with the left hand and thus interrupting your rhythm to hit the return handle.

They made typing a breeze. Yet even these typewriters had their drawbacks. If you made an error, you had three choices—a special eraser, correction fluid, or correction tape. With the eraser, a faint shadow of the misspelled word was still visible. If you got too aggressive with the eraser, you would tear a hole in the paper.

The smell of the correction fluid was atrocious. It would thicken after a few uses, but we had thinner. (That smell was worse than the correction fluid.) We thought we had moved up in the world when correction tape came along.

If we came too close to the right hand margin, we could either hyphenate or press a button to release the right margin. The latter choice worked fine unless the word was too long. Getting too close to the edge of the page required the use of one of the dreaded correction methods!

Setting the top margin required hitting the return key x number of times for a 1 inch or 1.5 inch top margin. You were on your own with the bottom margin, but later models included a page guide. Speaking of the bottom margin, you had to insert a new piece of paper when you came to the end of the page.

Centering a title was another matter. We used the space bar to get to the center of the page. Then, we counted the number of characters in our title. As an example, For Whom The Bell Tolls is 23 characters and spaces. Divide 23 by 2 (11.5). Discard the .5 and count back 11 spaces and start typing. Heaven help the person who wanted to center each line of a poem. I don’t remember if it was even possible to have justified margins.

We didn’t have spell check, grammar check, or auto correct. We were probably better at spelling back then, but that is another subject. And these typewriters weren’t lightweight. You couldn’t pick up one and tote it to the local coffee shop. But then again, writers didn’t hang around coffee shops in those days.

Be a writer before laptops? Perhaps. Write a novel before word processors? No way! But then again, I once wrote a novella longhand.

Creative Commons Photo by Etan J Tal

 

  • Michele Jones

    Joan, nice flashback. My first typing class was on a manual typewriter, with the left hand return mechanism (I took a shorthand class too). There was no correction ribbon, but we did have the option to use red type. I remember changing the ribbons, never an easy task, you always got your hands dirty. Would I want to write a novel on a typewriter? No. Would I? Maybe. Luckily, I don’t have to. My advice to all writers, travel with paper and pen in case you get a great idea. You aren’t always around an electronic device to capture it.

    • Michele, I also took shorthand. Wish I could remember it as it would be nice to jot down notes. I agree with you on the paper and pen. My mom always encouraged me to keep one at my bedside.

  • Great post, Joan!

    I have a plastic toy typewriter that Santa brought me when I was little. Thus began my writing career. Yet in high school, I wrote everything long-hand. Correcting typed pages was a nightmare. (And don’t even get me started on centering titles!) I’m a self-proclaimed word processing fan. And by the way, I agree with you on the whole spelling thing…

    • I wish I still had my little toy typewriter. I’d forgotten about it until you mentioned yours. I used to write things long hand (like my first novel at age 17). I dabbled in poetry in those days and I did retype my poems. My parents bought me a manual typewriter when I was in high school. I kept it for years until I got a computer. Can’t remember what I did with it. (It’s possible it’s tucked away in the attic.) I’ve become terrible at spelling and I think it’s because I know spell check with catch my errors.

  • Lisa Enqvist

    My missionary mum wrote most of her letters on a typewriter when traveling around the world 1946-1953 with us five children. Those letters are a treasure-trove now when I’m trying to piece together her story. Sadly, sometimes the color-band was worn out. Hard to read some of her letters. Sometimes the text was a mixture of red and black letters. She didn’t have the typewriter always, as dad needed it when his was stolen!

    I wrote my first book on a typewriter 1983.Someone lent me an electric typewriter for finalizing my manuscript. That book was also about my mum – but written in Swedish! (I promised I would write it some day in English! That’s what I’m doing now.) I’m thankful for my PC!

  • Joan, I feel old now. You learned to type on a Selectric?? I learned on an old-fashioned typewriter with characters on bars, the need to use your left hand to push the return for the next line, and my first recollection of a Selectric was my first job out of college in 1965. Write a book on a typewriter? No thanks! But that’s because I’m spoiled to my laptop which does give me a little click on the keyboard. 🙂 Nice flashback to another time and place.

    • Sherrey, I think my school was lucky enough to have the IBMs. I went to UIL typing contest one year and it was held at a larger school. They had electric typewriters, but of the nature you spoke of. I was lost! Needless to say, I didn’t do well in the contest.

  • kathunsworth

    Joan I love the look of the old type writers but Yes Im a fan of spellcheck etc too. Technology is a good thing and just another tool in the writing box. I am happy to be in this era.

    • I’m with you, Kath. We have a lot of advantages this day and age!