I. From pen to computer


“How do I write?” “With difficulty!” is the common answer. But the difficulties have not always been caused by the same obstacles, and ignoring for the time being the problem of actually getting started on a document, which every writer faces at some point or another, I should like to consider the changes in the obstacles that I have encountered over the past few decades.

In the days before I had a typewriter, I used to write everything sequentially in longhand, on every other line of a 10 x 8 pad. Then I would put my manuscript away for a week or more (assuming that I had allowed enough time for this) and return to it later to make revisions with red ink. In that second pass I often moved things around with large circles and arrows, and hieroglyphics that I would not understand a week later, and added pages called 3A, etc., restructuring, clarifying and polishing — not usually a very time-consuming process. And that was it. The final stage was to copy my draft out, in longhand for college assignments, or equally laboriously with the typewriter later on when writing for HiFi News. I have always been a fast two-finger typist, and in those days I used a lot of overstrikes with “xxx”, later refining the process with correction fluid. In those days, when one needed multiple copies one used sheets of carbon paper or cut a stencil for a duplicating machine, pounding the keys of the typewriter even harder than usual to ensure an impression with the nth carbon, or to cut through the wax of the stencil with the black and red ribbon safely disengaged.

In 1985, after several unsuccessful attempts at writing on mainframe computer terminals, I bought my first computer, a Kaypro II. This computer served me well: I modified the hardware extensively, making it into a Kaypro IV by adding double-sided diskettes (holding all of 390kB), increasing the clock rate from the standard 2.5 MHz to a whopping 7 MHz, and adding a RAM disk and MIDI ports. I also supercharged the CP/M software. I wrote my doctoral thesis using a heavily modified version of Perfect Writer (a version of EMACS) and Perfect Formatter, which divided the long vertical scroll of text into pages and applied the formatting codes that I had inserted by hand. This was followed by Perfect Printer, a program that sent the output of Perfect Formatter to the printer. The process was quite a challenge, but I was in good company: Arthur Clarke of 2001/2010 fame also wrote on a Kaypro.

Arthur Clarke at the Kaypro

Arthur Clarke at the Kaypro

With the acquisition of a computer, my methods of working changed: it took longer to produce a finished product. Pencils and pens are low maintenance items that can be replaced relatively cheaply, but computers need servicing, and this takes longer and costs more than sharpening a pencil. I now found myself spending hours reading the manuals, memorizing shortcut keys (Thankfully the Kaypro had no mouse, which taught me good habits.) and trying to make the word processor do what I wanted it to do.

When I write with a pen, I find that my thoughts outstrip my ability to notate the words: typing actually slows down my thinking to keep pace with my fingers. With the computer keyboard I can type faster. My thoughts keep pace, and I can ignore my “bum notes” and correct the typos later. As I am inclined to jumble up the letters in a word when I type, I greatly appreciated the EMACS commands CTL-t and ESC-t, which enabled me to transpose the order of two letters or two words respectively. As far as the composition was concerned, I used Perfect Writer to write snippets as they came to mind, and then moved the words, sentences or paragraphs around until I was happy, throwing away the text for which I had to admit I could not find any real use.

Now I had the opportunity of printing my work out and this meant the chance to write all over it in red ink (nostalgia kicked in!), and then correct, and then print and so on until I got fed up, exclaiming “Basta così!” or words to that effect, and abandoning all hope of making further improvements to my deathless prose. Despite the promise of a paperless office, a lot more trees are cut down to feed one’s writing habits with a computer. Apart from the mania for undisciplined and endless revision, one unfortunate phenomenon of looking at virtual paper on the computer screen is that simple errors do not jump out at you with the immediacy that they do on real paper.

My first printer was an indestructible Epson FX-80 that went to work gleefully with a noise reminiscent of a newspaper printing press in full cry. This was replaced by a Hewlett Packard DeskJet 600 printer. By comparison with the Epson this purred like a Rolls Royce. It also produced more elegant results, but it was slower than the Epson and had an intemperate thirst for ink that came in expensive cartridges — an addiction which for some reason had not been declared in the glossy brochure.

/to be continued…

© David Pickett and davidpickett, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Pickett and davidpickett with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published in: on 4 June 2009 at 06:13  Leave a Comment  
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