Better blogging tip: use manual typewriters


You can’t hide from your words with a manual typewriter. It is an initially painful, then humbling and finally exhilaratingly liberating ordeal. It will make you a different kind of blogger. Mostly for the better.

A few pecks of the keys and your raw naked words stare back at you from the coarse paper. Genius, stupidity, mediocrity, meaninglessness or-clarity. Unedited with every embarrassing typo, misspelling, grammatical error that makes up your subconscious writing style. The root of this power is the fact that the manual typewriter is a single function device. Its purpose is to get the words out of your head. Stripped of the idiosyncrasies of handwriting in that impersonal mechanical lettering which is simultaneously humanly endearing.

Its not easy to hide the horror of your own clumsy words. Or those incriminating thoughts you spilled out without the the safety of diplomatic phrases. Stuff you might otherwise take back with frantic stabs of the delete key. Or scratch out embarrassed with a blur of the wrist. All visible to anyone who can pick up a piece of paper.

Taking back your words on a manual typewriter is a cumbersome business. It has the effect of a flat tire on the writing flow. You can try to obliterate the offending letters – a frustrating back and forth process. Or reach in with a pen and try to scratch it out. If you want to get more elaborate, there is the painstaking process of using white out. If you can find the stuff these days.

Loosing the swiftness of on the fly editing might scare you away from typewriting. Or focus on getting your thoughts out of the head and leave the editing for later – which is the way it should be. Reaching this stage means making peace with what ever inadequacies you have about your writing at its raw state. Before all that processing of spell and grammar checks are applied to roar of the editorial chain saw.

Getting past this phase is oddly frightening. Specially for us of the digital age who grew up so used to foul scratching our “writing mistakes” at school with ball point. The only hope you have to get through this stage is to enjoy the physical process of typewriting. Seeing your new-born thoughts spat out in typewriter lettering. The sound the thing makes as if its giving a reading of your work in morse code.

The physical effort you got to put in to punch out each letter, thought and word feels very much like boxing. The feeling connects very closely with the act of wrestling with your thoughts and feelings to get out words that feel “right”. There are plenty of metaphors tying writering to the sweet science. Norman Mailer is associated with parallels with writing and boxing. So are links between Hemingway’s writing and boxing. I haven’t read enough to suggest that the process of typewriting was subconsciously influential on both writers’ interest in boxing. Perhaps those who have read more of both writers can comment more authoritatively.

After you have lost your inhibitions in the process of hitting those keys, a sense of liberation creeps in. Eventually you don’t give a damn about the mess that ends up on the paper. Or about the noise you make as you pound away. You say things bluntly, with cruel honesty. After a while you might notice the once occasional gem of a sentence appearing more frequently. Eventually you might not shred most of the paper you use and feel satisfied that some tree didn’t die in vain.

However we live in a digital age. Raw text on paper is a pain to digitise for editing and other therapies. Some might consider the process of retying typewritten text on a computer a part of the editing process. If you do a lot of proofing by hand this is your only option. The benefit of retyping into the computer is a chance to closely read what you have pecked out. For those who prefer not to deal with that, there’s Optical Character Recognition software. A technically more complicated task. There are open source alternatives for those avoiding MS Office. Even all mightly Google is getting involved in OCR software.. If your typer has oddly worn out keys, members of the IEEE have developed a method of recovering hard to read typewritten documents.

For the record, this blog post was NOT written on a typewriter. I do have one though πŸ™‚ My avatar image is a colour uncorrected close-up shot. There was a time when I used it and others like it. I think I managed to transition that sensibility into writing with a Palm Pilot and a computer. The typer now sits unused mainly because I don’t have the time to bang away at it any more. Most of my writing is on the go, at stolen moments between tasks and waiting for something. Computers are far more handy at transferring texts between devices.

Enough with excuses. The tools that you use to vomit out your thoughts are no substitutes for good ideas, and “fresh” perspectives. The single function typer is just a tool to get you over the mental hurdles of expressing what’s already percolating in the head.

To end this posts I give you, fresh off the internet, some links that speaks more eloquently and informatively about typewriting in the digital age:

For a longish read, there is Kevin McGowin’s Why I Still Use a Manual Typewriter.

Erik Rhey’s “Writing Systems” is an interesting (and shorter) meditation of the effect of manual typewriters have on the process of writing.

Khoi Vinh has an interesting post on software aimed at replicating the distraction free writing environment of a typewriter.

However the ultimate marriage of manual typewriter to a computer is the “ElectriClerk” – a device which truly deserves to be gapped at. And perhaps a separate “gadget” post

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13 thoughts on “Better blogging tip: use manual typewriters

  1. I just found this while looking for stuff about manual typewriters. I’ve written 2 blog posts so far with a manual typewriter and am trying to freewrite with it every day. I’m glad to see others recognize the use of it.

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  2. CStanford: That’s fantastic πŸ™‚ Particularly for taking the effort to OCR it. Will definitely like to keep track of your typewriter post πŸ™‚ Hope you also put up the scanned images of the typed text as well. Yes it IS rather presumptuous of me to make demands on your time but thought I’ll ask since you are scanning them anyway πŸ™‚

    Now all I need to do is to oil my Lettera and budget the time to use it 😐

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  3. Using a typewriter is quite liberating, as you suggested. And novelist Don DeLillo talks about his need to see the physical words take shape on paper and to hear the machine.

    This is a great post.

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    1. I had never heard of him until I googled him after reading your comments. From the bit I read about him made me consider some of his book -if I get around to allocating the time πŸ˜‰
      Thank you for the book recommendation πŸ™‚ He sounds like an interesting guy.

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  4. SnohomishWriter: I don’t exactly have an idea of my own reading tastes. Its more the author than than the genre. So I’m curious to hear about less well known authors. Not that I have the time to check them out right away.

    Feel free to suggest any that comes to mind.

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