Writing as Work (not as Work Therapy, just Work): Part One

Sunday, September 05, 2010

In recent conversations with other writers, I hear concerns that, as they’re working on a new piece for the first time, what they’re writing isn’t good enough, they aren’t sure they have the characterizations right—various worries like that. My stock answer is usually, “That’s what second drafts are for.”

About the same time, I overheard other some conversations between students about how much effort writing is, that two pages—or four or six or eight or ten or however many—is a lot to have to write. (Personally, I think I would barely break a sweat having to write a two-page paper, other than from the effort of keeping it down to two pages in length, but that’s a whole other topic.)

Both of these together got me thinking about how far we’ve come—for good or bad—over the years in terms of the tools we have to get words onto paper. Back in the days before affordable word processors (staying within the timeframe of the last century or so), writers worked on typewriters—lucky or wealthy ones used electric ones, but that really only provided the chief advantages of speed and reduced effort to press key to paper. Correcting errors—and writing those off-handedly referenced second drafts—required actually retyping of the actual pages. Editing, insertion, and deletions of large chunks of text was something writers saved until the last moment, because it could mean typing many, many pages to bring the page numbering back into alignment. Writing was work.

I can remember typing up passages and then realizing that I wanted to add something in between and typing a separate page numbered XXa and inserting it into the stack so it would be there when I retyped the entire thing for the final draft. I can also remember reading over pages of my purported “final draft”, only to discover misspelled or missing words. Many teachers wanted clean, pristine pages and would not accept papers with handwritten corrections or smears of correction fluid. So, once more, a fresh sheet was inserted to be retyped—often so new errors could be created.

The amount of effort required to write an effort was significant. It was more than just the willingness (or insanity?) to sit before a typewriter and compose pages for hours on end, but also backspace, erase, pencil in, overtype, pause in the middle of thoughts to insert a new sheet a paper, and add new ribbons of ink (which would usually occur late on a Sunday when you discovered you had used your last one and nearly all of the stores that might the one for your typewriter was probably closed). It also meant accepting that those same pages might be retyped several times before being considered “final” and published. Sending it out for possible publication also meant that it might have to be re-typed again, but I think at that point there was sufficient financial incentive to embrace the task.

We’ve come a long way since then. And, almost unequivocally, I’m grateful.

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  1. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. I can still remember the teacher yelling, "Time! Throw!" Time, meaning to stop - throw meaning to throw the carriage. Typing 1 I could barely type 30 wpm. That summer, my mom got me an old black manual typewriter (I might still have it) and I typed up my first novel. Some of the lines have red on the letters because of the shift key. Also, when I got back to school that fall, I could type 100 wpm. I still bang keys on the computer.