One of the great challenges that a novice faces to become a full-fledged journalist is getting comfortable with drafting a story directly on a keyboard. Like most people, I started in kindergarten “penning” my stories with fat pencils on cheap paper. As I advanced through the grades, the pencils became thinner and the paper of better quality, but it wasn’t until I started journalism school that I was expected to write my stories directly on a typewriter.
I was traumatized at first, and it took a while to transition from writing as a process of pen to paper to one of fingers to keyboard. Likely it had something to do with the engagement of all the phalanges. A pen needs but a thumb and two fingers. Typing commands the attention of all ten digits. A space between words when penning a note needs but an imperceptible movement. On a typewriter the thumb becomes actively involved. Thoughts, too, now travel a different route to the page. That which once directly flowed from the point of a pen had to be parsed into alphabetical increments, with individual fingers given jurisdiction over certain letters.
In our long-ago campus newsroom, we wrote our stories on manual Royal typewriters—brown, crinkled-finished, green-keyed behemoths from the 50s. They sat on tank-like typing stands, and we’d typed on stories on newsprint from partially depleted rolls of Teletype paper that we wired between the rear legs. There were no computers.
Once finished writing, you would rip your collected paragraphs free and physically cut and paste them together, using the brushable goo from the ubiquitous bottles of rubber cement. Your copy, revisions, and new content were compiled into a single, long page reeking of the smell of the stuff. It wasn’t just tradition, but the logical way to insure your story remained intact, and in order, through the editing and production processes. This all took place amidst a background clatter of Teletype machines, typewriters, ringing telephones, and a cacophony of human chatter—all blended into the symphony of the newsroom.
There were no delete keys on those mechanical monsters, only a backspace key. If you screwed up a spelling you backed up and “X’d” out the offending error. In the event of a more lengthy mistake or dissatisfaction with a fumbled sentence or paragraph, you would merely roll the paper ahead several lines to segregate the offending material to be later excised and the good parts glued back together. A looming deadline trumped any concern for neatness. “Cut and paste” had a truly literal meaning. Breaking news, too, came in fits and starts with updates and corrections, so every story inevitably became a glued-together patchwork quilt of paper.
On the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, we threw out the entire press run, and rebuilt half of the front page into which we squeezed a headline, the story, and a picture. The newswire story, pasted together, stretched across the newsroom and back before being trimmed and editing into two page one columns. We were the first newspaper west of the Mississippi to have the story in our morning edition. That doesn’t happen anymore.
It was then that I realized that the method of putting your thoughts or story down on paper was, in some mystical way, impacted by the method employed to put them down. It’s an intimate process—thoughts forming into words transferred from your brain through your fingers and onto keys that send them onto paper. As you wrote, you and the machine became a collaborative process that gave birth to a story. The typewriter keys would take on the temperature of your fingers and the machine felt warm and alive.
It was organic and you were pulled into a cocoon in which you wrote. When I think back on it, it was also romantic, not just as a memory but in the reality of its own time. You were part of a long tradition that gathered facts and put them together and onto something a reader sat down with to sip coffee over and relive the events reported through words, some of which you had written. Sure there was television news, but from only three networks at evening time. All-news stations awaited in the far distant future.
Obviously, typewriters were a major technological improvement and for that reason were quickly adopted and blended into the traditions of the newsroom. Though mechanical, you had to feed them and tame them to get into the rhythm of a story. They had separate personalities and preferences and you sought out your favorite, like an old friend, to tell your story to. You developed a connectedness to “your” machine and it became an intimate part of the creative process. When typewriters became portable, they went to where the action was and the relationship between man and machine became even more intimate. One of my favorite pictures is of World War II journalist Ernie Pyle and his portable sitting in a field somewhere in Europe behind, but not too distant from the front lines, typing his stories of war. Ernie and his typewriter captured the soldiers’ tales in words.
Sure, back then radio had its impact, but the early radio talents were graduates from print and brought with them the intimacy of the written word. The clacking Teletype machines were part of the on-air logo for Walter Winchell as he announced, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” And before that, Edward R. Morrow started his radio reports with “This is London.” But before he read his stories to the radio audience, he wrote them on a typewriter.
Inevitable technological improvements brought further changes—lighter, faster machines—and finally ones you plugged in, then ones you recharged. Luggables became portables, and portables became tablets. But somewhere along the way a boundary was crossed and left behind were the sensory intimacies between man and machine. The writing process became further removed from physical reality and more sanitized.
Keyboards and paper soon became mere icons on a computer screen. Writing had joined the world of pretend. Physical quirks and personalities of mechanical machines were swept away. Electronic devices didn’t jam or stick, they simply worked or did not. They generate electronic sound effects that provide an audible mockup of days gone by as your fingers tap a glass panel to generate pixelated words on a computer chip.
The back-end operations of news changed, too. In production you once could hear and smell the next edition come to life—the words in hot lead formed into columns on clicking Linotypes; the oiled perfume of noisy machines that cast the headlines and halftones from molten lead, and the myriad sounds of manufacturing that culminated in the ringing bells that announced the start of the presses the size and weight of a locomotive.
Every story a reader found on the page of a newspaper was birthed from ink on paper to ink from lead—first from a typewriter, ultimately from a printing press. In between, a story flip-flopped through a series of positive and negative imprints—from the Linotype lines of lead cast in reverse, to readable page proofs of lead columns and headlines, then the same pages captured in mirror imprints onto special mats from which reversed images would be cast into curved lead plates to be clamped onto the printing press and inked as they turned and transferred stories back onto paper, cut and neatly-folded into the next edition.
Newspapering as a physical business has given way to a more ethereal process. Like the stories that make up its content, a newspaper is edited and tweaked into an electronic file sent by e-mail to a plant somewhere, out there, where the images of pages are electronically transferred onto thin aluminum sheets that barely kiss the newsprint to create a newspaper.
The sounds and smells of production and the journeymen printers who produced newspapers have pretty much been rendered obsolete and retired into history by the efficiencies of technology. As a product, a newspaper is now hermetically created, and, as the print version of news slips further into obsolescence, they will become hermetically read.
The personality of the physical page does not transfer well to the computer screen. You can’t pull the page out of the typewriter, feel its texture, or smell the aroma of newsprint. The humanity behind the physical product is, with steady certainty, slipping away.
Is this a lament? No. It’s an homage to the tools of tradition used to write story, and a warning to not let the efficiencies of modernity insulate you from the intimate relationship with words and the drafting of story.
Unlike my friend, a painter who enjoys the never-changing tradition of oils brushed onto canvas, we writers face ever-changing technologies that speed up the process of getting our words before the eyes of readers, sometimes at the cost of abandoning the intimacy between writer and his or her words. It’s important to keep in mind that speed of construction, especially of something manufactured from words, rarely leads to improved quality of content. My desktops, laptops, and tablets add speed and efficiency to my writing, but they have also enabled me to write badly faster by closing the delay between thought and print. Fortunately, they also provide ease to make edits, revisions, and corrections, but first you have to slow down, and read, and reflect, on the quality of the pixels you “put” on the screen.
I would argue that a writer would do well to keep a manual typewriter around to occasionally slip a sheet of paper into and type a short note in order to maintain a connection with the tradition of intimacy. Even an astronaut would do well to take a ride in a Conestoga to sense the basic wonder of movement, and why do you think the portraits of so many writers have them next to a typewriter?