My Torturous Week of Writing Only on a Typewriter
Cory Blair and typewriter
October 29, 2014


I can see why they invented computers.

The challenge?

For one week, I had to use a manual typewriter instead of Microsoft Word.

This meant all my assignments, essays and articles for the week had to be manually typed up. It also meant I had to lug a 40-pound typewriter everywhere I went.

With the recent popularity of typewriter apps, such as Hanx Writer, I wondered if there was some sort of backlash against our always-on connectivity, something I’ve observed, since, well, forever.

Richard Polt, a professor and chair of philosophy at Xavier University, said there is.

“I think there’s a rebellion against…the faster is always better mindset,” said Polt, who also wrote a book called “The Typewriter Insurgency.” “I find that mindset sometimes makes people frantic and distracted.”

I’m 19. Before this experiment, I had never even seen a typewriter.

I wanted to get a taste of what old-time reporters had to go through. I wanted to see how it would influence my writing and my thinking.

Step 1: ‘Think’ Before You Write

Other writers and aficionados of the typewriter said the device could have a big influence on writing.

“It makes you think more,” said Peter Hartlaub, a pop culture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and the man behind the @NewsTypewriter Twitter handle.  “It makes you more careful about your words, and it’s going to be really helpful for you as a writer.”

I thought about my writing style. I’ve been writing on a computer since I was kid. I enjoy the freedom of dumping a stream of consciousness onto the screen and revising it later.

Would I lose this freedom with a typewriter? Or would it make me more disciplined?

Peter Weil, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware and typewriter collector, thinks the quality of my writing will depend on me more than the machine.

“Whether or not you do a good job writing,” said Weil, “is really a matter of procedure, not a matter of technology.” Weil said a careful writer will do a thorough job, no matter if they are writing on a typewriter or computer.

I asked Hartlaub for advice on how to be a good writer — on a typewriter.

He told me to have an idea of what I was going to write before I sat down. He also offered this:

“Lift with your legs,” he said. Typewriters are heavy; he doesn’t want me to hurt my back.

With this in mind, I set out on my journey.

Step 2: Find A Working Typewriter

My first challenge was actually finding a typewriter.

I found out there was one in my journalism school’s student services office. I went down to check it out.

In the lonely back corner of the office sat a dusty IBM Selectric III.

“I’ve been here approximately five years and nobody has used it,” said a staff member. “I barely knew it was here.”

Struggling, I hauled the heavy and neglected brute up three stories (by elevator, thank goodness) and set it down with a large thud in my office.

My hands were gray with dust.

I plugged it in and tried it out. It went berserk, typing random letters as fast as it could without provocation. It sounded like a machine gun, only louder. It was broken beyond repair.

“That thing has got to go,” said a colleague.

Two more staff members brought in their personal typewriters for me to use. One was big, green and heavy, and the other was cute, pink and portable. I opted for the smaller, more convenient one.

Oh, also, the green one was filled with mystery hair.

The only problem with the pink typewriter was that the ribbon didn’t advance. Every three seconds I was opening up the machine, spinning the ribbon with my hands, often having to rethread it because it got tangled.

At this point, my quest for writing on a typewriter was making my writing worse.

Because there was no writing to be had.

Just… a struggle.

Step 3: Make the Typewriter Mobile

 

blair and typewriter

Writer Cory Blair hauled his 1940s-era typewriter around campus while he tried to make it “mobile.”

After one page of faint text and black fingers, I decided to use the hairy typewriter.

I wondered how old it really was.

I advanced the carriage all the way to the left and used my index finger to wipe the exposed area of dust, dirt and grime and spotted a faint indent with the serial number. I was able to look up more information on TypewriterDatatabase.com.

It is a 1941 Royal KMM.

I decided that if I was going to do this experiment right, I was going to have to integrate this typewriter into my mobile, modern life. That meant I was committed to hauling it around to my different workspaces.

I needed a cart if I wanted to carry around this 40-pound beast.

After much searching, I eventually found a rinky-dink dolly that I could use for a week.

The typewriter barely fit the dolly and would often slip through the metal frame, crashing on the ground with a metallic thud.  The faster I tried to walk, the slower I would go. Oh, the bitter irony of it all.

I walked my typewriter like it was a crippled dog.

This was all so hard, getting the device to move, I didn’t even think about the words “Twitter” or “Facebook.”

I wondered what was it like for 1940s-era reporters who didn’t have mobile phones and tablets.

What was it like to have a thought you weren’t compelled to immediately share with the world?

Cory Blair's typewritten notes

So many feelings. Blair took notes on his experiment on his typewriter.

I took the typewriter home to my dorm, where I brought it to a lounge where I normally do homework. I had to write a 300-word news story for my journalism class. I sat down and started banging away on the keys.

Every single person there looked up from their laptops and cell phones and stared.

“Am I making a lot of noise?”

“Yes,” they replied, in unison.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, before putting my head down and getting back to work.

Finally, even though I was annoying everyone in the room, I was in the zone.

The keys were loud, but each word was lobbed onto the page with a satisfying thud.

I felt strong. I felt empowered.

That is, until I screwed something up and had to start over from scratch.

It took me 13 copies and a couple of hours to bang out the perfect news story. It wasn’t too pretty, but I loved it, the same way a parent is obliged to love their ugly child.

Step 4: Try Not to Throw the Typewriter Out the Window

AJR’s @cornsplosion is using a typewriter for a week. He will offer #typewritertweets throughout the week. Like this: pic.twitter.com/esJiK7bfdp

At one point, I decided to buy white out from my school’s common shop. I immediately spilled it on my black jeans. It stained.

At work, while typing up my stories, my ribbon began to run out of ink. I decided to flip the ribbon upside down to get more mileage out of it.

I popped open the hood and spent 15 minutes threading the ribbon onto its track. My fingers were stained with ink.

While threading, I was writing this very story in my head, calculating how I would talk about the struggle to find a working typewriter, the humiliation of hauling it around campus (did I mention I brought it on a bus?), and the feelings of rejection I felt after handing completed copies into my editor and having them almost immediately spiked.

When I started typing again, however, the words were even fainter than before.

I typed out a few curse words, and began the long process of flipping over the ribbon yet again.

Cory Blair and his typewriter

Nope. It wasn’t fun.

The novelty of the experiment was beginning to wear off. I began to get annoyed at the typewriter, blaming it for my problems, lack of free time and low esteem.

My perfectionism began to wear off as well. Fed up with typing multiple copies of everything, I blazed through my 1,200 word essay for a war narratives class in one take, using white out to correct my mistakes. The result was messy, but I didn’t care anymore.

The noise was also a problem. I began to long for the soft pattering of a computer keyboard, the type of noise that doesn’t shoot down my thoughts mid-flight, but creates a soft rhythm to propel them forward.

The clanging. The dinging. The pounding. The ripping.

It was driving me crazy.

Step 5: The Sweet, Sweet Freedom of Typing… on a Computer Again

The next workday, I began to type up this story on the typewriter.

I laid out my notes across my desk. I studied them to try to envision a structure.

How would I get the point across that I possibly learned nothing and it was all a pointless struggle?

I typed up a draft. My editor hated it. And then another. And another.

This went on for four different drafts before we both broke.

We decided to collectively say, “Screw it,” and type up the story on a computer.

And just like I that, I reverted to my old ways.

My thoughts flowed onto the screen quickly and I didn’t hate myself for mistakes. If I wrote a crappy paragraph, I deleted it. And then I wrote another one that was a little better than the one before.

No one glared at me for being loud. No one avoided me for carrying around a device, that, if we’re being honest here, smelled a little bit.

I was funnier. I was smarter. I was, all in all, a better writer.

As I sit here, finishing up this story, I am typing possibly the last page I will ever type on a typewriter. It’s a bittersweet experience.

I look back on my week with this thing. There were good times. There were bad times.

Mostly bad times.

Though I had fun, it was frustrating, my grades suffered and my productivity dropped.

If I learned anything, it’s this:

When your editor asks you to write everything on a typewriter for a week, say no. Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. And don’t look back.

Comments
  • harveyonline

    Nicely written humor piece! I especially liked Peter Hartlaub’s sage advice on working with a typewriter: “Lift with your legs.” Back in the day, of course, when we used typewriters for all of our journalism assignments (and term papers), we didn’t wheel them around campus from class to class; we took notes with pen and pad, then composed our pieces back in our dorm rooms, where our typewriters sat patiently awaiting our return. I know that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to write about! Having safely transitioned from typewriter to computer decades ago, I do agree with how much easier the re-write process has become. I am glad, these days, to just say no to White Out.

    • Lisa Rossi

      This article makes me wonder how, in 10, 20, 30 years, we would explain the communication technologies we use predominantly today. “In my day, we had to actually click on a little thing called a mouse to see content appear on a large screen. Sometimes it took several seconds. And people carried Internet-connected phones around with them wherever they went, and had to actually pull them out of their pocket to get a text or click on a headline. It was crazy. I’m so glad we can just see all this stuff through our glasses, watches and car dashboards now. It would be so annoying to have to work while staring at a huge computer screen all day.”

      • James McInnis

        Actually

    • Daniel Means

      Yeah… this kid might have hurt himself with a legal pad and pencil lol

  • Peter Weil

    Finely crafted, fun piece. You might have mentioned the development of stonger fingers from the exercise.

    • Daniel Means

      He used it for a week! He has no idea your even supposed to build finger strength because he half assed his project (and that’s being generous). It wasn’t finely crafted. If he did this in his spare time I’d say whatever, don’t be too hard on him but the kid is going to school for this and should be held to at least industry standards. We should stop calling this an article because it’s not one.

  • Šibanje Napušavanje

    Cute, but thin. Like a rice porridge, devoid of meat.

    A 19-year old writer kind of stuff.

    • Jamey

      Thin like your analogical use

      • Šibanje Napušavanje

        No, sweetie, thin like your intercultural awareness.

  • Brittany Wallman

    Hilarious! I bought my daughter an electric typewriter for her birthday two years ago. It makes me sad she preferred her Mac.

  • Guy Priel

    I liked this story. Interesting look back at the world of journalism that was. In a few years, the computer tower and mouse have become as obsolete as the typewriter, although I still have a typewriter in my office at home.

  • JU Park

    Funny story. I wish I had a typewriter to write with!

  • Zachary Parks

    I understand this was meant to be funny but if you actually knew how to go about using a typewriter it would have helped. #1 mistake, buy a portable with a carrying case, clean it up, and put a new ribbon in. That will solve the heavy lugging, hair, and flipping around dried up ribbons. #2 I’m pretty sure people would compose and revise their drafts in hand writing before typing. No need to type 20 copies, all with mistakes. When people used typewriters, they actually worked pretty good.

    • Peter Weil

      The student had no choie. He was assignedcthe typewriter by the professor.

      • Rene

        He definitely made it seem as if he had a choice between the Royal, the Selectric, and the pink portable, not that he was assigned a particular machine. If he could choose between those I don’t understand why he couldn’t go out and buy an inexpensive, but portable and working typewriter.

  • DisqusHound

    I find that using a typewriter allows me to be a bit more creative, and process my thoughts better. Staring at the blue glow of a computer screen for hours at a time causes my mind to royally wig out….my sleep cycle gets disrupted, and then I have trouble concentrating. My mind wanders, and I go from writing a term paper on the political ramifications of King Herod’s rule to watching YouTube Russian Dash Cam or Funny Cat videos.

    Computers have their uses….but the problem is that our society has OVER used them to the point where they’ve become more of a handicap than an asset.
    Ideally, we should still teach both handwritten penmanship and typewriter use in grade school, long before we teach computer skills.

    • Rene

      Completely agree. What I like to do is type my first draft on my typewriter. The ideas flow better, and I’m distraction free and inspired. Then, I mark up my draft in red pen, and then type the final draft with the added corrections on the computer. I find that for me this three-pronged approach consisting of typewriter, pen, and computer produces the best results :)

  • Rene

    Coming from someone who loves using typewriters for creative and often for first drafts of submitted pieces this will obviously not be full of praise…..

    If you were trying to get in the spirit of 1940s journalists, you failed. No one lugged around typewriters like your Royal. That’s akin to taking around a desktop computer everywhere you go… Also, you are obviously going to be frustrated since you’re using a machine in dire need of TLC. You can buy ribbons on amazon. Clean the thing up if you intend on using it for serious writing. And also, be in the right mindset. Stream of consciousness is very possible w typewriters. Type what you feel on the first draft, and then take a red pen, make notes and BOOM you have a version to retype for a final (clean) draft. It’s a good way to make you re-read and really think about your final product.

    Good idea for aarticle nevertheless.

    • Daniel Means

      I think he should do it again and do it right :)

      • Rene

        I don’t think so. He doesn’t seem like the right kid for it at all. I cringed when he casually mentioned how the typewriter would slip through his ridiculous cart and hit the ground with a “thud.” Have some respect, the machine is from 1941, and deserves at least a modicum of care.

  • Daniel Means

    Yeah… 19 year old writer type stuff is a good way to discribe it. Something was difficult so you gave up and gleaned no wisdom whatsoever from it. The professional choice (and the choice of anyone with a writers curiosity) would have been to extend your torturous experience to a length of time that would actually allow you to get comfortable with the typewriter. I mean kids these days (yeah I’m laughing at myself) you think if you can’t master something in a week it’s not worth learning. You have to be proficient with something BEFORE you can attempt a project and get anything of value from it. You also can’t do things on the cheap if you want to be a professional. You should have invested in a quality functioning typewriter. They make “quiet write” manual typewriters to overcome the noise issue and I’m sure you could have taken a class of some sort on use. You are obviously trying to write about something you aren’t the least bit interested in.