Of Typewriters and Time

The thing both great and terrible about having a blog like this, is that it focuses your thoughts. It’s great because, somehow the act of putting one thought down on paper gives birth to another, deeper thought. But it’s terrible because most of the time you have the second thought, right after you’ve published the first.

Such was the case with my previous blog post. It was only meant to be an encouragement a word of help to writers who might not be keeping up with the faster ponies in the NaNoWriMo pack. But not more than a couple of hours after I wrote it I came across this blog espousing the benefits of something called fast drafting, and it got me to thinking: what is up with our obsession with speed? NaNoWriMo, Book in a Month, Novel in a Weekend, the list goes on. In fact I’m pretty sure that every single month of the year has some kind of “fast drafting” push writer can get involved in.

Now before I get too far into this, let me say I’ve got no problem with fast drafting or any of these other writing initiatives per say. There is a great deal of wisdom in the idea of silencing the inner editor to a point.

But consider these words: “First drafts are supposed to suck.”

If you’ve been entrenched in the writing world for any length of time at all, you’ve probably heard this mantra. In fact I’ve given this advice myself from time to time. But is it true? Or, asked differently, is it helpful?

From one standpoint, the answer is yes. Every writer struggles with doubts. Every story brings with it a certain measure of uncertainty and apprehension that what is being written is utter crap. As writers we have to move beyond these kinds of uncertainty and press forward to the finish.

But there is a danger, I think, in taking it too far. Your task as a writer is not to simply upchuck sentences until you reach your desired wordcount. You do not get to smear literary excrement all over the page and call it a first draft.

I know, I know, you get revisions and rewrites and edits, and loads and loads of chances to make that story better. But I want you to look at something for me. Just take a minute and look.

Isn’t she beautiful? I mean really. When they made this baby, they distilled the archetype of what it means to be a writer and molded it into a single perfect machine. But think about what it would have meant to be a writer with one of these things. Every mistake you make you had to manually white out. Every edit had to be retyped. And cutting and pasting involved actual scissors and glue.

Do you think writers using one of these might have approached a sentence, a paragraph, a story with a little more caution? Do you think they might have lined up the words in their heads before they started hammering away at those keys, to be absolutely sure they were saying what they wanted to say in the most effective manner possible? I dare say they might.

But now computers have made things easy. And in a sense I’m thankful for it. I’m really glad I don’t have to use whiteout every time I misspell a word. But easy doesn’t always mean better, and it seems that words have lost some of their weight now that they can exist only in the ether of the electronic world.

I do not intend to discourage you from the practice of writing quickly, but rather I want to admonish you to write with purpose. If you are a writer you have chosen a noble path. You have the power to change the world with words. Do not ever use that power lightly, whether you are on your first draft or your fiftieth.

And if you approach that first draft with the proper focus, if you take the time you need to write the best story you can, it will be far easier to build on that foundation in the following drafts.

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13 responses to “Of Typewriters and Time

  1. So true… It’s great to use tools that slow us down a bit, that force us to focus. Though I don’t use a typewriter, I’ve recently taken to writing in a notebook. It slows me down, but in a good way.

    Great post!

    • Focus is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. People are wont to whine about the distraction of modern life, and while I don’t like to jump on that bandwagon entirely I do think that focusing one’s attention on any one task for longer than a few minutes is a skill that’s simply not being learned very much any more. And it can be learned. Like anything else it just takes practice.

  2. Thanks for the link!

    As you saw from my post, I’m conflicted about the whole idea of writing messier *than required* just for the sake of speed. Messy because it’s a first draft, sure. Messy because of speed? Eh.

    I actually had a similar thought to you about whether or not the fact that I’m old enough to have written essay assignments on a typewriter has anything to do with how my mind organizes things. I once typed a five-page essay a few hours before it was due. I had no time for retyping pages or anything, so I had to get it right the first time. To this day, I’m more likely to backspace to a spelling mistake than to move my cursor. 🙂

    • I think writer should try to vary their approach to fiction and see what works best. Fast drafting sounds like a great tool, and I’ve written plenty of messy first drafts myself. But I fear that some people have taken advantage of the immediacy of electronic publishing without any thought of quality at all. And that’s the real danger. No matter what your first draft looks like, writers need to make sure what eventually get’s published is of the highest quality possible.

  3. Very nicely put. Thinking about what you’re going to say… It’s so crazy it just…might…work!

  4. I had to laugh at your “white out” comment. When I learned to type, you had to use either (1) a special eraser or (2) TWO kinds of liquid, one you put on, let dry and then added another. With method #2, if you didn’t wait, the paper turned orange, and you had to start all over.

    And yes…much thought went into sentences before they were typed.

    • I have never had to use a typewriter, but lately I’ve been thinking about using one, for exactly the reasons outlined here. I actually own an Underwood like the one in the picture, and believe it or not you can still buy new ribbon for it. Something about composing words on real paper with real ink appeals to me.

    • I have never had to use a typewriter, but lately I’ve been thinking about using one, for exactly the reasons outlined here. I actually own an Underwood like the one in the picture, and believe it or not you can still buy new ribbon for it. Something about composing words on real paper with real ink appeals to me.

  5. great post. I’ve a underwood 3-banks e many others on my blog.

  6. Ah, so very true. If I write a crap sentence, I know I can just press the “Backspace” button. But maybe I would have taken more time to think about it, if I’d been writing with a typewriter!

    “You do not get to smear literary excrement all over the page and call it a first draft.” THIS made me laugh out loud.

    Sure, we are all forgiven for the slight “crapiness” of a first draft. But, if you are trying to present that first draft to an editor/agent/whatever, there has to be some sort of literary goodness in there, amIright?

  7. My Catholic upbringing has me editing as I go. (I can’t help myself.) I still worry about how it will read when it is done. I plan on several rewrites…
    I had an ancient Royal that I used in college. I am bummed that I don’t still have it. I remember the R and the T always tangled.
    Good times~
    Great post!

  8. “Do you think writers using one of these might have approached a sentence, a paragraph, a story with a little more caution?”

    Don’t be silly. I got my older sisters to type it up for me. Fortunately I have multiple older sisters so the cookies and brownies production schedule was not impaired by my occasional need to produce home work.

    If anyone is having trouble with their typing I suggest that they speak to their older sisters or find a generous and talented editor like Piper Bayard..

    Fortunately my older sisters are too busy doing stuff for me so they won’t get on the net and read this.

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