I grew up as a writer, it was the one thing I was always comfortable with. As a kid, I claimed I was going to be a pharmacist, just like my dad. But he’d seen my math scores and knew better.
My earliest stories were written in pencil or pen in spiral notebooks. I had atrocious handwriting. Still do, actually. My dad gave me his college typewriter when I was ten, and suddenly my writing gained new clarity. The typewriter was probably twice my age, and it was one of those cheap models with no frills. Frills such as an exclamation point or the number 1. It had no correction ribbon, and whiteout became my new best friend. If I typed too fast the keys would stick together. The carriage return was completely manual. The shift key lifted up the whole carriage with a heavy clank, dropping it twice as loud. My skinny little fingers would sometimes get stuck between the keys, and when I look at it now I wonder that my ten-year old hands were able to bang away for hours at the thing.
The affordable home computer changed the world of writing forever, at least until we have a zombie/plague/asteroid apocalypse. Writers can now concentrate on creating rather than the agony of retyping their five-hundred page masterpiece for the sixteenth time because they’ve made some revisions. Typos are easy to fix. We have the luxury of cut and paste, spell check, and a printer conveniently located in our residence. Many of today’s writers didn’t have to endure the pre and early techno days. Others have locked these memories away behind a tightly locked door with a sign that says do not open until Armageddon. Well, except for Stephen King, who appears to have a fondness for Underwood typewriters.
It’s good to reflect on the changes in the past thirty or forty years simply because it is our heritage as writers. How can we know where we’re going, if we don’t know where we’ve been or how far we’ve come? And it’s good to remind ourselves, when we’ve got a virus or our hard drive has crashed, that there was a time when we didn’t have it so easy.
Early word processors, the dinosaurs, were an improvement over manual typing, simply because you could save your work. My first word processor was called Magic Desk, and it was a cartridge for the Commodore 64. I had to save each page separately. Cut and paste didn’t exist. The five-inch floppies were difficult to take care of, and disk cases were out of my price range. There was no saving to the hard drive in those days. Spell check involved keeping Webster’s close at hand.
Then there came such advancements as Word Star and Word Perfect, the DOS versions. Hitting the wrong key combination could be devastating in those days. What you saw on the screen was not necessarily what you got on printout, but there were a bundle of new features in this state of the art hardware and software. There would be no more manual underlining for me. Insert and type-over were a sheer delight, once I’d figured out which was which. And the cut and paste features were beyond my expectations. I met my first spell checker, and it was good.
With today’s word processors, the art of writing has become streamlined. We’ve removed some of the tedious and unpleasant tasks associated with editing and revising, other than working with the words themselves. We’re no longer required to have perfect spelling, though homonyms are still problematic and grammar checkers continue to suck. We have voice recognition software for those who have difficulty with typing. There are programs specifically designed for writers that help you organize your character, world, and plot details. Publishing continues to work through its massive upheaval, with electronic and print on demand options opening doors for a lot of writers who had no chance with the traditional model (and not because they’re bad writers).
Despite all these advancements, it is still essential for a writer to have a grasp of the language she writes in, or she’ll fail to tell the story she intends to. We still need to practice and hone our craft, trying new things and stretching once in a while to create things that are new and interesting. No matter how sophisticated the programming, technology alone will not make you a writer. It can only aid you in getting the job done. Writing itself has not necessarily gotten easier, even if the peripheral aspects have. That which is truly worthwhile is rarely ever easy, though it’s nice to be able to focus on the words and the story more than the mechanism for recording them.