Writing Tools

How Literature Became Word Perfect

5 May 2016

From The New Republic:

“As if being 1984 weren’t enough.” Thomas Pynchon, writing in The New York Times Book Review, marked the unnerving year with an honest question about seemingly dystopian technology: “Is It OK to Be a Luddite?” The Association of American Publishers records that by 1984, between 40 and 50 percent of American authors were using word processors. It had been a quarter-century since novelist C.P. Snow gave a lecture in which he saw intellectual life split into “literary” and “scientific” halves. Pynchon posited that the division no longer held true; it obscured the reality about the way things were going. “Writers of all descriptions are stampeding to buy word processors,” he wrote. “Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead.”

The literary history of the early years of word processing—the late 1960s through the mid-’80s—forms the subject of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new book, Track Changes. The year 1984 was a key moment for writers deciding whether to upgrade their writing tools. That year, the novelist Amy Tan founded a support group for Kaypro users called Bad Sector, named after her first computer—itself named for the error message it spat up so often; and Gore Vidal grumped that word processing was “erasing” literature. He grumped in vain. By 1984, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, and Anne Rice all used WordStar, a first-generation commercial piece of software that ran on a pre-DOS operating system called CP/M. (One notable author still using WordStar is George R.R. Martin.)

. . . .

Genre writers were among the earliest adopters of new word processing technologies—experimenting with them as early as the 1970s—since they were often more adventurous and less precious than their hyper-literary colleagues. Many of the highest-browed in the literary world resisted word processing for decades. Indeed, some writers would conceal the fact that they used a word processor for fear of being tarnished by an association with automation or inauthenticity. In a 2011 New York Times article, Gish Jen recalled colleagues at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1980s doctoring their printouts, adding unnecessary pencil annotations in order to make their manuscripts seem more “real,” less perfect. Perfect copy, after all, was for the typist, not the genius.

. . . .

Thinkers of all stripes marveled at their new ability to move chunks of text. In 1983, Michael Crichton told Merv Griffin that, “When you type, the words appear on the screen … you can move around on the screen, change what you’ve written, pull blocks of text, put them elsewhere. You have complete freedom.” His disbelieving glee was shared by many, but some writers reacted differently.

. . . .

For Anne Rice—who was devoted to WordStar and also had her most famous character, the vampire Lestat, use the program to type out his memoirs—the writer must come face to face with a machine that demands she create not just perfect copy, but ideal creative thought. With all these tools at one’s disposal, Rice writes, “There’s really no excuse for not writing the perfect book.”

. . . .

In the first issue of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. (1971) was an advertisement placed by Evelyn Berezin, proprietor of the Redactron Corporation. Berezin had been working in computer engineering since the early 1950s, first as lead logic designer at the Electronic Computer Corporation, then at Teleregister, a system facilitating plane ticket bookings. After losing out on a job on the floor of the male-only New York Stock Exchange, Berezin went solo. She decided to design a rival to IBM’s MT/ST.

She called her invention the “Data Secretary.” It would be a “true computer, with 13 onboard semiconductor chips and programmable logic driving its word processing functions.” To sell the thing, Berezin went straight to the frustrated professionals who would use the word processor soonest, those already drowning in paperwork. The Ms. ad is 400-ish words addressed directly to the “Dead-End Secretary,” promising her liberation from the typewriter, and therefore a better job. Once she doesn’t have to type all day, what’s to stop the secretary moving into management? “Ask your boss about the Data Secretary,” the ad said. “We’ve already told him about it.”

The premise of the ad was, of course, that word processors already existed, just in a different form: the human woman. Such women worked in every office, everywhere, and they also worked for literary writers. Henry James’s secretary Theodora Bosanquetwas an enormous fan of her employer, credited by James with truly getting what he was “driving at.” Valerie Eliot, widow and legacy—keeper of T.S. Eliot, had formerly been Valerie Fletcher, typist at Faber & Faber. She performed secretarial duties for Eliot with ferocious competence during his life and guarded his papers after his death with an equal loyalty. Sonia Orwell did exactly the same thing for George. These women’s professional, love, and literary lives blurred into one duty of work, dedicated to the male writer.

. . . .

Kirschenbaum quotes Wendell Berry, writing in 1987 on his wife’s essential role as typist:

My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with it.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

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The Program Era

20 April 2016

From BookForum:

I can’t remember the last time I used an electric typewriter. It most likely would have been in the course of typing out an address on an envelope—but then again, I can’t readily call to mind the last time I did that with anything other than that old-fashioned technology, the ballpoint pen, which itself is not really all that old school. The mass commercial distribution of the ballpoint pen in the United States dates only to about 1945, which means its triumphal appearance in the writing market occurred just under twenty years before that of the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, IBM’s radically rethought typewriting device. Released in 1964, the MT/ST was the first machine of its kind, equipped with a magnetic-tape memory component that allowed you to edit text before it was actually printed on the page. Corporations were considered the primary beneficiaries of the new technology, a wrinkle on the electric typewriter that arrived with considerable media enthusiasm. The makers of the MT/ST saw the contemporary office groaning under the weight of metastasizing paperwork and envisioned making money off companies hoping to streamline the costs of secretarial labor and increase productivity. Writers were something of an afterthought: Whatever effect IBM’s product would have on authors—high or low, commercial or experimental—was collateral.

But if the introduction of a new type of word-processing machine started a slow-burning revolution in how writers went about their business, it was a revolution nonetheless, drastically altering how authors did their work. The primary focus of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new history of word processing, Track Changes, is a twenty-year span, from the moment that IBM brought out the MT/ST until 1984, when the Apple Macintosh first offered a glimpse of an unchained future with its televised appeal to a nation of would-be Winston Smiths.

. . . .

As Kirschenbaum’s history reminds us, the story of personal computers supplanting older systems dedicated to word processing—and writers’ larger commitment to abandoning pens and ink and typewriter ribbons and correction fluid—was hardly the fait accompli that we sometimes think it was. His book attempts a full literary history of this shift. To do so, he ranges across a number of phenomena: the technical and managerial prehistories of the word-processing revolution; the imaginative, sometimes allegorical literary responses to how work was managed (from Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 “U-Write-It,” which fantasized a fully automated literary production line, to John Updike’s 1983 poem “INVALID.KEYSTROKE,” a sort of ode to the little dot that appeared on the screen between words in early word processors like his own Wangwriter II); and most prominently, how word processing both tapped into and reflected writers’ anxieties about their whole enterprise. The last didn’t appear with the first wizardly word processor or dazzling software program, and it hasn’t gone away. What Kirschenbaum doesn’t do is reflect on how the “program era” affected authors’ sentence structure, book length, and the like. Track Changes is less concerned with big data than with bit-by-bit change.

. . . .

Learning how to operate earlier systems took diligence, with coded combinations of keys that allowed users to manipulate chunks of text. Plus, the various systems weren’t mutually compatible. If you bought a Kaypro or a Tandy or a Commodore, you were stuck with the limitations (or enjoyed the advantages) of the particular product in ways that seem impossible to imagine for anyone using a laptop today.

. . . .

Yet the first generation of word-processing systems attracted a legion of proselytizing adopters. Kirschenbaum includes a roster of acolytes—from Michael Chabon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ralph Ellison to Anne Rice and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—whose motley makeup gives a sense of how the appeal of word processing crossed genre boundaries. Many were loyal to specific programs. George R. R. Martin remains a user of WordStar to this day, and William F. Buckley never abandoned it.

. . . .

What made word-processing devices much more than just souped-up typewriters was not only that they gave you the ability to edit at the same time that you wrote, or that they eliminated or seriously curtailed the effort of correcting from typewritten pages. Seeing text revealed on a screen, even in the technologically costive form offered by the earliest word processors, provided an unprecedented opportunity to picture the manuscript as a whole and with an immediacy that typewriting didn’t permit. The acronym WYSIWYG—What You See Is What You Get—delivered perhaps the same frisson for writers in the early 1980s as Frank Stella’s “What You See Is What You See” had to ambitious painters a generation earlier. Even the intricate system of keyboard commands required to move passages or insert italics or signal word breaks seemed akin to the freedom of writing in longhand, the fingers never leaving the keyboard, with none of the “mechanical” intrusion of typing and retyping manuscripts: It combined the “efficiency of typing with a hands-on, no-nonsense approach to really handling a manuscript—almost as if the writer was somehow ruffling the electronic pages, marking them up and blocking off passages, sorting them into piles and flagging them with bits of scrap paper or colored ribbon or bubble gum wrappers.”

. . . .

Kirschenbaum’s history also relates a more profound erasure, that of the unseen hands, mostly women’s, the typists and office workers whose value was an intentional casualty of the revolution. There’s a good bit of ironic justice, then, in his nomination for the first novel written on a word processor: the British writer Len Deighton’s 1970 Bomber, the execution of which began sometime in 1968 on a European version of the MT/ST mastered by Deighton’s assistant, Ellenor Handley. Deighton did the laborious work of constructing a complex narrative from a typescript; Handley did the laborious work of making his scissors-and-paste method of integrating cross-cutting narratives obsolete. The first book, perhaps, to be created on a word processor was hence a collaborative production. The words “indisputably belong to Len Deighton. But the hands that recorded and processed them using the MT/ST belong to Ellenor Handley.”

Link to the rest at BookForum

A couple of impacts of word processors on law offices that may be of interest:

Legal secretaries were the crème de la crème of the secretarial world (ditto for statistical typists – think adding the top row of numbers and symbols to the three rows with letters without slowing down). For many purposes, legal secretaries had to be exquisitely accurate. In many offices, typed wills, for example, could have no errors. A simple correction, even via a correcting Selectric, might look like an heir had changed the will for nefarious purposes. A mistake in the last sentence on a page required that the entire page be retyped. White-out was entirely unacceptable.

Watching a legal secretary type at impossibly high speed with no errors was a memorable experience.

When dedicated word processors made their appearance, most legal secretaries were relieved. Type the form will once, save it on the word processor, then making minor changes for each client sounded like heaven. However, it marked the beginning of the end for extraordinary typists.

When large law firms began to buy very expensive word processors that were much larger than a typewriter, putting one outside of each attorney’s, or even each partner’s office was not financially practical, to say nothing of the enormous noise the printers made as they hammered out page after page.

For a period of time, the word processors and their operators were installed in a separate, soundproof room. Extremely fast typists listened to dictation or worked from marked up first drafts, then delivered the clean copies to waiting attorneys and secretaries.

In order to justify the cost of the machines, some large law offices ran their word processors 24 hours per day with three shifts of typists. PG remembers working on a complex document at a Los Angeles law firm at 3:00 AM and picking up new drafts from a room with a half-dozen typists hammering away at whatever needed to be completed in the middle of the night.

This writing app deletes everything if you stop typing

4 February 2016

From Mashable:

Writing on a computer can be one of the most harrowing experiences of the modern era. With a bevy of Internet distractions including endless pictures of puppies, videos of people falling down and social media, it’s a wonder anything actually gets done anymore. How can anyone stay focused while simultaneously drowning in thousands of procrastination catalysts just one click away?

Flowstate, found on Product Hunt, is a writing app for OS X ($14.99) and iOS ($9.99) that wants to keep you focused. You select a font, timeframe and title, then start writing. If you stop typing, your text begins to fade, and it’s completely deleted after five seconds of inactivity.

. . . .

You can choose timeframes between 5-180 minutes, although one of the creators Caleb Slain told Mashable you’ll only really start to lock in at 15 minutes or longer.

. . . .

“You as a person want to keep the things you own, it’s your natural instinct,” Slain said

“So if you make a sentence, you make a paragraph, you don’t want it to go away, but the only way to keep it is to write more. So if you make a sentence, you make a paragraph, you don’t want it to go away, but the only way to keep it is to write more.”

The more you write, the more you have to lose.

“Before you know it, you have page, or two pages,” he said. “Nothing in the world matters anymore except for keeping what’s yours.”

Link to the rest at Mashable and thanks to Jill for the tip.

A Writer Who Moves, A Mover Who Writes

18 November 2015

From author Katy Bowman via author Sarah Selecky’s blog:

I write a lot, mostly about movement—how to move, and more specifically, the biological need for movement—nutritious movement. Nutritious Movement describes not just the movements we need, but also the frequency at which we need them—not for flat abs and a well-toned butt, but for our basic biological systems to function well.

. . . .

While I would never claim to be a good writer, I am certainly a very productive writer, and a successful one in terms of readers reached; my work has motivated hundreds of thousands of people to move. I believe this is because, whether good or not, my writing is authentic. I’m a so-called expert in movement science—our need for movement—and I believe my message is heard (and my posts are read, and my books are sold) because I haven’t decreased my own frequency of movement in order to write about the human need for it.

. . . .

Culturally, we still hold the belief “Nature” that the relationship between time and productivity is direct. As if writing consists solely of the output of words, your typing speed being the indicator of how long it would take to write a thousand-word word article (ten minutes) or a novel (one week). But of course, time spent coming up with ideas and themes, and organizing and reorganizing these threads in our minds, is also “writing.” The trouble is, we’ve come to see sitting at a desk as an integral part of the writing process. We imagine the mulling, the idea-forming, the organizing, the process—the creativity—can occur only when the butt–chair circuit is closed. I (and researchers) have found the opposite to be true: movement can be a conduit for creativity.

The chair, so intertwined with our humanness these days, has become, in our minds, tangled with our writing process. And so we sit and sit and sit, diligently attending to our process, when what we think of as our process is probably less tied to sitting, and more related to the passage of time. Sometimes you just have to wait for the next idea. While the waiting seems to be, at least for me, part of the writing process, sitting still while waiting doesn’t have to be.

. . . .

I’ve found that I’m not just passing time creatively when I’m moving,but that movement actively helps my work in two ways. Like you, I have many other obligations beyond writing. I have work and household errands, and a family to tend to. And so I’ve learned to accomplish some of my mindless tasks with movement—a walk to the post office to mail out review copies of my books, for example—during my work/writing time. The break from my screen coupled with movement-based tasks gives me both time to format great ideas and more time to write them down once they’re flowing.

But not only can you do much of the “background” work of writing while doing big movements away from the desk, you can also move while you write. I write every day, often for hours, and I know I’ll suffer some biological consequence if I keep still during my writing time. So I move in subtle ways that don’t require me to move away from my keyboard.

Here’s what an hour of me writing dynamically looks like (sped up because who has an hour to watch someone else work?)

Link to the rest at Sarah Seleky and thanks to Adrienne for the tip.

Here’s a link to Katy Bowman’s books and a link to Sarah Selecky’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

5 Tips for Creating a Stellar Freelance Writing Home Office

24 October 2015

From The Huffington Post:

I stopped going to coffee shops to work on freelance writing projects after my laptop bit the dust, and decided to suspend disbelief and create a real home office. It was time. I’d been freelancing over a decade.

For years I’d been casually skimming blogs purporting home offices boost productivity, along with those who suggested organizational tricks such as the Pomodoro Technique where you race an egg timer to complete your work and seemed better suited to those with type a personalities than me.
When I wasn’t in the coffee shop, I preferred to sit propped up in my bed or on the couch or in my super Ikea Poang chair, and work wherever the spirit moved me.

I was silly to be an office hater, to distrust in the power of a designated writing space. After vacillating for a while, combing through articles and quite a few days of manic arranging and rearranging, I set up my home office. It took me a few days to get really comfortable, but after I did, there was no turning back.

. . . .

1. Be Zen. Start Clean. Start with an empty space. Clutter blocks creative and productive flow. Keep furniture to an absolute minimum. Sweep the floor ritualistically. Burn a candle or clear the room out with some sage. Take all the decorations off the walls. Leave what is only most essential.

2. Reinvent the Wheel. Know thyself. Try a creative alternative work organizing system. Whiteboards and bulletin boards aren’t the only ways to map out your working day, week or month. After much trial and error I learned how hanging a clothes line across my wall and hanging with clothes pins chapters of books, to do lists, reminders and payment schedules worked best for me. Everything is printed on the page and visible, can be easily rearranged, and viewed from the chair where I sit in the room. It’s a fun and different system. Highly recommended for writers juggling multiple projects (you can have multiple clothes lines) and those who suffer from even mild ADD.

. . . .

 4 Respect The Light. I have worked mad scientist schedules throughout my freelance career, but often find I am actually most productive when I work the same day lit hours as the rest of the world. It turns out there is a reason for this. A recent study from the University of Texas/San Marcos Nature Center suggest that people who work in daylight maintain better focus than those who work with ill-conceived lights (fluorescents etc). When choosing your office spot, make sure to choose one with enough windows to give you daylight.

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Writing and Publishing a Book with Free Software

28 September 2015

Link to the rest at nhaines.com

Speak and Spell: How Dictation Software Makes Us Rethink Writing

19 September 2015

From Wired:

… But it’s also going to change the way we write. For one, it may make our prose more casual. One small study of correspondence between two academics in 2003 found that when one of them shifted to voice-dictation software, his sentences became a bit shorter, he used status markers like “sir” and “boss” less often, and he was more likely to use first-person pronouns. “People are more personal when they’re speaking,” says James Pennebaker, a social psychologist who coauthored the research.

This would continue the grand trend of digital communication: making our prose more colloquial, as Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University, has found in studying online language. One friend of mine, the designer Natalie Roth, has indeed noticed that dictation makes her sound like a slightly less complex thinker: “I simplify what I’m saying so the computer will understand it. It’s the way I speak to someone when I know that their English is a bit rusty.”

Then again, it’s certainly possible to be formal and stylized, if you try. Late in his career, Henry James shifted from typing his novels to dictating them, and his prose actually became more ornate in the process, not less. (“He luxuriated in fine phrases and he was exquisitely baroque,” his biographer Leon Edel told The Paris Review.)

Link to the rest at Wired.

Celebrities and Their Pens

14 September 2015

Fountain pens just won’t go away.  Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Arthur Conan Doyle, Anne Frank and many others appreciate the flow of ink through a nib.

This is my vintage Waterman.


Albert Einstein used both a Pelikan 100 N and a Waterman Taper-cap Fountain Pen which he used to develop the Theory of Relativity. The Waterman pen is on display at the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden.

Read the rest The Pen Shop

Posted by Barbara Morgenroth

4 Lessons in Storytelling from a Screenwriter Who’s Also a D&D Dungeon Master

2 September 2015

From Co.Create:

They say writers shouldn’t hesitate to kill their darlings. It’s not an invitation to actual homicide, but a plea for the willingness to jettison any element of a story, even if you love it like a friend. That’s just one of the many work-hazards writers share with those in charge of Dungeons and Dragons games—a dungeon master has to kill off his or her friends all the time.

Consider pouring out a flagon of mead, in that case, for poor Matthew Robinson. As a pro screenwriter and a recent convert to the world of Dungeons and Dragons, he is constantly deluged with decisions about character arcs and turns of phrase by day, and also responsible for the fate of those fellow D&D-ers whose weekly quests he architects. Naturally, he has found that there is some serious overlap between the skill sets of screenwriting and overseeing fantasy roleplaying games.

. . . .

After becoming interested in trying it out, Robinson found that gaming stores across the country have Wednesday night league events where anyone can find a group, join in, and keep track of his or her character’s fantastical conquests digitally. As a storyteller by trade, he quickly gravitated toward the role of dungeon master, the person in charge of planning out each week’s adventure, and executing it based on the roll of the dice. It’s his experience in creating movies and shows, though, that keep his gang of adventurers in a state of agitation as they await some kind of resolution.

. . . .


Don’t Be BoringDreaming up scenarios and envisioning outcomes is a helpful skill in the world of D&D—and any time you have an audience, really. But those scenarios better keep people’s attention.

“What D&D does best creatively is it puts the focus on being entertaining,” Robinson says. “It’s almost like having an audience in your house. I have five players, and I have to entertain them. You can’t just throw monsters at them and expect them to fight because they’re gonna get bored of monsters, they’re gonna get bored of fighting and they’re gonna want some interaction. But if you have only interactions, they’re gonna get bored of that and they’re gonna want to start fighting again. It really takes you back to the basic, bare bones storytelling concept of, like: is my audience bored right now? If so, what are they craving and at what point after I give them what they want, do I need to then give them something else?”

. . . .

 Anticipate Audience Reactions

With D&D, you’re playing a game, but the game is really just a means to create the best possible experience for your audience. In order to do that, you have to know who your audience is and use that information to play off their expectations.

“Most DMs work off a campaign book, which I do too. It gives you the guidelines of the story but you never want your players to feel like they are in a story that has a beginning, middle and end,” Robinson says. “You want them to feel like they’re telling the story and you’re just improv-ing wherever they go. If you play with the same group every week, you start to really know what kind of stuff they dig, and what they get bored with. My group likes combat where they feel like they’re not gonna necessarily win unless they really play it right. Also strange occurrences and weird mysteries—like, they’re just walking down the road and all of a sudden I’ll describe something shimmering off in the distance. They love just going off the path and seeing what will happen. You want to give them the illusion that the story isn’t on rails, when for the most part it is.”

Link to the rest at Co.Create

Character Names

11 June 2015

If you’re stumped over what name to give one of your characters, there’s a website for that.

Enter a few parameters, identify the gender (sorry, there are only two) and the names roll forth.

Mignon Esta Sechrist

Margaretta Annika Heng-Meas

Eugene Jonathan Myers

Daniel Joe Patterson-Stanley

Porter Hipolito Morris

Link to the rest at Character Name Generator and thanks to Joanna for the tip.

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