Matthew G. Kirschenbaum has written a book tracing the history of the use of the word processor from its earliest inception in the 1960s to the present-day. It sounds interesting enough that I wouldn’t mind reading it, but at nearly $20, the Kindle edition is a bit too rich for my blood—and the hardcover edition is a buck more. I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list against the time the price might drop, and placed a hold at my local library, but in the meanwhile I can tide myself over with this interesting interview with Kirschenbaum from The Atlantic.
Driven by curiosity over who wrote the first word-processed book, Kirschenbaum conducted five years of research to write his history. What he discovered was that, as with any popular invention, there are several candidates. Jerry Pournelle wrote a novella called Spirals on the first recognizable “‘typewriter’ connected to a ‘TV screen’” combination. A few years earlier, John Hersey edited and typeset his nonfiction book Hiroshima on a mainframe at Yale.
But the earliest regular user of word-processing technology for books was probably espionage author Len Deighton, via his secretary. Deighton used a regular Selectric typewriter, but his secretary, Ellenor Handley, used IBM’s Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST), the first device IBM actually referred to as a “word processor,” to do editing and revisions.
It’s interesting to consider some of the assumptions people had about the new technology at the time. For example, Kirschenbaum says:
A lot of the more interesting stories just have to do with writers who were more concerned that their editor or their agent would think that their computer had “done the work.” That was a real anxiety. One thing I did was to just go back and read popular press accounts of word processing, and a lot of them begin by assuring the reader that the computer really isn’t writing the book.
He also notes that science fiction writers were among the earliest adopters of word processing, but not because you’d expect that people used to thinking about technology would also be interested in using it. In fact, the actual reason would probably strike a chord with all the people doing self-publishing today:
Rather, the reason why science-fiction writers were among the first to come to word processing is that it had such an impact on the material work of writing a novel that writers who used a word processor found that they were more productive. And as several of my interviewees told me, to make a living as a science fiction novelist in the late 1970s, early ’80s, you needed to be able to do two or three books a year. That was sort of the threshold for being able to do it for a living. I suspect there were similar dynamics in romance fiction and other popular genres.
One of my favorite genre writers, suspense novelist Desmond Bagley, was also an early user of word processing tools. There might just be something to the idea of genre writers adopting it to let them turn out work faster.
Along the way Kirschenbaum mentions the new passion for distraction-free writing, or “free writing” to bang out a quick-and-dirty first draft. He is interested that tools are now emerging with that particular model in mind, such as the various word processors I covered here, or the Freewrite portable keyboard. He suspects that writing is going to move away from general-purpose computers toward more specialized tools.
Another interesting thing Kirschenbaum brings up is that in 1983, at age 70, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of articles for Personal Computing about the experience of adapting to writing with a TRS-80—providing a wealth of detail about the ways it changed his work habits that was useful for Kirschenbaum’s book. For example, Asimov could listen to and watch TV while he wrote because the keys weren’t as loud as a manual typewriter would have been. Computers changed the way people worked, and even the way they sat.
Kirschenbaum doesn’t think that word processing necessarily changed people’s personal writing style—there are simply too many other influences on writing style to be able to make a judgment. But he expects it might be fertile ground for a digital humanities researcher.
As a final note, I happened to run across another article at the same time, on related subject matter—a blog post from Tobias Buckell talking about how Google Docs and Skype have changed the collaborative writing process for him. It used to be a matter of being together with a collaborator in person so they could hotseat at the typewriter, but now he can collaborate with people in entirely different countries via the Internet.
I’ve done a lot of writing that way myself lately, with a friend in California who I’ve never personally met. Though we don’t Skype while writing, like Buckell and his collaborator, we’ve been able to get a lot of work done and spark ideas in ways we never would have been able before. Though Kirschenbaum doesn’t touch on this kind of collaboration, like free writing it could be another direction in which writing goes from here. We come up with the most interesting tools and ways to use them over time.