back to

How word processing changed the way we write


In Bookforum, Eric Banks reviews the book Track Changes by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, a history of word processing, from the 1964 introduction of IBM’s Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter to the present. In his review, Banks reflects on not just the technical aspects of each successive writing machine, but on how they shaped the writing process, especially for fiction writers. An excerpt:

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.”

Plenty of writers balked at the joys of word processing, for a host of reasons. Overwriting, in their view, became too easy; the labor of revision became undervalued, and noisy printers and plugged-in gadgets the norm. When Gore Vidal wrote in the mid-1980s that the “word processor is erasing literature,” he expressed an uneasiness about technology’s proximity to creative writing (and the wider field of publishing) that persists. This too is the literary history of word processing, a snapshot of dread about gadget love, the seduction of the screen, and automation and the threats they pose to writers. This dread has taken various forms over the years. It lurks in the background of Sven Birkerts’s late-1990s jeremiads against the Web and Leon Wieseltier’s 2015 diatribe about what distraction was doing to the contemplative mind (and, by extension, the writer). Paradoxically, much of the hand-wringing over digital-era distraction as a mortal enemy to thinking has given rise to apps: Scrivener, or WriteRoom, or Write or Die, the last an online editor that promotes concentration by erasing your text if you pause too long between keystrokes.