Writing got easier

You’re in front of your computer screen and you’re complaining. You can’t find the right words, the right phrase, the right style, the right topic, the right approach, the right content, the right angle, the right thing to write. The cursor does what it does etymologically best: it runs back and forth like a courier (a cursor is an ancient Roman runner or messenger), trying to deliver the goods before the race (cursus) is over. Hardly had it run forward into a new paragraph than it suddenly rushes backwards, taking the bad harvest away with it.

In the age of the word processor, we are still complaining about writing. We may complain more now than writers did in the 50s and 60s when mechanical – and then electric – typewriters were the peak of writing technology. Despite the nearly complete ease and convenience of writing, we still invest laughing capital into ‘staring at the blank computer screen’-type jokes and memes.

Just imagine typing a draft of your novel or PhD thesis on a typewriter – and retyping it for submission. The first author to submit a book manuscript in typed form seems to have been Mark Twain in 1874 – at a time when texts were still written by hand first. Language is resilient: we still refer to a typed copy as a manuscript, whether typed on a typewriter or computer, although the word typescript would be more appropriate.

Just imagine writing before the advent of paper and of the printing press. Just imagine having to prepare your own vellum first – not just skinning the poor animal, removing the hair, stretching, drying and processing the skin into parchment, but also preparing the sheets, pricking and lining the page, figuring out text length, divisions, etc.

Writing technology has made it easier for us to focus more on the text and less on technology. It has also developed a cost-free do-undo culture. Like digital photography, it produces limited material waste, which also means temporal waste. The cursor moves back and keeps the paper basket empty – and our eyes on the target.

The culture of do-no-undo was pretty ruthless for writers. We’ve outgrown it, thankfully, which means that we can now worry about doing things better – not that we actually do things better – and not worry about calfskin hair, exhausted typewriter tape or faulty mechanical keys, not to mention hand and finger pain. Just check the scanty memorials of medieval scribes etched at the end of manuscripts: ‘this book has cost me my eyes, and I nearly froze to death writing it’.

Don’t forget to hit Save, though.

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