Track Changes

A recent purchase I enjoyed reading on my Amazon Kindle is Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Harvard University Press, 2016), an entertaining, well-written and thoroughly researched book.

“There have been popular treatises and academic studies of reading digitally, there have been populist rants and jeremiads […] But whereas e-books and e-reading devices did not become a major fixation for readers and publishers until after the turn of the millennium (despite years of promises and false starts), word processing, by contrast, has been a fixture of the literary since the start of the personal computer era.”

A few “populist rants and jeremiads” about e-readers have cropped up on the typosphere over the years. Of course, there are drawbacks to digital technology, but these are far, far outweighed by the benefits. Writers, those identified by Kirschenbaum as early adopters of word processing, seem to have drawn much the same conclusion.

But were they ready to embrace computers and consign their typewriters to the trash can of history? Not necessarily. For many writers (Isaac Asimov and John Updike are notable examples) word processors and typewriters were seen as complementary tools that could happily co-exist.

In the case of Len Deighton —the author Kirschenbaum identifies as being probably the first author to write a fully word-processed novel—word processor and typewriter were inextricably linked; the machine in question being an IBM Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST) launched in 1964 and which IBM themselves referred to as a word processor.

Sometime in 1968, when the writing of the novel Bomber [eventually published in 1970] was already underway, an IBM representative made a house-call to service the [Selectric] typewriters being used by Deighton and his assistant, an Australian woman named Ellenor Handley who had been working with him for several years..

[…] Though it was designed for high-volume business environments, IBM had a new machine he thought might help [with revision and re-drafting]. Would Mr Deighton care to take a walk and see it in action? He would.

Ellenor Handley reacquaints herself with the last full draft of the book that was printed from MT/ST tapes before it was typeset and put into proof in the Spring of 1970. (2013, image from Paris Review)

For an image of Len Deighton and his word processor, see: The Faithful Machine


While there was no going back for most writers, Kirschenbaum acknowledges the continued distraction-free attraction (and resurgence) of the typewriter. Kirschenbaum compares the rise of the word processor with the rise of the typewriter almost one hundred years before.

[..] neither the designers of the word processor nor the inventors of the typewriter envisioned literary writing as the inevitable application for their machines. The typewriter was initially conceived and marketed as an aid to the blind, deaf, and motor-impaired, and for taking down dictation. Hammond [Ray Hammond author of Writer and the Word Processor, 1984] calls it a “desperately limited tool … totally linear in operation, frustrating a writer’s attempts to mold a piece of writing as a whole.” Nonetheless, typewriters would enjoy early and notable associations with literary culture and creativity.

Bradley [Adam Bradley, American literary critic, professor] reminds us that the association between typewriting and literary productivity “was a mastery achieved only over time, and with many casualties among those authors unable to adapt.”

Mark Twain claimed to be “the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature”, a claim that the typewriter’s manufacturer, Remington, were happy to endorse, even though the reality was that Twain’s book had been typed by an assistant.

“Within a decade, in a gesture that would soon become commonplace, Oscar Wilde entrusted the manuscript of The Picture of Dorian Gray to Miss Dickens Typewriting Service in London. Other equally famous early adopters can also be named: Friedrick Nietzsche, for example, and Henry James, who reportedly was so enamoured of the sound of the keys of his secretary’s typewriter that they became a kind of metronome —he found he couldn’t dictate without their rhythmic counterpoint.”

The real focus of Kirschenbaum’s book, of course, is the take-up by writers of mini-computers and early micro-computers.

(Above) A Philips/Magnavox VideoWriter 250 like the one treasured by African American poet, children’s book author, essayist, Lucille Clifton (one early reviewer described it as resembling a microwave oven).


A tendency to romanticize the typewriter became a tendency to romanticize the word processor.

Conversely, “populist rants and jeremiads” once levelled at the typewriter, were similarly levelled at the word processor:

“This is terrible! They’re going to think the stuff’s finished, and it only looks that way.” This was to become a pervasive sentiment, repeated over and over again: journeyman authors would be tricked into thinking their work was better or more polished than it really was, and—what was worse—hardworking writers who were busy paying their dues at the typewriter with Snopake, scissors, and glue would be squeezed out of the market.

Woody Allen springs to mind—not that he was ever squeezed out of the market—a writer who would perhaps agree with Kirschenbaum’s contention that:

“For some […] word processing marked an irreducible rupture of the muse”.

As Kirschenbaum points out, the key development for word processing was the rise of integrated systems (small computers with typewriter-like keyboards, electronic screens, storage units, high-speed printers), which made personal computers attractive to non-technical people.

Early entrants onto the market were the Osborne 1, the Apple II, Wang System 5, the Commodore PET, the Sinclair ZX81, the Tandy TRS-80 and the Kaypro II, etc., culminating with the arrival and the eventual dominance of the IBM PC (1981).

“Computers had come of age as consumer electronics” and “new software was released almost daily”.

WordStar was quickly recognised as the leading program of its kind on the market.

“It does everything I want a word processor to do and it doesn’t do anything else. I don’t want any help … I hate some of these modern systems where you type a lowercase letter and it becomes a capital; If I’d wanted a capital I would have typed a capital, I know how to work the Shift key.” George R. R. Martin

Having used WordStar to write a sci-fi novel on an Amstrad 1640 back in the day—I remember being impressed by the keyboard shortcuts (on reflection not shortcuts but the primary means of navigation)—I was surprised to learn that the software still has its devotees — especially among sci-fi writers such as George R. R. Martin and Robert J Sawyer. The latter has written a series of useful blogs about how to make the most of the software. See: WORDSTAR: A Writer’s Word Processor

By 1984, according to Kirschenbaum and data attributed to the Association of American Publishers, somewhere between 40% and 50% of all literary authors in America were using word processors.

What would the figure be today? Close to 100% I’d say.

You can listen to the audio of an ABC/Radio National interview with Matthew G. Kirschenbaum here.

4 thoughts on “Track Changes

  1. Hi, I would like to ask a few questions about a typewriter I recently found at a goodwill. It is an olivetti lexikon 82 and I am having some trouble with it. Any help would be appreciated.


Comments are closed.