Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Typewriter Tales


The proprietor of this blog writes:

If students “can’t find time” to write their own papers now, I wonder how they survived back when they had to do them on typewriters — re-typing entire pages to fix minor mistakes.

Looking back on my 1970s/80s college days, I have to wonder about that myself.  It’s so natural nowadays to make extensive changes at the last minute and to write an article piecemeal, mingling notes and text and letting it take shape as it develops, that it’s easy to forget the days of long handwritten outlines and multiple drafts — and the despair that struck when you were typing something up at 1:30 A.M. and realized that you had left out a paragraph.


Skipped paragraphs happened to me a lot because I could never bring myself to copy over a draft. I was a chemistry major, after all; why bother putting all that effort into learning a skill I would never use?  So I would go through my first draft — which was filled with crossouts and interlined additions in handwriting even tinier and more illegible than my usual — and circle blocks of text, which I would label A, B, C, and so forth to indicate the order they should go in. Soon I would have to resort to A1, A2, etc., and when I tried to put it all together, inevitably I would leave something out. (I learned, however, that you can usually do without that extra paragraph, which has turned out to be a valuable lesson.)  So when I used my first word processor and saw how perfectly it fit my lazy composition style, I felt like a caveman discovering fire.


Some people I knew actually followed the arduous research procedure we were taught in sixth grade:  Ideas jotted on index cards were laboriously sorted through and classified, yielding a rough outline that was then formalized into sections and subsections designated with roman numerals (upper and lower case) and descriptive titles.  Once you finished the outline, you hand-wrote a draft (copying over all the numbers and titles in their proper places), which you then typed, edited, and retyped, hopefully with few enough errors the second time around that they could be corrected with Liquid Paper instead of redoing a whole page.  (Rich kids, of course, had IBM Selectrics with correcting backspace; I envied them for that even more than for the televisions they kept in their rooms.)  That’s one reason why I never thought about becoming a writer:  The whole process seemed more complicated than designing a nuclear reactor.


At the other extreme, there were people who would do the necessary reading, think it over for half an hour or so while smoking cigarettes and staring out the window, and then sit down at the typewriter and bang out a flawless paper.  A guy who could do that lived next to me one year, and I regarded him with awe, as if he were Dr. Johnson furiously scribbling the latest number of The Rambler and handing each finished page to a messenger.


I still remember the awe I felt the summer before college, when my parents bought me my first typewriter:  I’m an adult now!  But even though I’m as old-fashioned about education as I am about everything else, you won’t find me getting nostalgic about the Typewriter Era.  Their single advantage was that the only thing you could do on a typewriter was type; to goof off, you actually had to get up out of your chair, and that was too much effort for most of us.  Word processing has made writing papers much less laborious, just as search engines have done with the research phase; but information technology has made even greater strides in helping its users to waste time more efficiently.  That explains why today’s college students still do everything at the last minute, just as their parents and grandparents did.


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