Gentlemen, Choose Your Weapons

By Hugh Ashton

Writing tools can affect your style. In the days of quill and dip pens, the length of sentences (or at least, phrases) was apparently determined by the amount of ink held by the pen, and prose rhythm was dictated by this simple physical constraint.

Fountain pens extended the scope of the writer. No longer did (s)he have to pause in the composition of the sentence, reach over to the inkwell and use those few seconds to determine what to write next. Sentences could flow for ever, like those of Henry James. But even with a fountain pen, revisions don’t come easily.

In Lamb House, Rye, where James lived for many years, some galley proofs of his works are on display, covered with major handwritten amendments. Whole paragraphs deleted and added, sentences turned on their heads, etc. No publisher today, even with modern technology, would accept such major revisions to a book at galley stage. It would appear, though, that typesetting really does crystallize a writer’s thoughts, and give a firm foundation for the next stage in the writing process.

Of course, many authors used typewriters when they became available. Mark Twain, a neophile and early adopter, wrote:

The machine has several virtues. I believe it will print faster than I can write. One may lean back in his chair & work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don’t muss things or scatter ink blots around. Of course it saves paper.

And as someone who grew up doing a lot of writing (books, articles, etc.) on a typewriter (manual Olivetti portable, and later an electric Facit golfball), I have to agree with Samuel Clemens. Mind you, corrections were tricky. I used a lot of correction fluid and paper, and rewriting a whole sentence often meant starting again from scratch on a new page.

The sheer drudgery and physical labor involved in hitting typewriter keys (less with electric than a manual, of course) meant you had to think carefully about what you wrote. Planning a whole page in advance (or at least a paragraph) wasn’t uncommon. Certainly you tended to write a sentence before putting it down on paper, because it was too much trouble to recast it once it had been typed.

Of course, all this refers to the first draft. Creating a second draft was often a question of starting again from scratch, or a literal “cut and paste” job.

Another way of writing books was (still is for some) dictation to a shorthand secretary or a dictation machine. Dictation can produce long flowing streams of consciousness, poor style, and very clumsy or sloppy plotting in the worst cases, not to mention novels that are parodies of the author’s own style.

But then came word-processors. But that’s for another week. In the meantime, your exercise for the week is to look at some older pieces of writing, and see if you can reconstruct how the authors got the words out of their heads onto paper.

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4 Responses to “Gentlemen, Choose Your Weapons”

  • Prashant

    The article is very convincing. Right from the fountain pens to new age word processors, the writing process has really changed at a great extent. Whether it is typewriter or a computer, we can’t escape refining our article twice or thrice. According to me , writing is such a activity where more you write, more you crave for perfection. No matter how hi-tech the writing process may have become, pen and paper are still considered the reliable tools to pour out the thoughts.

  • Deborah

    I have to admit—I am more prolific on the computer than I ever was on a typewriter, but I still do my outlining and general note-taking by longhand in spiral notebooks, which I never throw away.

    However, I dearly wish I had all of the typewriters and computers (cameras, too) that I’ve owned through the years. I could have a great museum.

    Husband is a huge fan of Mind Mapping, and creates wonderful “maps” of what he wants to write or talk about. I am learning to mind map, but I’m so slow. Secretly, I want him to do it for me while I dictate!

  • Silke

    I love my fountain pens, and use them a lot.
    There is something to be said for longhand, but these days I only take notes like that, not draft the actual novel in longhand.
    And like Deborah – I don’t throw any of it out. 🙂

  • Steven

    I love writing with pens. My first draft is always good old hand written hard copy, and if I’m happy with it I transfer it into my hardbacked A4 notebook and this acts as a second draft, I can’t believe how much I change the story sometimes. The transfer to word processor is the third draft, and then I send it to others for evaluation. I would say word processors have made writing a lot easier, but you need the ideas. I always edit with a hard copy and a pen too. Thats my process. But as someone said. If theres a thousand writers in the world, there’s a thousand processes.

    On another, lighter note. Word processors have made it possible to actually READ some of my other writing friends writing. Hehe

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