David M. Fitzpatrick     Email: indy {at} fitz42 {dot} net

Methods of Writing: Computer vs. Typewriter vs. Pen

Being the 21st century, I certainly hope you're doing your writing on a computer. Sure, a pen and a notebook is always convenient for jotting down ideas, and a typewriter looks as crisp as a computer printout, but neither can compare to a computer for putting together your total manuscript.

I feel I should depart for a moment and discuss how silly I feel writing this article. Yes, I know there are writers out there who steadfastly insist on using typewriters, and even some who write everything out longhand. Those writers of whom you hear are usually ridiculously famous, so it stands to reason they can be eccentric enough to use pens and typewriters. But imagine how much better they might be if they used computers—after all, time and efficiency counts for a lot in this business.

And that's the crux of my argument here: computers are far more time-saving and efficient than typewriters and pens. Yes, an accomplished typist can type just about as fast on a typewriter as on a computer; but when it comes to editing and rewriting, nothing beats doing it on a computer.

For those who wonder or care, I have written all three ways. From my early childhood days, I wrote with a pen. By high school, I owned a typewriter on which I worked at home; at school, however, I used computers. At the time, in the early to mid-1980s, those were TRS-80 Model III and Model IV computers with daisy-wheel and dot-matrix printers, and the word processing software was primitive by comparison. But even then, it made things far easier. As time went on, I was able to transfer documents from those TRS-80 IIIs/IVs and my TRS-80 Color Computer to my early PCs, then from PFS: Write to Microsoft Works to Word and beyond.

Below is a rather silly comparison of the three methods of writing. I do this only because I'm sure there are people who insist on typewriters and pens. Why those people would be on the Internet and reading this, I have no idea. If you know such a person, print this out and give it to him with the one important message: time and efficiency are important! Don't waste time writing, typing, retyping, and re-retyping, when you can focus on the only thing that matters—your writing and your creativity.

Time spent typing the manuscript Type the entire manuscript once; far easier to make changes Type the entire manuscript. Then, after editing the printed pages, retype the entire thing. Repeat until it's the way you want it. Write the entire manuscript. Then end up typing it again anyway since virtually no editor anywhere will even begin to look at a manuscript submitted in this fashion, or hire someone to type it.
Basic editing Insert and delete. Select and delete. Correct spelling errors, change dialogue, rewrite passages, all at the drop of a hat, without retyping the whole manuscript. Retype the entire manuscript, making your edited changes along the way. Rewrite the entire manuscript, making your edited changes along the way. Then you have to type it later anyway.
Advanced editing — moving chapters, sections, scenes, etc., around Cut and paste. Cut and paste—literally, with scissors and glue. When you're done, manually fix the page numbers. And now your pages are different sizes. Cut and paste—literally, with scissors and glue. When you're done, you still have to have the thing typed anyway.
Proofreading Word processors usually have spell checkers, grammar checkers, and a built-in dictionary and thesaurus. While you cannot rely 100% on the accuracy of the word processor's guesses and recommendations, they do catch a lot. Have a dictionary and thesaurus handy. Don't spell things wrong. If you do, you can back up and XXX over your mistake, which looks fancy indeed. Have a dictionary and thesaurus handy. If you make a mistake, just scribble it out. It doesn't matter; you'll be typing it eventually anyway.
Headers and page numbers Word processors allow you to specify headers that duplicate necessary information at the top of every page, including automatic page numbering. For each page you roll into the carriage, start by typing the header information and page number. You don't need to do headers, since it has to be typed at some point anyway.
Sharing your work with friends, proofreaders, writing colleagues, and editors Just email the chapter, scene, whole book, entire story, etc., and it's there in as little as a few seconds. Just photocopy the chapter, book, story, etc., put it in an envelope, pay postage to mail it, and it will be there in days (sooner if you want to spend lots of money). Just photocopy the handwritten pages and send them along via postal service, and hope everyone can read your handwriting.
Physical maladies You can get back strain from bad posture, carpal tunnel syndrome, and eye strain from staring at your monitor. You can get back strain from bad posture and carpal tunnel syndrome, likely worse than with a computer because you'll spend more time retyping each draft. You may get carpal tunnel merely from constantly rolling new pages into the carriage all the time. You don't have to look at a monitor, but with all those long retypes, you'll get eye strain anyway. You can get back strain from bad posture and carpal tunnel syndrome, worse than computers and typewriters—because it'll take forever, especially with the rewrites. Eye strain? Try staring at writing paper for weeks on end.
Usage frustrations Your computer will crash, not work, hang up, freeze, eat data, etc. Regular saves and backups alleviate these troubles. Your typewriter will not crash, freeze, or eat data. It might chew up a piece of paper, but that's about it. Your pen can run out of ink, dry up, explode, skip, not work when they're too cold, etc.
Supplies They use electricity. Printers use ink or toner, which can be expensive. CDs and other storage media cost money. Don't be so cheap. Typewriter ribbons wear out. You can still get them. Pens are really cheap. One dies, you grab a new one.
Dealing with editors


Editors like crisp, printed pages that follow manuscript format. Computers make that easy to do. Your typewritten manuscript may look crisp and follow manuscript format, but look how much more work you had to do to get there. Editors will not deal with handwritten manuscripts, unless you're a huge, famous author who guarantees them huge profits, in which case they probably will let you submit it in Braille on the bark of a birch tree if you insist.
Moving data If you move from one computer to another, it's easy to convert your documents to new formats—from one word processor to another, even from one operating system to another. You have one format: paper. You can always photocopy it, but you still have to retype it to work with it. You have one format: paper. And you'll still have to type it eventually.
OCR - Optical Character Recognition If you have stacks of typed pages, OCR will help you scan them into your computer and then convert that picture into editable text—which is an amazing time saver! You still have to retype. But you can OCR those typed pages into your computer. If your handwriting is neat enough, really good OCR software might be able to scan and recognize it. You'll still likely have to do some heavy editing to correct glitches in the OCR process, though.
Summary Computers are easier. Computers are better. Computers help you make the best use of your time and help you become a more efficient writer. Typewriters involve lots of retyping of the same material, usually many times. Using a typewriter instead of a computer is like digging a big hole with a shovel when you have a backhoe available. Pens involve a huge amount of work, and—in case you haven't gotten this yet—you'll have to type it eventually anyway. Using a pen when there's a computer available is like digging a really big hole with your bare hands when you have several backhoes available.