28 September 2009

Dr. Strangetype Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Typewriter

by Kris Madden


I had made up my mind, I was going to buy a manual typewriter. All of my literary heroes had written on typewriters, I should write on a typewriter. I wondered, “What would the archaic mechanical beast have to offer that a simple word processor could not?”

I was determined to find out.

I bought a Royal Futura from an antique store for $40. I Rushed home to start writing on it and wrote for 3 solid hours that night, before my hands cramped up so bad, I couldn’t physically write anymore.

Since then I've collected two more manual typewriters, a 1940's and my iron-horse, the IBM Personal Selectric. I had never written anything on a typewriter prior to that, but since then I’ve used one of my typewriters to write almost every day.


An old manual typewriter does not offer the ease of touch that a keyboard offers. To make an impression on the page, you've got to hammer the keys. Most people, who haven't used a typewriter, will push the keys all the way down to make their mark, but this is incorrect. The right way is to strike the keys so the hammer can swing up to the page with momentum. It's as if each keystroke is receiving Bruce Lee's 1-inch punch to print a clear character on the page.

Upon approaching the end of the line, a bell will ring, signaling you to swing the return bar, to return to your left justification. The sounds continue and the typewriter becomes a musical instrument of "CLACKS!" and "BINGS!". The faster you type, the faster the music, adding a mechanical soundtrack to your writing experience. As you continue to work, writing becomes harder physically; your hands can begin to ache, along with shoulders and forearms. The typewriter is a mechanical beast and you’re punishing and beating it into submission to produce a clean typed page. The demand the monster makes on the you, makes you forget about checking your email, or updating your status, or finishing chores; the act requires complete attention and focus. And it's that focus that pulls the writer within you, your best work.


That's right, when your working on an old typewriter, freelance writing, working on a character profile or writing a full novel, there's no going back and correcting what you've written. It makes editing a huge hassle and keeps you form editing yourself while writing. Instead, you must press on and finish the thing, keep typing and moving forward, the oil in the grease and gears of the machine are loosening up and the pace of the hammering is increasing violently. In an age where text can be manipulated in a thousand different ways before it is ever printed, the typewriter forces you to have a first draft for your story.

When working on a computer, I found that the first drafts of my books, weren't really first drafts, but really a mish-mash of the first through 50th draft mangled together in dull prose. And it's this process, of producing a first draft and then going through it, correcting, and then writing another draft, and repeating, that produces sound prose.


When you're writing, none of your words are underlined with red squiggly lines, or green squiggles for your fragmented sentences. Instead, everything looks right, and there's no computer telling you, to rethink that last sentence you wrote. It makes you think about the spelling of words, because there's no dictionary, forcing you to really learn your vocabulary. It removes distractions from the process of writing and gets your voice on paper.


A Typewriter is used for writing. While there are avant-garde artists who have used them to produce artwork and music, their intended purpose is for writing. When I work on a computer, I can write some, I can check my email, I could look up this or that on Wikipedia, or update my website; these distractions pile up and before you know it your on an endless click-journey through cyberspace. A typewriter has none of those capabilities, so when you sit in front of the typewriter, the only thing you can do is write. And so that's what you do.


I myself am motivated by achievement. When I can look at the work that I've done and hold it in my hand, it motivates me to work harder toward my goal whether it's finishing a article, a story or a full length novel. When working on a computer my achievements are virtual, they exist, but I cannot touch them and feel them. When working on a typewriter, after each writing session, you have a stack of pages with your print on them. They may be trash, they may be gold, but you can't just delete them and forget about them, instead they follow you and pile up in the corner, awaiting your review. And each time you see them, it only makes you want to write more, and finish what you're working on.


Lastly, for me when I close my eyes and picture in my mind what a writer looks like, it's a guy hunched over a typewriter on his desk a lamp illuminating the page. And each time I write on my typewriter, I felt more and more like a writer and my work seems more like a book. This was the writing process that all of my heroes had gone through in order to turn out a printed page, and I was following in their footsteps.

I have not hooked up my typewriter to my computer, or created some hybrid monster machine that allows me to twitter with my typewriter. I keep it just as it was meant to be. In this way, with all of its challenges and obstacles to overcome, the typewriter forces me to focus, to persevere, to edit, and most importantly to think. And most importantly, it makes me do the three things that every great writer does: write, write, write.


  1. I remember when I was younger my grandfather set me at his old type writer and asked me to prepare some correspondence. They're some sticky keys and an hour later when I was finished, saw I had accidently skipped two lines.

    I love my laptop, but those clunky, noisey, messy things remind me of him.

  2. Nice article.

  3. I, too, love my laptop, but I have been dying to get my hands on a typewriter for so long. This article has really inspired me to get off my bum and go find one. Thanks for the article!

  4. This is one of my favorite sites:


    It's a virtual typewriter museum :). I love it.

  5. i been watching typewriters on twitter for a while now

  6. Maybe it is just the nostalgia for a simpler time.

  7. Eureka! lol I feel like a piece of my own personal puzzle has just slipped into place. The most productive writing years of my life were in high school, when I bought an electric typewriter- not a word processor- from a teacher. I miss that thing. The article had a lot of good points in it, and while I wouldn't use a typewriter for doing my school work, I definitely would use one for writing my stories. I actually had one a few years ago, but I couldn't find ribbon for the poor thing, so I ended up getting rid of it. Hmmm. Now to find a typewriter that they still make ribbon for.

  8. As long as the typewriter still has the ribbon tins in it, you can rewind them with ribbon from Office Max. I made a little contraption, which is a 2 x 4 with two nails in it that I set ribbon wheels on, and then unwind and rewind. Then I'm all set.