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Writing & Editing Look Easy On The Computer

typewriter keysI learned to type on a manual typewriter when I was in 7th grade! I don’t really remember why I took the class; it might have been a requirement I needed before I could write for the school newspaper.

A classroom of us sat before those now antique machines typing from books that folded in a tall triangle so we could look at what we were typing without looking at the keyboard. It was called touch typing. We also learned to use carbon paper to make copies of what we were writing. The quality of both documents depended on the freshness of the ribbon and the equality, or lack of it, of the pressure we put on each key.

Corrections were made with a pink eraser often attached to a brush to whisk away the eraser crumbs.

Rewriting and revisions were nightmares. If we wanted to insert, move, or eliminate a paragraph or two, the whole document had to be retyped. Sometimes manuscripts would be literally cut apart and re-pasted together in better form.


Back then someone watching a writer knew they were working! It was obvious from the noise and from the flinging of the carriage to move the document up and start a new line of words.

In newspaper offices the noise of the typewriters would often compete with the sound of the giant presses in another room or the basement. Often you’d hear the sound of paper being ripped from the typewriter, crushed into a ball and flung to the floor.

Even in quiet offices with a single secretary composing letters on a typewriter was noisy. The fact of work was obvious.

The electric typewriter evened out the print, but did little but add to the noise.

Someone invented correction fluid, a noxious white paint of some sort we’d dab over our mistakes so we could retype over them. It was better than redoing the whole page, but it still looked pretty awful. And moving paragraphs or any big revision or correction meant starting over again.


The  so-called self-correcting typewrite was a breakthrough It involved a second ribbon of a white-out chemical. Using a special back space key you could get the machine to mostly obliterate a word or several so you could retype what you wanted. Much more than that and you were back to the old way of erasing, retyping or starting over again. It was till obvious a whole lot of work was going on.

Today the computer makes the writing and editing look easy.  If I want to change the name John to the name Jane I can do it through even hundreds of pages with no more than a few keystrokes. I can move paragraphs and even whole sections from one place to another with ease, and even insert them in a whole different manuscript. The computer does a fair job of catching typos and spelling errors.

When you finish a piece of writing and print it, it looks good even if it’s awful. The margins are where they should be and there are no smudges or obvious erasers or stripes of correction fluid. The computer will add page numbers and even create accurate tables of contents and do an index provide I give it the right instructions.

The real work of writing is almost invisible when the writer is working on a computer.

I think this is one reason clients have no idea what it is we actually do as writers. We sit at a quiet computer, maybe typing, maybe using a mouse, maybe staring out the window. The work we do is far from obvious now. We make it look easy and they think they needn’t pay us much.

That’s probably why we’ve begun to include such things as x number of revisions in our contracts, as an attempt to quantify how we get decent words on the page.

The number of revisions in a piece of writing has nothing much to do with the work involved.

Most of what makes decent, even excellent writing happens in our minds and hearts. It really is more like pottery or painting or other art. We think or make a mental picture or mutter to ourselves or pace around or have another cup of coffee or tea or call a friend or listen to music or sit in silence or, well the list can go on. Quickly or slowly words begin to come through our fingers as they move across the keyboard and appear onscreen.

After a good session of writing many writers actually feel physically tired, as if they’d been doing some sort of physical work. I do I know.

But someone watching me would have no idea of what it took to actually get those words, or even these, where they could be read. They’d see me sitting, maybe typing, staring, drinking, pacing, etc. None of which looks anything but easy.

Maybe we need to find a better way to communicate what it is we actually do. Any suggestions?

Shane Arthur has some great demos of his edits at his Editing Hacks – might make a client understand more – anyone else?

Sharon Hurley also addresses this on her The Writing Process – Open Letter to Clients.

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Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Laineys Repertoire

{ 31 comments… add one }
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  • elizabeth

    a picture may paint a thousand words, but i paint pictures with words.

  • Heh, I remember writing stories on an old typewriter that used to belong to my dad. I had it long enough to be annoyed when everyone started getting computers and I couldn’t find the ribbons anywhere. But when I finally got a computer, I fell in love. Now I can’t imagine life without it.
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  • Love this post. I spend a lot of my time “writing” when I’m in the shower or just thinking my thoughts right before bed. I narrate in my head, adding and subtracting phrases through thought, playing with words, hearing the words spoken and correcting awkwardness. How on earth do you quantify that?

    I was in the very last typewriter typing class to go through my high school. This was in 1990. Everything after me was all computer. Come to think of it, I’m surprised they hadn’t already swapped over!

    • Oh, I was about to comment something similar about how writers “write” even when watching a movie, being in the shower, going for a walk, or just breathing.

      Typewriters… yes, I did use a manual one, when I was at elementary school. And I still enjoy very much writing on hand, of course.
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      • Yep, I have words in my head most of the time it seems. Treasure the few I don’t.

    • Ideas in the shower are a major reason I tend toward flat fees – I don’t want to bill for my mistakes, and I want to be paid if the idea that solves everything strikes in the shower.

  • Ah..typing class. Worst mark I got in high school..well, that at Grade 9 gym. 🙂
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    • Ellen I think I got a B… the skill sure has paid off over the years.

  • Great post and I think I might blog about this, too, now. I’m working with two clients right now who are on opposite ends of understanding. One wants me to account for my hours and what on earth I did with them while the other seems to think I have endless amounts of time for them (though I mention two revisions in the contract). I am learning that my time in client coaching about the process might make a huge difference.

    And I can’t believe I made it through college with a typewriter. I thought I was the cat’s meow with my self-correcting jobbie. It deleted up to an entire line! woo hoo!

    Love this paragraph–so true!:
    Most of what makes decent, even excellent writing happens in our minds and hearts. It really is more like pottery or painting or other art. We think or make a mental picture or mutter to ourselves or pace around or have another cup of coffee or tea or call a friend or listen to music or sit in silence or, well the list can go on. Quickly or slowly words begin to come through our fingers as they move across the keyboard and appear onscreen.

    • My folks sent me to college with shoes that matched my skirts (!) and a Remington portable typewriter – 😉

  • Bayard Coulombe

    Hi Anne!

    Amazing write up! It has given me an idea about how writers of the times before struggled. You are right real writing takes place in the heart. I feel that when I am writing in my diary then I am able to express my thoughts more clearly than while typing on my laptop. While working on laptop I am always worried about spell check, backspace, delete etc. Writing with a pen lets my thoughts flow freely.
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  • Kimberlie

    I really love your post. Actually I miss the sound of a typewriter. But we need to admit that using computer is easier.
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    • Just think of the number of people who have never ever heard a typewriter!

  • Anne, I love this post! So true! (And I still love the sound of typewriter keys–I even have a bracelet that an artist crafted out of old typewriter keys that spells out “Dream.”) I like the idea Sharon had to explain the work that goes into a client’s project. Funnily enough, the hard part for me is usually getting all the proper people to call me back–the writing becomes the “easy” part.
    Anne Woodman recently posted..Slash-and-Burn… The Art of Making RevisionsMy Profile

    • I don’t know that I miss that sound Anne – but I sure recognize it. And yes, I do know what you mean about getting folks to call you back 😉

  • Ah, a stroll down memory lane. 🙂

    As you may know, I recently landed an assignment with a client with a retainer arrangement. It’s the first time I am doing this for an entire year so I decided I wanted to track my time in an unobtrusive way as I can. Thus, my delight in reading your post about Toggl.

    This is a great client, but they really do not understand all that goes into a project. I plan on giving them periodic feedback so they better understand the projects’ scope (and I make sure I am pricing appropriately).

    I often explain to clients that the lion’s share of the work is done in the beginning – long before the actual writing starts. Thus, the reason I don’t budge from a required deposit upfront.

    I also find if I include as much as I can in my “scope of work” description, it helps. For example – Initial planning meeting – up to one hour, research – up to two hours, outline and follow-up notes to meeting. When they start to see the laundry list of activities, they begin to get a better understanding of what’s involved. Sometimes. 🙂
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  • I remember those days, Anne, and learning to touch type on an old clunker that took real force to depress the keys. 🙂 As for communicating what we do, I once wrote an open letter to my clients explaining some of the background work that goes into what they see – and articles like this one help too.
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..8 Types of Blog Posts to Get Out of a Blogging RutMy Profile

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