Friday, July 20, 2012

Reflections of a Living Fossil

Not long ago, while spelunking in the garage in search of my husband’s fencing foil and kit bag, I came across a storage crate labeled Garillon Originals. Inside the crate were Kelloggs Cornflakes boxes sealed with packing tape. These proved to contain the original hard-copy manuscripts for my Garillon trilogy. It was like stumbling across the ruins of some lost civilisation.

An archaeologist, pondering these documentary artifacts, might be moved to write the following article:  

The Pre-Industrial History of Writing a Novel

Evidence garnered from a recent study of the Garillon manuscripts suggests that, prior to the dawn of the Cyber-Age, professional writers composed their works on crude hand-operated devices known as typewriters. Using a proto-model of the computer key-board, writers inscribed their works on sheets of paper, letter by letter, one page at a time1. There were only two font sizes available: pica (large print) and elite (small print), and each individual typewriter had its own fixed font style (a fact often featured in contemporary crime fiction). Special formatting effects were unknown.

Correcting mistakes inadvertently committed in transcription (typographical errors) was a time-consuming procedure. First the writer would “erase” the text in which the error occurred, either by painting over it with opaque correction fluid (Typex) or by applying a small strip of self-adhesive “correction” tape to the appropriate spot on the page2. The writer would then re-set the page and type in the correct version.

In the case of more substantial revisions, there were no easy solutions. If an author wished either to excise a block of text, or transfer it from one place to another within the manuscript, there were only two options. Either he/she could completely retype the chapters affected by the changes, or take a pair of scissors to the existing typed copy, rearrange the pieces in the new order, and stick them down on a backing sheet3.

This time-consuming, complex, and sometimes messy process of type-written composition generally yielded only a single copy (master copy). A secondary imprint might, with difficulty, be generated during the inscription process by means of inserting a thin sheet of “carbon paper” between two blank pages. Inserting these layered sheets into the typewriter, the writer could generate two copies at once: an “original” and a duplicate “back up”4.

The prospect of losing one or both of these copies was a prevailing nightmare. This danger was somewhat alleviated by the invention of the Xerox photo copier which enabled writers to produce multiple copies from a single original. These early copy machines, however, were both bulky and expensive, which meant that many writers were obliged to enlist the services of a commercial printing agency. As this entailed entrusting the master-copy to the copyist, this stage of the process contributed to what has been termed “the anxiety of authorship.”

In the final analysis, it was not until the work was published that the writer could finally relax – before moving on to the next project. Authors of the present day owe a profound debt of gratitude to those tireless innovators who brought us PCs, inkjet printers, and all related marvels of the 21st Century.

1 Irregularities in the type face suggest that the author of the Garillon manuscripts was using the more primitive manual typewriter rather than the more advanced model powered by electricity.
2 The Garillon author uses both these methods idiosyncratically.  
3 The Garillon manuscripts are rife with this kind of nursery school cut-and-paste work.  
4 Traces of carbon on the obverse sides of certain pages indicate that the author of the Garillon manuscripts made carbon copies as she worked. The whereabouts of these duplicate copies, however, are unknown
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

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  1. Ah, Debby, thank you. What waves of sweet-salty nostalgia wash over me. The clackety-thumpety of two-finger pounding on a manual upright rings in my ears again. I smell the scent of ink on my fingers from a freshly installed ribbon. I reach the end of a line with a ding and brrrrip as I whip the carriage back to continue my thought on the next line. I roll up the carriage and attack my misspelling with the thin, gritty pink wheel of my typewriter eraser, a technology predating WhiteOut and CorrecType.

    What a pain! What pleasure, a multi-sensory symphony.

    Ah, the good old days. Thank God they are long gone.

  2. You gave me a big chuckle this morning, Debby! Ah, those days! I can't imagine how we got through them. I remember my first dedicated word processor, and how that changed me life drastically. And that's such a dinosaur now we'd be horrified to use it!

  3. I wrote a post recently, pondering if I would still be a writer if I had to use a typewriter. Technology certainly has allowed the process to flow more seamlessly. All credit to those who had the grit and determination to finish a project in spite of such hardship!

  4. Oh, the flashbacks to typing class! Do they still have them? Do people still feel pride over things like accuracy and words per minute?

    This was fun to read; thank you.

  5. We've come a long way, baby. Have we ever!

    How dare I be intimidated by technology! Those gold ol' days weren't so good after all, were they? Your flash from the past gave me renewed determination to divide and conquer e-books, WordPress, pinterest . . .

    Great post, Debby!

  6. I am hopelessly in love with my delete key. If I were sucked into a time machine I'd take it with me.

  7. Proofreading post posting, I realized that I'd said "gold ol'days" instead of "good ol' days." It was typo, but somehow it seemed to fit. Kind of like golden oldies, which are often great, and golden years, which may not be quite so great.

  8. I remember walking past the typing room ... where copy was turned into typed manuscript ... the din of a half-dozen IBM Selectrics being played like pianos by professional typists sounded like a finely tuned diesel engine humming away. Woe be to the poor writer who tip-toed into that room to suggest a change to copy that had already been processed ... I have the scars to prove it.

  9. What a find! How did we ever live without computers, huh? Thanks for sharing this trip down memory lane.

  10. I did a photo shoot last year and the photographer hauled out an ancient Royal typewriter as a prop and told me to type my manuscript's title on a sheet of yellowed paper - do you think I could get those keys down to actually make a mark on the paper? It took me a few goes, and eventually I gave up trying to look all professional touch-typing and just banged the title out with one (strongest) finger.

  11. I wonder if those old typewriters contributed to arthritis in old fingers? Our fingers really did take a beating.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.