The Bone Folder | Hitting Return

Hitting Return

January 21st, 2024

Lately I have been toying with the idea of buying a digital typewriter. This is a device that consists of a keyboard, a small digital screen, and the capability to store document files and share them with other devices. It’s basically like pretending that you have a typewriter, but you don’t need to replace ink ribbons or turn physical typescripts into digital documents. I won’t name the brand here because I don’t shill for them and I don’t know if I’ll ever buy their product. They sell it for about the price of a mid-grade smartphone or a basic laptop and there seem to be two opinions about it on the internet. The first is that of users who are true believers: writers who swear their productivity increased dramatically when they purchased a single-use item that separated the process of drafting from the process of editing. The second is that of people who are baffled as to why anyone would spend so much money on a low-tech, single-use device when they could easily create an alternative for a third of the cost with a cheap laptop and airplane mode.

My intention is to write more this year and I have long understood that modern digital word processing, which allows and encourages you to edit and write at the same time, works against my interest as a writer. Editing is my favorite part of writing and it’s irresistible to me to refrain from swapping out a word or a phrase for a better one when I see it. The end result is that I have many half-written documents with exquisitely polished first paragraphs. So I plan to pursue the laptop-and-airplane-mode route until I have saved up enough money for a digital typewriter, which will be a few more months yet. I am funding it with credit card rewards and the bits and bobs of leftover cash in budget lines. In that time I imagine I’ll either be motivated to use the thing after having single-pointedly worked to save up for so long, or I will have realized that I don’t need it and spend my money on something else.

Nonetheless, the debate about the digital typewriter has me thinking about writing and the various technologies that have facilitated it over time. The laptop-and-airplane-mode folks are working from a few assumptions, the first of which is that cheap, multi-use technology is highly evolved, the end point of a long progress to meet the self-evident human need for…cheap, multi-use devices. In this view, Microsoft Word, and its children like Google Docs, are the logical end-point of word processing, designed with the best uses and conditions of that activity in mind. I would disagree. Any technology in this age is designed foremost with a market in mind, one that may be highly specialized and far from what most writers need.

From its beginnings, writing could not have existed unless there was some place where words could be stored for transmission. Whether in wax or on slate or paper, words must have been drafted in a temporary place before being transferred either to memory or to a more permanent medium. In ages with readily available paper and ink, a writer would draft, and then edit the draft, which became a foul copy, and would then copy the contents of the foul copy into a fair copy, and edit that copy so it became a foul copy, and so on until the final fair copy was handed off to be printed. The printers had their own version of this process, too. They would lock up the type and print proofs to be edited by hand. Once final corrections came back on the proofs, only then did the work get mass-produced as a book or pamphlet or broadside.

In the late nineteenth century, the typewriter entered the market for a specific purpose. It was not designed for novelists and poets, those hairy-chested drunks who were later its champions: Faulkner, Hemingway, or Kerouac. The typewriter was invented not for composition at all, but for transcription. Its early developers thought of it as a stenography tool, a way for secretaries to transcribe dictation, depositions, and meetings in real time. They also assumed that typewriting was women’s work and so decorated the earliest models with floral designs. But again, the typescript was just a way station to the permanent object. It would be corrected, re-typed into a fair copy and sent off as business correspondence, or to the printer. It was only later that it was adopted for long-format literary composition, a process that happened piecemeal over several decades. What those literary writers appreciated about it, no doubt, was that it allowed one to draft more quickly but still kept drafting and editing distinct.

As we move forward from the typewriter to the word processor in this little history, we’re getting to my lifetime. When I was a kid, my parents both went to community college and purchased a word processor for their schoolwork. Ours was basically a monitor (orange on black, babyyyy) which I believe had basic storage on true floppy disks. It was also connected to an electric typewriter that could work independently. I remember typing up some school assignments on that typewriter. It had limited capability for deletion but mostly I remember using a lot of white out. And you could use the typewriter to “print” something you had written on the word processor. Press a button and it looked as though the ghost of a skilled typist was typing your document for you. It hummed and the smack of the keys was loud and it and was very warm. One day my mother saw some ants crawling up and down the front of our old 1930s office desk where the word processor lived. She lifted up the typewriter to find hundreds of ants scrambling for cover.


I have written several dozen papers of varying length, as well as an entire dissertation, in Microsoft Word. Far more time than I have spent with a word processor or typewriter. Word works, yes. But if I had to guess, I would say those pioneering engineers of digital word processing were not thinking of long-format writers but were instead designing their product for the uses it would be put to most: business correspondence and short school assignments. (Side note: it’s absurd now to think of a time when you had to use Word to type up your business letters because email was unprofessional.) Those engineers removed the largest point of friction from the writing process—that drafting necessarily happened before editing. For business letters, this makes sense. For works requiring focus and a long arc of thought, less so. As the technology became more advanced, it could flag misspellings for you, and later even correct things for you as you typed. In some way, I now see this as a primitive version of persuasive design, in effect if not intent. The software, by beckoning you to your mistakes in earlier sentences and paragraphs, stopped you from writing what you intended and instead encouraged you to review what it deemed unfit.

I don’t think that we should take Word’s growing sophistication to mean that it was designed with the desires and needs of writers in mind. Software engineers have long been known to create features that we don’t really need just because they can. The fact that most people didn’t want the help of Microsoft Word is evidenced by users’ hatred of Clippy, the sticky-note surfing paperclip who appeared offering help whenever the program sensed that you were going to write a business letter or some other standard kind of document. Among all the characters who appeared on screens in the first 15 years of my life, I think universal hatred of Clippy was second only to hatred of the hound dog in Duck Hunt. Clippy was here to assist us but we viciously slapped away his helpful hand again and again.


I am reminiscing, but I wouldn’t call this nostalgia for pre-Word times. My old Gateway 2000 and AOL account and, yes, Microsoft Word had a far greater effect on my development as a person than our word processor and electric typewriter, which my family did not even bother to bring with us when we moved to another state a few years after we got them. But as an elder millennial, I have seen enough evolutions in technology to be skeptical. Some changes in have made life easier and less complicated, many have not. That’s why I don’t think of multi-use devices as an unqualified good. Twenty years ago, if you were, say, having a day out around the city, you might have a bag with you in which you carried your cell phone, your MP3 player, and your camera. And you’d be wearing a watch. None of this felt burdensome and nobody sat around wishing they could combine these things into a single device. We were fine.

People who scoff at an expensive single-use device like a digital typewriter probably don’t know that they’ve have had their tastes shaped by technology companies rather than practical need. Is it not absurd to choose a phone based on the quality of its camera, with the quality of its calls only an afterthought? Companies have packed more features into phones and other devices because this appeals to gadget-oriented consumers, who are at the vanguard of willingness to shell out money for novelty. And then as this specialized market of generalist gadgets drives changes to technology and manufacturing, the rest of us get stuck with the devices that have been created by and for that market. I’m not saying this as a luddite: I use a smartphone, a fitness tracker, and a laptop every day. I appreciate many things about our compact, seamless technology, but also understand the tradeoffs it entails.

But if not everything needs to be upgraded, not everything is worth keeping around, either. I don’t want an old typewriter; I am sure of that much. I know from experience that fiddling with ink ribbons and correction fluid is a pain in the ass. And I will grant all of that to the engineers who made it possible for me to type this out on a nice quiet laptop. I also appreciate the “distraction free” mode on WordPress, which grays out previous paragraphs that I’ve written so I’m not tempted to go back and edit them. Maybe if I keep on this way long enough, I will decide after all that a digital typewriter is worth it. Or maybe I will realize that I can make a laptop and airplane mode work. But it’s not because the laptop is better for being multi-use, only that I can force it—and myself—to do one thing at a time.