East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai



The reason I like typewriters is, exactly like bicycles, they are a sort of hands-on technology. You can actually get to work on them using a screwdriver and a wrench, get your hands dirty, set them straight if they break. Works for PCs and old cars, too – but not for smartphones and recent automobiles. And let’s not get started on the issue of software.

There is actually a spreading grassroots movement that demands manufacturers to allow access to the tech of their products, so that they can be repaired and updated instead of thrown away and replaced. It’s an interesting approach, and it has my full support. My grandfather was a tinkerer, and he taught me it’s OK to get your hands dirty while fine tuning a piece of machinery.

I think this approach also applies at the way I write, but let’s save that for another time. Let’s talk typewriters.

Last summer, together with my friend Fabrizio Borgio, we did our Burning Typewriters gig here in Nizza. The choice of using our old machines instead of a laptop or a netbook was double – first, the typewriter has a different mystique, it says “writer” to the audience, and makes enough noise to attract curious passers-by; second, a mechanical typewriter does not require a power source but the writer himself, and is therefore perfect for an open air event.

This is more or less where the plus points of my mother’s old Olivetti stop.
Mind you, as I said I like typewriters, and I was quite happy to learn I can still hammer a story out on the old reliable. But as a full-time writing tool, I am sorry, a typewriter simply sucks compared to the alternatives.

Now, I know, Harlan Ellison only used mechanical typewriters, but he also said the important bit is to use the right tool for the job – in particular, the tool that fits your approach to the job. And my favorite writing coach, Natalie Goldberg, talks about writing in longhand in her wonderful Writing down the bones, but then she takes a moment to imagine how her approach to free writing might be applied to a computer keyboard.
In other words, use the tool you like the best, and you’ll be fine.

To me, the right tool is my PC, basically because I can do everything I need in one place.
I can outline, write the first draft, revise it, edit it, format it, post it to the editor, get his edits, do the final draft. All in one place, just add electricity. I can even write while online, and let my Patrons see how I go about it.
Indeed, when we were discussing the Burning Typewriters event, we considered attaching a projector to our laptops, and simply project our pages on a blank wall while we were writing.

I find typing much slower. Corrections are a chore.
Once you’re finished, you need to revise in pencil, and then retype your manuscript. Then you need to mail a physical copy to your editor (if they accept hard-copy submissions), wait for them to mail you back the edited copy, retype the frigging manuscript a third time, and then send it off again.
Considering the cost of paper, ribbon, postage and time, I seriously doubt using a typewriter is much cheaper than using a PC.
And what if your publisher only wants files via email?
Do you retype the manuscript once again, or do you digitalize it with a scanner?

Then, of course, writing with a typewriter gives you mondo brownie points and the unbound admiration of non-writers – but if you are writing for money and not for brownie points or compliments, productivity is an important factor, and it’s damn hard to have a high output if you use a typewriter and don’t have someone to re-type your drafts.
Brownie points are for posers.

The typewriter is supposedly distraction free – you can hole yourself up in your broom closet and go at it like there’s nothing else in the universe but your manuscript.
But you can achieve the same results by simply signing off the web while you write. There’s a thing called SelfControl that basically locks you out of your socials while you are writing.
There’s a tonne of distraction free editors that emulate the “white page and nothing else” look and feel of the typewriter. I was recently shown Internet Typewriter, but Ilys also looks interesting (if a bit extreme). Or you can use FocusWriter, or a dozen similar softwares to work offline. FocusWriter is free.
If you miss the sounds, there’s sound effects you can upload on your PC (like Linux Typewriter), and a mechanical keyboard for your PC will last you longer than a squiggly one, and does all the racket you need, and then some.

And if you prefer to edit by hand (and there’s a lot of people that swear it’s faster and more effective), you can of course print out your manuscript on recycled paper and have a go at it with your pen or whatever – then you’ll have to key in the changes and the revisions, but hey, it’s your choice, right?

So, much as I like typewriters and tinkering with their innards, I still prefer my old PC, with a good editor and a mechanical keyboard.

And then, of course, there’s the Erle Stanley Gardner way: dictate your stories. That’s a thing I’ve yet to try. They say it really boosts productivity.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “Typewriters

  1. An Olivetti? Not bad. I used a Royal Portable for years. I kind of miss it. People at work and even my family get pissed because when I’m using the keyboard for my PC I refuse to put it on silent mode. I still need to hear the tap-tap-tap to be totally sure I’m actually doing something.


    • Yes, Olivetti was THE typewriter herein Italy, and the one my mother had studied on to become a professional typist.
      And I like both the sound and the response or “weight” of my mechanical keyboard when I am writing. For some mysterious psychological reasons, I found out I am much more precise when typing on a mechanical keyboard compared to one of those squiggly ones.


  2. One of the best birthday gifts from my parents was a portable typewriter i used to erase my fingerprints on when I was a teenager. After that I remember the awe of writing on a 486 PC loaded with Word 6 . It was magic. But I still love the sound and the simple bound with “been a writer espos” of those crazy little things called typewriters. Jesus, I’m older than the ancient Egypt.


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