How the form shapes the content: Matthew Kirschenbaum on the literary history of the word processor

First aired on Spark (22/1/12)


Do you write longhand? Maybe you're whimsically nostalgic for the days of the typewriter. Most likely, though, you do the majority of your writing the modern way: on a word processor on a computer. For many writers, the advent of the computer word processor marked a major change in the way they went about their craft. That niche of technological and literary history is finally being explored by University of Maryland professor Matthew Kirschenbaum, who spoke to Spark in a recent interview.

"I've always been interested in technology and how technology relates to authorship and literary culture and history," he told host Nora Young. "I realized that while we know quite a lot of the history of typewriters and who began using those at the end of the 19th century — Mark Twain is the classic example — we didn't seem to have the information collected in any kind of organized way about who were the authors who first began using word processors."

Kirschenbaum is currently working on a book about the switch from typewriters to word processors back in the 1980s, and the authors who were "early adopters" of the new technology. "What I quickly discovered is that the story goes much deeper than the technology," he said. Unsurprisingly, word processing affected everything from writing style to writing pace, and even authors' habits. "It has all kinds of impacts on the literary process."

To get an author's perspective on how technology shapes the writing process, Nora Young also spoke with Toronto novelist Susan Swan, who has been a professional writer since pre-digital days. "I was unusual in that I did my first draft into a dictaphone and then either transcribed it or hired someone to transcribe it," Swan said. She was also a working journalist, and used a typewriter to write her stories. "I would make copies with carbon paper, and you had to use Wite-Out to correct the mistakes. It was very laborious, if I did the typing."

But while word processing was certainly a more efficient way for Swan to work, there was still something lost in the process. "There's something more romantic about the story coming out of your hand, and I always make notes in longhand," she said. "So to just go directly onto the computer felt odd, like I was missing a whole part of myself."

Still, the ease with which word processors allow for corrections and revisions is undeniably beneficial. "I think the writing of fiction is a slow and leisurely process, and may even be helped by the fact that you can re-adjust parts of the story," she said. "In the days before the computer, I might have given up more easily on a part that I felt was weak because it was just so much trouble to correct it."

Old habits do die hard, though, and Swan still uses a dictaphone for her first drafts. "If I don't use the dictaphone, I'm inviting perfectionism in too soon," she said. "But I do need to see it on the printed page before I know whether it's really good. I can't do that so easily looking at a screen, for some reason."

Much of Kirschenbaum's research is based on anecdotal evidence like this, and he's come to realize that an author's process is an intensely personal thing. "The writing process is often more nuanced than we make it out to be," he said. "Writers evolve their own individual workflows which spill across different kinds of media and devices."

Matthew Kirschenbaum's book Track Changes will be available in late 2013. In the meantime, you can follow the progress of his research here.