The March of Technology for Writers

Feb 15, 2023 | Everything Else

We live in an age of technology. It’s easy to forget that a lot of the technology we take for granted is relatively recent. For most of history, if you wanted to write a book, you did it by hand. Charles Dickens wrote 15 novels, five novellas, and hundreds of short stories. He did it all by hand. When I got out of the Marines in 1968, I started writing stories for publication and I did it by hand, too.

Even though typewriters were common, I didn’t have one. So, I wrote by hand like many other writers.

The Typewriter

The classic publicity photo for many writers includes a typewriter. If I was going to submit a story for publication I would have to find a way to get it typed. I didn’t have the money then to hire someone to do that for me, but I found a way.

I prepare the manuscript for the first story I submitted for publication on a rented typewriter. It was bolted to the table in the basement of the local library. You could rent it for $0.25 an hour. I could manage that as well as the cost of paper and carbon paper.

IBM Selectric

Three years later, I signed the contract to write my first book for publication. I was doing a little better financially by then so I invested in an IBM Selectric typewriter. IBM introduced the Selectric in 1961 and it was a game changer.

Instead of 44 type bars, there was a ball-shaped typing head that swiveled around and impressed a letter on the paper. Because of the mechanism, it was almost impossible to jam the typewriter if you hit more than one key at the same time. That was important for me. Coordination and small motor skills have never been strengths.

IBM called typing head an “element.” Everyone I knew called it a “ball.” I had a regular ball for the Courier typeface and another one for Courier italic. That meant I could type actual italic letters.

There was no carriage on my Selectric. That gave me more options to place it and save me from having the moving carriage of a standard typewriter knock over my coffee.

Word Processing

Word processing was the next big jump for me. Gosh, you could make changes to a single paragraph without having to type the whole article again. And there was no need for carbon paper or Whiteout. My first word processing program was Perfect Writer which came with my Kaypro II computer.

Perfect Writer was not nearly as sophisticated as the word processing programs I used today. But it did have one feature I’ve never found in another program. It has a “title format” option that transformed an ordinary cluster of words into a properly capitalized title. Since that’s something I don’t do well myself, I relished having a program that would help me.

Other Software

As computers became more common, developers produced all kinds of software I could use to supplement my writing. There were databases and programs do special tasks, like mind maps. There was also specialized writing software like Scrivener.

The Web

The web was a great boon to nonfiction writers like me. It allowed us to spend less time looking for information and more time writing about the information we had. Sure, we had to master the skills of verifying facts but on the whole, it was a good trade.

Spelling and Grammar Checkers

Now there are spelling and grammar checkers that can save you from embarrassing errors. That’s what’s supposed to happen. But it doesn’t for many people.

The reason is that grammar and usage are both complex and context sensitive. In practice, that means that several different grammar checkers may give you different advice on the same piece of writing.

The truth is, you need to know your grammar and usage so you can tell when your grammar checker is giving you bad advice. You can’t take the easy way out and just accept whatever the program suggests.

What’s Next?

Today, discussion rages about ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence programs. Some people expect them to change whole institutions, like colleges and newspapers. Some expect the programs to take over the things that writers do now. Here’s my two cents.

I think writers will benefit when we’re doing research. The AI programs can suggest avenues for us to pursue and come up with facts we wouldn’t find on our own. There will still be a potential problem, though. As we must do with the web, we’ll need to learn to question and to verify facts.

AI programs may give writers a new way to deal with writer’s block. The program should be able to generate several “next steps.” The writer can then either pick the best one or use them as inspiration to come up with a new idea.

Here are the big dangers I think we’ll face. We won’t take the time to question the program’s suggestions and “facts.” We’ll do what human beings seem to do naturally, we’ll take the easy way out. Critical thinking and verifying facts take work. We’re likely to skip them in the interest of ease. That’s not the program’s fault.


For centuries, everybody wrote by hand.

I wrote the manuscript for the first story I submitted for publication on a rented typewriter.

The IBM Selectric was a game changer.

My first word processing program was Perfect Writer.

Specialized software lets us do many tasks quickly.

The web gave writers extensive reach but also the need to check facts.

Spelling and grammar checkers only work if you understand grammar and usage.

AI systems will put some writers out of work, but also offer writers many ways to do better.

The big danger of AI systems is that we’ll take the easy way out.

Sign Up For Blog Posts Via Email