Tales of the Before Time: From Paper to Pixels

Back when I first started writing, as a wee young sprat, it was all paper and pen or pencil — I wasn’t yet up to the level of actually submitting things, so the idea of a typed manuscript was unknown to me.  The family typewriter was an Underwood that weighed approximately as much as a boat anchor, with keys so stiff that my grade-school fingers would have buckled under the strain of pressing them.  I wrote my first short stories (which sucked) and my first you-could-probably-call-it-a-novel (which also sucked) in ink on narrow-ruled notebook paper.  I used a cartridge pen for preference, rather than a ball-point, and my handwriting was dreadful.

Time went by, and eventually I achieved a Smith-Corona electric typewriter, a high-school graduation present from a maiden aunt who knew me, perhaps, better than some of my other aunts (who tended to give me things like hairbrushes and pillow-slips.)  That typewriter lasted me nearly a decade, and saw the production of numerous college and graduate school papers, plus a handful of not really very good short stories and the first five or six pages of a novel that never went anywhere.

The Smith-Corona electric in time acquired a companion, an Olivetti modern Icelandic manual that I used to prepare the first draft of my dissertation.  (Previously, with the Smith-Corona, I’d had to add in the special Old English characters by hand.)

Neither of these typewriters, however, was very good for writing fiction.  My handwriting was still dreadful, but my typing wasn’t much better — I estimated at the time that it took me about thirty minutes to produce a clean page of submittable copy.

Then came the glorious day when Atari brought out a personal computer that could be had for a price that ordinary human beings could afford.  Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I was a rotten typist; the computer was a very good typist, and just as soon as I could find a letter-quality printer to hook up to it, I’d be in clover.  In the meantime, at least I had a dot-matrix printer (does anybody out there remember dot-matrix?) for the early drafts.  And when we finally did get a household letter-quality printer, shortly afterward it was manuscript-submission time.

The next decade or so witnessed our household’s march forward through advancements in printer technology — dot-matrix to letter-quality daisy-wheel to laser to inkjet, faster and better and faster again.  And we bought paper.  Lots and lots of paper.  We bought fanfold paper in foot-high stacks; we bought 20-pound bond in ten-ream boxes.

And time kept moving on.  One day we looked around the office, and realized that it had been a year or more since the last time we’d submitted anything as a printout on paper that we sent through the US Mail.  At some point while we were busy writing, it had all switched over to electronic manuscripts submitted by e-mail, and we’d scarcely noticed.

I could spend some time at this point indulging myself in nostalgia, but the truth of the matter is that I am immensely grateful for the computer and word processor combination that types better than I ever could, and the electronic mail that doesn’t insist on proper postage and a stamped and self-addressed envelope.

6 thoughts on “Tales of the Before Time: From Paper to Pixels

    1. Say what you will about the old 9-pin dot-matrix printers, there was nothing like them if what you really wanted was a fast printout for revision purposes. And none of this running-out-of-ink stuff with the sensors in the printer that shut everything down before the type even has a chance to turn pale . . . you could use a dot-matrix ribbon until there was nothing showing up on the page but faint grey dots, if you had to.

  1. I remember dot-matrix printers.

    I printed my doctoral dissertation on a letter-quality daisy wheel printer. It took about 2 minutes per page. I didn’t have a sheet feeder. The night I printed the final copy, it took over 5 hours, with me feeding it another page of special watermark paper every 2 minutes.

    1. My dissertation was just before the advent of affordable personal computers. I typed the first draft on that manual Icelandic Olivetti, and handed that over to a professional academic typist who specialized in doing dissertations and similar stuff for UPenn and other Philadelphia-area universities. The cost of the typing job was my father’s grad-school graduation present (the Icelandic Olivetti had been my husband’s first anniversary present), and doing it that way saved my sanity, or what was left of it after grad school, anyway.

      That was back when cut-and-paste was still literal rather than metaphorical, and the “helpful hints for writers” articles included tips on how to make a patched-up MS look presentable by running it through a high-quality Xerox machine loaded with twenty-pound bond paper.

      I do not miss those days one bit.

  2. Oh, wow — I bought a Commodore Amiga from my brother-in-law in the mid nineties that came with a dot-matrix printer and a massive box of really nasty cheap paper. I did all of my homework on that thing for the next five years — I remember having to carefully remove the edge strips one at a time because the paper was so cheap it would take almost nothing to shred it down the middle.

    I have no idea what my teachers thought when they received papers that felt as old and brittle as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    1. Speaking as somebody who has at various points in her checkered career graded papers for a living, they were probably happy not to have to try to read yet another handwritten essay. I know that I used to have to make a conscious effort not to conflate bad handwriting with bad writing — and even knowing that my own handwriting was horrible, I still had to work at being impartial.

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