How Word Processors Changed The Novel

Illustration for article titled How Word Processors Changed The Novel

Back in the 60s, novelists hired personal assistants to type and retype chapter drafts for their books, dozens of times over. When a technician at IBM heard about it in 1968, he decided to see if the word processor he'd been working on might help.


Slate has a wonderful feature about how novelist Len Deighton adopted the word processor—and changed the world of literature for good. From Slate:

A few weeks later, Deighton stood outside his Georgian terrace home and watched as workers removed a window so that a 200-pound unit could be hoisted inside with a crane. The machine was IBM's MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter), sold in the European market as the MT72. "Standing in the leafy square in which I lived, watching all this activity, I had a moment of doubt," the author, now 84, told me in a recent email. "I was beginning to think that I had chosen a rather unusual way to write books."

"One might almost think the word processor (as it was eventually named) was built to my requirements," Deighton told me: "I am a slow worker so that each book takes well over a year-some took several years-and I had always 'constructed' my books rather than written them. Until the IBM machine arrived I used scissors and paste (actually Copydex one of those milk glues) to add paras, dump pages and rearrange sections of material. Having been trained as an illustrator I saw no reason to work from start to finish. I reasoned that a painting is not started in the top left hand corner and finished in the bottom right corner: why should a book be put together in a straight line?"

Now, of course, writers everywhere hunch over computers, laptops—maybe even tablets—to get their words on the page. To the extent that, thank goodness, we take it for granted. You should read the full article over at Slate. [Slate]


Nice. I was around for the transition from typewriters to word processor in the '70s; they were a godsend. In those days I would write technical reports running to hundreds of pages in pencil on yellow legal pads. They were then manually typed by a secretary on an IBM Selectric. Changes, additions and deletions required retyping. The first big advance was the Xerox machine; we could cut and past sections of text and illustrations with scissors and tape, then make a copy that didn't show the seams. Then we got a Wang word processor and our lives changed. Sectaries still did the typing but changes became effortless. These were dedicated word processing machines that did nothing else. They used 8" floppy disks for storage and a CRT terminal for text entry. It had an electro-mechanical clicker inside to simulate the sound of a typewriter. The daisy-wheel printout was slow but perfect every time.