One of the oldest cliches that comes to mind when one thinks of this century’s love affair with easily consumable information is that of the working journalist. He is invariably hunched over his Underwood typewriter at a paper-strewn desk under the glare of a bare bulb. The teeming ashtray beside him-as well as the crowded desk-has become a monument to the writing process, a comfortable sign that tells him he is accomplishing what he set out to do. So, too, his clacking Underwood consoles him, and although the sun has long since set he cares for little else save the music his fingers create: the music of the ink-black words that seem to have a life of their own on the emptiness of the page, the music that seems even further animated by the noise of the typewriter, the music of his piece.

For most journalists this cliche is fast becoming little more than a memory. The typewriter has been forsaken as the cool logic of the vacuum tube is embraced by writers everywhere. Information is now something gathered, assimilated and processed through the silicon microchip of the computer. Words are reduced to tiny pulses of electrons and photons speeding through the intricate networks of their terminals. Writing a piece for a magazine no longer need involve any paper at all as the product can be composed, manipulated, stored, retrieved and even delivered using only an integrated computer system. Anyone who has used a word processor for some time will tell you they’d “never go back.”

And journalism will never be the same. While the new tools of the magazine writer have altered the writing process, there is debate as to how they affect the end result-the magazine you pick up. The pages of today’s magazines abound with writers who embrace the new technology, and devotees of the older cliche are harder to find. But most ~ writers of both species would agree that ‘” magazine writing has changed with the ~ advent of word processors.

The debate on the quality of the end product has prompted a backlash from writers who refuse to submit to the word processor. At a recent lecture at the Ontario Science Centre, Canadian author Robertson Davies called the machines “the work of the devil,” saying that they “prompt you to overwrite and write too much.” American freelance journalist Alexander Cockburn writes that the “word processee is writing worse than he or she did before.”

Veteran journalist and editor Robert Fulford romanticizes when he writes about his Underwood manual, referring to it as his “main squeeze,” saying he’ll never part with it. But the voices of this small minority are lost among the murmurs of the many processee who can only shake their heads in disbelief.

Still, the head shaking, like the technology, is relatively new. Most writers I talked to acquired their personal computers in the early eighties, shortly after they became compact, affordable and easier to use. The rapid evolution of computers in recent years has made them attractive to magazine journalists.

Scientific American estimates that if the aircraft industry had evolved as dramatically as computers have over the last 25 years, a Boeing 767 today would cost $500 and could fly around the world in 20 minutes on five gallons of fuel. But even the leaps in computer technology haven’t been enough to convince some to give up their longhand or Underwood.

Probably the most basic reason to stay with these old methods is habit. People are reluctant to give up something that works for them even when they’re told there might be something better. Another is laziness. It takes motivation to learn a new approach to creating, especially when that approach seems foreign and complex. Which brings us to a third reason: intimidation. Many potential users are often turned off by instruction manuals and computer programs that are not user friendly, and even users like freelance writer Jeremy Ferguson admit this is a deterrent. He says manufacturers have made computers inaccessible because they assume the layperson speaks “techno-gibberish. ”

Technology free lancer Rob Sawyer, however, says that this is an excuse a journalist can’t afford to use. “A journalist, by his or her nature, is somebody who can become an expert in a very short period of time,” he says. “A basic skill of a journalist is just that: assimilate information, understand it and be able to deal with it. A computer manual and learning to use a word processor program is certainly no more difficult than becoming an expert on anything else.”

Other writers, like free lancer Gloria Hildebrandt, complain that they “can’t think on a machine.” Hildebrandt, who writes longhand and then goes to typewriter, also complains of the expense of computers. Equipment can cost thousands of dollars, and once you have it, she says, it takes up an awful lot of space.

Besides taking up space, computers also rob the writer of the human connection of pen to paper. Veteran freelancer Dick Brown says this natural connection puts “less between your thoughts and your feelings and your emotions and the finished story.” Presumably, then, the act of stroking paper with a pen results in a more human product. The same idea applies to stroking the keys of a manual typewriter, says Michael Enright, former editor of Quest and now host of CBC’s “As It Happens.”
“It [the computer] just takes the human element out of it. And anything that takes the human element out of writing, which is the most intimate of human acts-other than making love, I guess-weakens the whole process,” he says. “It weakens the ability of the reader to connect with what you’re doing.”

Another argument used against computers is unreliability. Work a writer has spent hours toiling over can be lost when the wrong button is pressed or when a crash brings the system to a dead stop. A system can crash as a result of a thunderstorm or even excess static electricity, but the frequency is somewhat exaggerated. The computer users I talked to said they had lost little work, if any, and most kept backup copies of their drafts to prevent such a mishap. Accidents on a computer are easily avoided if one practises “safe computing.”

Rob Sawyer claims he’s actually better prepared in the event of a disaster because he uses a computer. He says that because he is able to keep so many copies of his book tucked conveniently away in different places, he is less likely to lose his work. Discs are easier to store than a pile of loose paper. “You’d have to wipe out most of eastern North America to wipe out all the copies of my manuscript,” he says.

Still, once the manuscript has been roughed out, it’s hard to get a sense of the whole looking at a screen and being able to see only a few paragraphs. Viewing a long piece through this small window makes it hard to keep things like structure in mind when editing. And “of course, if you print it out in hard copy,” says Robert Fulford, “you’ve moved back into my world of ink and paper and you’re structuring exactly the way people have ever since the typewriter was invented.”

Furthermore, editing on the screen, where the piece tends to look clean and professional once the typographical errors have been eliminated, the writer may tend to under edit. “It’s like trying to edit a television set,” says Enright, “and you can’t. It appears on the screen magically and it’s all lit up, it’s all paragraphed and justified and it looks perfect. Well, something that looks that perfect you don’t mess around with.”

By the same token, the greater freedom of correcting a piece on a terminal can lead to over editing. One can move paragraphs around and add and delete with an ease that isn’t possible on a typewriter. Freelancer John Gault, who has written extensively for Toronto Life and Vista, says, “you can over edit yourself to death,” something Andrew Weiner calls “the question of knowing when to stop.” Weiner used to freelance and now writes science fiction on his computer. He says that with a greater ability to edit “the main advantage of a computer is also the main disadvantage.” Enright sees the ease of editing as more of a disadvantage. “It turns every writer into an editor,” he says. “Well, writers aren’t good editors of their own stuff. That’s why we have editors.”

Almost any writer who uses a computer will tell you that it is this ease that will save the writer time. This is probably the greatest advantage a computer gives the user-it’s efficient. “It’s like , saying, ‘Well, what about somebody j who does their taxes on an abacus or a slide rule instead of doing them with a pocket calculator?'” says Sawyer. “Well, yeah, you could do it that way and, yeah, it might be the system you’ve used for years. But there is no objective way that you can claim that it is the efficient way to do it.”

Here the argument treads on personal territory. The computer will ultimately save you time because you can avoid the “terribly laborious and frightfully time-consuming” task of retyping, says Ferguson. But the writer’s personal methods may necessitate retyping. Enright, for example, insists retyping is rewriting. So the word processing tool works for some because it is conducive to their own personal process of writing, and works against others for the opposite reason. Teddi Brown, editor of Outdoor Canada, says she doesn’t have to push things out of her head when she works on a computer. It helps the flow of her writing and therefore saves her time.

“Well, I’m sorry,” says Enright, “but writing is a time-consuming endeavor. It’s like having a baby. There’s a gestation period and you write word by bloody word and it’s a very hard and exhausting process. It’s not one you want to save time on.”

And whether Enright would agree with Brown when she says a word processor is a necessity for a freelance writer today is irrelevant when one looks at the facts. If a computer can help you become more productive, it means you can make more money. Journalists who use computers also have an edge over non-users because they can produce cleaner, more professional-looking copy. Many magazines are now accepting copy on disc or through the phone by modem because this saves them having to retype stories. And if this kind of tool can earn a writer more money or favor or time in an industry that traditionally pays poorly, it is most certainly an asset, if not a necessity. Fulford reluctantly agrees.

“Definitely. But it’s not nearly as much of an asset as being able to think,being able to write and being able to research. Those are the three things that really matter in magazine work and by far the hardest is thinking. After that everything else is much less important,” he says.

Even if she’s got all of these things together, a non-user’s work has to be as clean-looking as a computer user’s work and non-users concede that this can sometimes work against them. Gloria Hildebrandt says she has to be more careful with her work because it’s so much easier to make changes with a computer. Her more archaic methods demand that she be absolutely sure she has a good end product.

But once the thinking and researching and, finally, the writing is done, there remains some disagreement as to how the product has changed because of the word processor. Some, like Doug Bennet, a computer user and editor of Masthead magazine, and Barry Callaghan, who writes both fiction and non-fiction in longhand and then goes to a typist, say nothing’s changed. “Technology’s just the stuff at the end of your fingers,” says Callaghan. Others, like Enright and Fulford, say the quality of writing has declined with the advent of the word processor. Fulford says he thinks writers are more like each other now than they were a generation ago. “The word processor may encourage that.” Besides standardizing magazine writing, there are allegations that the computer promotes sloppiness, laziness and overwriting, something Enright refers to as “lifeless prose.”

Both Enright and Fulford claim that while a computer may dampen writing, they have yet to see it help anyone. Conversely, there are those like john Gault who think their writing is richer because of the computer. Gault, a recent convert, only began using a word processor in 1988. Doug Bennet agrees with Gault to an extent, and claims that magazine writing done on these machines is more “mulled over.” And of course, the writers who tell you this are the ones who are the most vehement about the charges of standardization in their writing.

“That’s an asinine comment. Writing styles are still completely distinguished and distinguishable one from another,” says Gault. “Even at my anti-computer worst I never suggested that people on computers were homogenizing their writing.”

Others defend writing on a computer saying that it was the typewriter that changed writing in the first place. Rob Sawyer feels that it was the typewriter that locked people into what he calls linear thinking-top to bottom drafts, one word at a time-instead of letting them enjoy the freedom everyone once had when writing longhand, where one was able to start anywhere and finish everywhere, adding and deleting on the page without any great physical effort. “A computer gives you back the freedom that was robbed from you when you switched to a typewriter,” he says.

But whether one finds personal freedom in the practice of using a typewriter or a computer, the process has to change with whatever mode one chooses. Any McLuhanite would argue that because the tools of the craft and the methodology have changed, the result has altered as well. Easily lost in this equation, however, is the human mind which provides the inertia for the creation. The piece is hewn and massaged through whatever means available, and regardless of the means, the end product in the mind of the creator may be the same. Humankind conceives and creates and computers only provide a medium in which this product can be realized.

Computers are incapable of writing, so it may be more accurate to say that computers have simply influenced people to write in certain ways. They have brought a new set of limitations, or lack thereof, to the writing process, probably nudging us in one direction or another depending on our personal preferences. And there is good and bad writing coming from any given direction at all times because, and not in spite of, the human quotient. But like it or not, computers are definitely here to stay.

Somewhere in the near future, though, a new set of limitations will be imposed upon the willing writer. Pushing buttons will no longer be a prerequisite for entering thoughts into your word processor. A writer will be able to bypass the keyboard entirely as his voice will be recognized by the computer system.

Writing will become a kind of speaking as the ripples of the human voice effortlessly create waves of words over the monitor of the computer. And maybe by then the newer cliche of the journalist stroking the cool keyboard of a computer will become as antiquated as that of the journalist pounding out a piece on an Underwood.

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About the author

Jason Schaffer was a Visual Editor for the Spring 1990 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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