How We Wrote

Inspired by a December New Yorker piece on “distraction-free devices” — i.e., apps designed to help writers focus — longtime Boston music writer and critic Jim Sullivan asked on facebook this morning about his fb friends “old-school linear writing” experiences: “I look at some of those stories now and wonder how I put them together so cogently without, you know, cutting and pasting and spellcheck and word count and all the rest,” he wrote. “Could I go back to the old way? I really don’t think so. Could you? What did you learn on? What era did you enter the writing game? And does the way you do it now make the most sense?” This was my answer:

Started writing in high school in the mid ’70s on a Smith-Corona — probably a manual at first. Remember my first electric typewriter being a big deal. Took typing class in high school using an electric, too. And used one of those while writing for my high school newspaper (which I also edited — articles actually had to be typed in column widths ready for layout!), daily and weekly student papers at University of Missouri -Columbia, a suburban weekly in Michigan, and at least a couple dozen freelance music outlets through the early ’90s. I’m still fuzzy on how assigning and submitting articles worked in my early freelance days — at first I’d just send them to editors snailmail (hence a time lag of a few days before editors even saw them); at some point, editors asked for them to be Fed-Exed or faxed, so they’d get them quicker.

First time I used anyone’s in-house Atex network was doing a handful of live reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer when I lived there in the early ’90s — The only time I had to physically show up at a publication’s office to write pieces. When working on my first book (the metal one) around the same time, I bought a word processor; the entire book was written and submitted to Crown/Harmony on discs (floppy, I guess? I just remember they had blue borders.) Didn’t get a computer hooked into a modem until a few years later, but even in my first couple years music-editing at the Village Voice (1999-2000 or so) we used an internal Atex system for writing and editing. Freelancers would email their articles into Tricia Romano, who would enter them into Atex. After a year or two, we all got desk computers. But to this day, I still use pens, pencils and paper quite a bit. Which isn’t to say I’d have any interest in returning to the rest.

1 comment

  1. via facebook:

    Phil Dellio
    I can’t write anything by hand anymore; my handwriting was so bad before I retired, I would respond to student journals by typing up my comments on the computer, printing them, and then cutting and pasting them into their journals. (About twice as fast… See more

    Doug Simmons
    Phil Dellio I don’t recall this, Phil, but I wouldn’t lie about receiving an assignment. You didn’t think to give me a call sooner? At the very least I would’ve sent a kill fee.

    Phil Dellio
    35 years ago, Doug…I moved on! The review was so-so, fax machines were sort of new, I was too intimidated to follow up, and I just figured you were sparing me. But tell me how much a kill fee was circa 1987, I’ll calculate the interest, and we can go from there.

    Dave Heaton
    I found that article interesting mainly because it mentions the AlphaSmart, which I used frequently when I wrote more often. I had stumbled across it sometime in the early 2000s. To me it wasn’t the ‘distraction free’ part that made it valuable so much as it being a light-weight and no-nonsense device I could carry around and just get my thoughts out whenever. Then later I’d transfer it to a computer so I could edit. When I do write now I tend to sketch out notes in a little note-pad before typing the article out on a laptop later

    Jennifer Vineyard
    I remember back in early 90s when I had access to email but my editors did not, and I would try to convince them to use this newfangled thing… but inevitably, I would have to either go into their offices to input something in their computer system, either by typing it in there directly or bringing floppy disc. Sometimes people accepted fax, but usually not, because it meant someone else would have to retype. I just found it so much easier to write on my own computer, at home alone, than in their offices, especially if people were hovering around you. To me, the biggest distraction was if someone felt free to interrupt you because you were in their physical proximity. Delivering via email saved you from that.

    Jennifer Vineyard
    I also remember — to your point about high school paper having to be typed in column widths ready for layout — having to convince them to convert to doing layout via desktop publishing on a Mac Classic, what was it called then? PageMaker? I went and took a summer class at Cal State Fullerton to learn how, and then taught the rest of my high school paper editors how to do it… So I learned both ways, but the second way, once you got used to it, saved so much time.

    Jennifer Vineyard
    (And then, when covering trials at courthouses, would have to revert to all the old-fashioned methods — writing in pen shorthand or longhand while court was in sesssion, typing it into Blackberry if could get to Blackberry in time during breaks, since they had to be locked away, no electronics near courtroom, but usually trying to beat the pack of reporters running to payphones during break and calling editor to read what I had written on a pad, having him transcribe, and running back to courtroom. Felt like a reporter from the 1930s!)

    Chuck Eddy
    Girl Friday phones in the inside scoop!

    Steve Pick
    Until 1991, everything I wrote at home was by hand, lying on my stomach. I did get to write concert reviews at the paper on their crazy computer system that kept track of column inches. Is her assignments like “we need nine inches on The Meat Puppets show”

    Phil Freeman
    I started publishing in 1996 and used to type stuff up on an electric typewriter at home, and fax it to editors from work. A few years later, when I got my first email address, I would bring my home-typed articles to the public library and re-type them into emails and send them to editors that way. A couple years after that, I finally had home internet. Re “distractions,” I’ve recently started using the app Freedom, which locks me out of the internet for a half hour or so at a time.

    Chuck Eddy
    Yeah, that one’s mentioned near the top of that NYorker article.

    Phil Freeman
    I’ve found it to be very useful when I’m editing other people’s manuscripts – work which is often so tedious and irritating that I’ll seek out just about any distraction.

    Mike Freedberg
    I started writing in college, 1959.
    I am not changing.
    We had our distraction-free device : a library cubicle
    The smaller the room, the less distraction. Is still how I write

    Tom Carson
    I started out writing by hand on yellow legal pads, then typing up the final draft. Couldn’t do it today even if I wanted to.

    Jessica Letkemann
    I started writing for publication in high school in the early 90s. We had an Apple (not a Mac, though) but I vastly preferred my old manual Royal typewriter. When I first worked at Spin in 93, writers faxed in stories (typed or handwritten sometimes!) and I or someone else had to retype it into a very basic computer. I wrote longhand —> borrowed computer in college. I’ve always come back to longhand (and have a ridiculous pencil collection to show for it), even at Billboard etc. I also have favored manual typewriters again for the last decade or so, and that collection is also getting ridiculous (my go-to being an Olivetti Lettera 22 ultraportable from 1958). My husband, also a writer, tried his hand at the alpha smart, but it’s gathering dust in a closet.

    Chris Corsbie
    The medium shapes the message and cognition has been changed by the technology that allows us to communicate differently…


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