Writing on Paper

There is something satisfying about writing on paper. It is pleasant to see the pile of double-spaced pages accumulate to one side the desk. I am old enough to remember when typewriters were more common than computers, and I had the opportunity to use a few for practical purposes like writing stories or typing letters. One of my favorite things was pulling a completed page off the roller and setting it onto the stack of accumulating pages. The feeling was as satisfying as crossing an item off a to-do list, and there was something tangible to show for it.

In all the years that I’ve been writing on computer—and I’ve been writing on computer for far longer than I ever wrote on a typewriter—I have never found the experience to be quite as satisfying. It is physically easier for me to write on computer than it was on a typewriter. But it just isn’t as satisfying. I miss the accumulation of pages.

Word processors try to make up for this by providing various indications of progress. As I write this post (in Scrivener) there are numbers at the bottom of my window that tell me how many words I’ve written, and how many characters I’ve typed. When I wrote on a typewriter, I never cared about how many words I wrote. Today, word counts are like calorie counts. They are everywhere. But they are not as satisfying as seeing the pages stack up on the desk.

I’ve tried various gimmicks. I can make it look like I am typing on a printed page by changing the layout of my screen, but the pages still don’t accumulate on my desk they did with a typewriter. And besides, you can take WYSIWYG too far. Formatting distracts me from what I am trying to write. I am not trying to layout a newspaper or magazine. I’m writing a story, or a post.

A "page" in my word processor
A “page” in Scrivener. Nice, but it still doesn’t stack up in a neat pile on my desk.

I use the backspace key more on a computer than I did on a typewriter. I was more careful with my typing on the typewriter. After all, I had to pay for the typing paper I used. Too many mistakes, too many do-overs, cost money. Retyping entire pages took time. In some respects, word processors are an improvement over this. But typing forced me to think carefully about what I was writing before I touched the keys. When I typed on a typewriter, I felt more like a craftsman. I was more careful, and tried not to make as many mistakes.

Typewriters keys made a satisfying clicking sound that just can’t be reproduced by computer keyboards. I switched to a mechanical keyboard on my desktop computer at home, but it still doesn’t compare to the click made by the type bars striking paper. You can buy software that emulates the sound on a computer, but to my ears, it sounds about as natural as the lens clicking sound an iPhone camera makes when you snap a photo.

Sometimes, I would write letters on the typewriter. Composing a letter on a typewriter was more satisfying than composing an email on a computer. But then again, that may have nothing to do with the tool being used. Writing a letter is always more satisfying to me than writing an email, even if I typed both on a typewriter. I do far too little of the former, and far too much of the latter.

Still, typing on computer has its advantages. I sometimes wonder that if this was a newspaper column instead of a blog, would I have had the fortitude to bang out more than 6,100 columns on a typewriter? How many stacks of paper would that have added up to? Assuming that the average post here is about 500 words, that comes to something like 25 reams of paper. There are 10 reams in a standard sized paper box. That means this blog would have filled more than 2 boxes full of paper, something over 12,500 double-spaced pages. It is impossible to scroll through this blog and get the same sense of satisfaction that it would be to behold 25 reams of paper stacked up in a corner of the office.

I enjoy writing, and I derive a great deal of pleasure by something as simple as finishing a post. But I still wish I could see those pages accumulating beside me.

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