Everyone has a path to expertise, and sometimes it’s helpful to loop back to an earlier time, when I was trying to work out how these book-length things even were possible, long before I accidentally wrote three books in a year. It’s a story involving a typewriter and a very long poem.
Twenty years ago, I was trying to write an epic poem (this is in the long-ago stage of my life when I was trying to see if being a professional poet was a realistic life plan). A book-length anything is hard to write, and this was my first book-length project. Now, unlike academic writing which is always a compromise between the pragmatic and the ideal… when you are writing poetry, you really do need to polish each line until it shines. I would write lines of poetry, and then rewrite them and rewrite them. This was a good strategy for lyric (short) poems, but I wasn’t making any progress on building up the big ambitious project that I dreamed of.
And then one day in the local charity shop, I saw a cheap vintage typewriter.
If you have ever considered buying beautiful, branded, reconditioned typewriters, you know they can get up into the hundreds of dollars. But this wasn’t a famous brand, and it was a time before vintage was widely cool. The typewriter needed some cleaning up and to order some new typewriter ribbon, but all the keys still worked, so it seemed like a fun project.
Partly, I have to admit, I liked the vision of myself writing on a typewriter. But I also wondered if this other way of working would be a good way to get myself out of the writing rut I was stuck in. I had read older writers I admired bemoaning the rise of computers, talking about how they missed the immediate contact of keyboard to page in a typewriter, so I imagined that the rhythm and physicality would be the thing that I appreciated most. But actually that was one of the things I found the most frustrating about a typewriter. You need a lot more force for each keystroke, otherwise it doesn’t make a proper mark on the page, which hurt my hands trained to dance lightly across a laptop keyboard.
I had just graduated from university, where I had spent three years learning to write as fast as possible, to try to get the words on the page as fast as I could think them. On a typewriter, I had to type slower and with intentional effort for each letter, which made me to stop before each word and think ‘do I want to go to all the effort to write this word, or not?’ I started to rehearse and review before I wrote. Having to slow down and think about words before committing them to paper was a helpful corrective to too much speed.
But the thing that I appreciated most about the typewriter was the lack of a backspace key.
If I made a mistake, I could correct it, but I couldn’t erase it. Once a word or a line was written, you could put a line through it, but you couldn’t make it disappear. In my endless rewrites on the computer, I’d deleted all previous versions of a line that I didn’t really think worked, ending up with nothing to show at the end of the day. On the typewriter, each of those variations was still on the page, leaving their traces and clues and beautiful words and sounds to be picked up later.
But also, it was so much work to go back and rewrite lines on the typewriter, that it was just easier to keep going forward. There was no point trying to tweak lines or words that were not-quite-there-but-close. Instead, I learned to leave those lines be, and just plug letter-by-letter forward with the overall arc of the poem.
Any book length work is more about the big picture than any one detail, though the details might matter. So it was useful for me that the typewriter made me keep my eyes on the end goal, and keep on ploughing on. I wrote two whole drafts of the poem on that typewriter. I lugged it out into our tiny back garden on evenings and at weekends one unusually warm summer when we lived outside London.
I still have the typewriter, though I haven’t used it in years. I didn’t enjoy using it enough to make it a regular part of my artistic or writing process. But I’m grateful for what it taught me about writing. It enabled me to shift gears between writing as fast as I can think, and slowing down and considering each word. And it taught me that when you have a big project, and you aren’t making progress because of over editing, the secret is find something that helps to nudge you into keeping on going forwards.
If you have trouble with overediting (the old perfect sentence vortex of doom), you might try something similar. You might have an old typewriter that you love, or you might try this out by putting something over your backspace key that physically prevents you from using it, just long enough to disrupt your deletion habit for a few days or weeks, until you have a draft you are happy to start editing.
The third draft of that epic poem was done on the computer. Nothing is as good as modern word processing for moving text around and finessing the details. But I needed a different tool to get me to a full draft, and you might too.
Have you ever tried using a typewriter to make progress? Do you have a trick to stop yourself deleting everything you’ve written? Join the conversation over on Twitter @ResearchInsider