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What’s in Word?

Not too long ago, I was lecturing a group of college students about adapting writing styles for different media. The discussion morphed into whether the writing instrument had an additional effect. I write differently when using pen and paper or a typewriter or which word processor I use.  I tried to make a joke about how my muscle memory occasionally tried to move the cursor using WordStar commands. The silence that followed made it clear that most of the kids had grown up knowing no other program except Microsoft Word. There was a time when there was real competition for the hearts and fingers of writers as to which was the best word processor.

In a previous life, I supplemented my income by teaching people how to use word processors. I had to become proficient in a dozen different brands. There was no consistency in how each one worked. In some, the F1 key was the help key. You could move the cursor with the CTRL key and a letter such as CTRL X to move the cursor down a line. I’m a fan of competition but until Apple and then Microsoft imposed standards, it was the Wild West in development land. The jobs I got as a hired keyboard shrank when law and order came to the word processing frontier. But it did let me get back to writing.

Using a computer to write had a number of unanticipated consequences. It killed the typewriter industry. When my daughter was 4, she found my IBM Selectric in the closet. Try explaining a typewriter to a child who has never seen one and thinks that you get drawing paper by hitting the form feed button on a dot matrix printer. The best I could do was, “Honey, it’s a keyboard without a monitor.”  Liquid Paper® and Wite Out® still exist but neither is as big a player in the office supply business as they used to be. Cut and paste used to be a physical act. If the fifth paragraph made more sense as the third one, you cut it out, put some glue on the back and pasted it in the right spot on a new page. To avoid those frequent trips to the Post Office to get manuscripts weighed to buy the right amount of stamps, I rented a postal meter. Now I can email anything from a few pages to a book without moving from my chair with the wobbly arm rest.

Using a computer made me a better writer. Maybe it might be better phrased that it made me a more disciplined writer. If I had typed the previous two sentences on a piece of paper, I probably would have left them alone. The ease of making changes allows me to fiddle with the flow. I can’t claim that using a computer made me a better writer, but it helped me strive toward excellence and not always settling for just okay. The other effect was psychological . Staring at a wastepaper basket full of crumpled paper screamed “failure.”  Dumping all that excess electronically left me feeling that I was always making progress. Also, less trash to take out.

There is a downside; literary scholars are already decrying the lost of multiple drafts of manuscripts that could give insight into the creative process. Good point, but I ain’t no Shakespeare.

Listed below are all the word processors I mastered and taught.

  1. WordStar
  2. Multimate
  3. Xywrite
  4. Apple Writer
  5. WordPerfect
  6. DisplayWriter
  7. Perfect Writer
  8. Word
  9. Samna Word
  10. Volkswriter
  11. SCRIPSIT
  12. Microsoft Word
  13. Easywriter Professional
  14. VisiWord Plus

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