In a poetry workshop last weekend, there 5 of us were fairly evenly spread in age with a young tutor – 3 young ones in their 20s, one middle aged and two of us retired. I was intrigued by the way the young ones wrote poetry directly onto their phones. We had the usual discussion that crops up at these events: do you write poems by hand or straight onto screen?
For me, that direct connection between heart and hand (I am left-handed as well) is the only way I can begin my poetry. I reserve the screen for the time when a poem approaches a finished state, a state ready to be read in a workshop or group setting.
But this doesn’t mean I can’t write directly onto a keyboard, my working life began in book publishing, news agency and magazine journalism. The clatter of typerwriters is woven into all the jobs I did through the 70s and 80s.
My first job in 1972 was as an Editorial Assistant at Tom Stacey’s publishing house in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. I was the most junior of a team of 5 editorial assistants putting together a 20-volume series of popular anthropology books, Peoples of the Earth. We all worked in one room alongside the editor, assistant editor and editorial secretary. On every desk was a portable typewriter (only the secretary had an electric typewriter). Long strips of printed paper, the galley proofs, hung from bulldog clips on cuphooks along one wall.
They were about 5 volumes into the 20-vol series when I arrived. The books were lavishly illustrated with colour and black and white photographs. It was discovered that I had a knack for writing succinct captions. Each caption had to be 5 lines of no more than 30 characters long. I set the margin guides on my typewriter to 30 spaces, read the typescript or proof of the article, studied the photo proofs and then began typing my 5-line captions, over and over until I had a first draft that was relevant, informative and as near the right length as I could manage. Then I took sheets of the typed captions and carefully read them, corrected them by hand and re-typed them.
This process was repeated over and over until each chapter had its set of captions ready for approval by the editor.
As I moved up to being given my first chapters to prepare, and moved on to other jobs, I learned how much writing and re-writing was done in-house by editors. Chapters came in from authors in any state ranging from perfectly typed and well-written to an instruction from the author for us to write them, based on their previously published work. Sometimes text had to be massively cut, sometimes it was hundreds of words short. Sometimes masses of re-writing was required and I loved doing this.
You can only go so far in editing a typescript with a pen. We moved whole chunks of text from paragraphs to a couple of lines, simply by cutting it out then stapling it into its new position. Blue pen, red pen, purple pen could be used until the typescript was a mass of colour decipherable only by the person doing the editing. Then it was time to re-type the whole thing, to ‘run it through the typewriter’ as we used to say.
It was startling how much this process of re-typing helped the work to progress. As you typed, you got into the flow of the chapter, the hard graft of writing and shaping had been done, and like a sculptor with a block of stone, the shape of the writing was now emerging.
Now with a clean copy of the typescript in front of you, you re-read and, if necessary picked up the pens to continue marking up mistakes and improvements. If necessary you could go to the assistant editor or editor for help – but not too often. Only when we had been through this process with a typescript, shown a clean copy to the editor for her approval, did the typescript go to the editorial secretary for typing up the ‘setting copy’ to be marked up ready for the typesetters.
Until computers became common in the mid-1990s, this was how editors worked on text. Incidentally, when computers first came in, like the electric typewriters, they were usually given first to the team secretary.
It’s as hopeless as expecting people to write with quill pens as it is to expect people brought up writing on screens and able to spell check, make changes in an instant to expect them to type and re-type a piece from scratch as they edit, but I do miss that hands-on way of working with text.