Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

University of Maryland

My Literary History of Word Processing: Your Assistance Needed

Greetings. As described in Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times story “The Muses of Insert, Delete and Execute,” I am in the midst of researching and writing a book entitled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. The book is under contract to Harvard University Press, and should be out in late 2013. You can listen to a talk I recently gave at the New York Public Library based on the first chapter, “Stephen King’s Wang,” here.

The book documents the moment at which large numbers of literary writers began making the transition from typewriters to word processors and personal computers (late 1970s, early 1980s). I want to know who the early adopters were, and how they thought about the new digital technology in relation to their writing practice. I am interested in both “highbrow” and popular authors alike, fiction and non-fiction. I am also following the story through to the present day: many writers now have platforms on social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

Some of my best information so far has come from word of mouth. That’s where I need your help. I would be very interested in hearing from:

  • authors who were early adopters of computing and word prcocessing and/or social media (also authors who made a deliberate decision not to switch to a computer);
  • editors, publishers, agents, and others in the business with relevant insights to contribute;
  • technologists who worked on early word processing programs;
  • anyone with relevant primary source materials to loan, share, or contribute;
  • anyone who knows of interesting fictional renditions of computers and word processing (for example, King’s short story “Word Processor of the Gods”).

If you would like to offer information, anecdotes, corrections, or tips about things to look at or persons to contact, please write to me at mkirschenbaum at gmail dot com. Thank you for reading.


  Tama Leaver (@tamaleaver) wrote @

It’s less about a conscious choice and more just a quirky story, but Scott Bukatman’s piece on the fact that William Gibson wrote Neuromancer in the early 80s on a manual typewriter might be useful for your project:

  mkirschenbaum wrote @

Thanks, Tama. I know the piece and like it a lot.

  Michael David Solomon wrote @

One interesting omission in this study is the physical and mental transformations required to make the change from writing by hand to using a typewriter, and from either of these methodologies to using a computer.

As someone who, at the time, preferred to write a first draft by hand, I found myself placing the keyboard at nearly the same angle as I would a piece of paper, as a right-handed scribe using cursive. This somehow told my brain that it was in the writing mode. This compensation lasted for a period of at least a few months, if not over a year, before I could fully take advantage of the efficiencies of digital composition.

And then there’s Google …

  mkirschenbaum wrote @

Michael, that’s very interesting, especially about positioning the keyboard at the same angle as the paper. I’m sure you’re right that there’s a cognitive science literature here.

  Jill wrote @

An interesting topic, Matt. My colleague Hilde Corneliussen assigned our students an analysis of this short essay by author Wendell Berry on “Why I am NOT Going to Buy a Computer” – I ended up leading the class discussion and certainly the essay provided a lot of material for analysis. It was reprinted in Technology and Values, ed. C. Hanks, 2010, Wiley-Blackwell. Hilde’s new book includes a study of Norwegian press articles on adoption of computers in the 1980s (I think – I haven’t read it yet so am basing this on presentations of her work in progress, but I think this is in her chapter on “Changing Images of Computers and Users since 1980”) and although it may be a little tangential to your project (?), it might be useful.

  mkirschenbaum wrote @

Thanks Jill, those are both good tips. I hadn’t seen Hilde’s book, so I’m happy to know about it.

  Track Changes « Matthew G. Kirschenbaum wrote @

[…] NYT readers, you may wish to have a look at a more recent post in which I’m specifically requesting research assistance on documenting the…. […]

  Richard Grant (@richardgrant) wrote @

I wrote my first novel. Saraband of Lost Time, on a home-built Heathkit computer in the early 80s. I no longer remember the specific software involved (“program”, we called it then), except that it was just about the only thing that ran on this particular computer, which had its own proprietary operating system. The dominant OSs at the time were CP/M and Apple DOS.

I would suggest, as a likely fruitful source of primary data, the journal of the Science Fiction Writers of America, whose members (as one might expect) were very early adopters of the “microcomputer” as a writing tool.

FWIW, I’m writing my current novel on an iPad.

Good luck with this worthy project.


  mkirschenbaum wrote @

Thanks for that Richard. Wow, an iPad! For the whole novel? Are you doing that for portability, or for another reason?

  elotroalex wrote @

I’ve been meaning to contact you with a possible project. This post gives me the perfect excuse. I don’t know if you are familiar with the work of Kamau Brathwaite. He is one of the poetry giants of the Caribbean, usually read next to Walcott. During the 80’s he started experimenting with word processors and published a series of books using ancient printers’ pixelated typography. If you will be at the MLA I could show you some samples, although I’m sure you can find his books at the library. Checkout “DS (2)” and let’s talk.

  mkirschenbaum wrote @

Thanks Alex, I know (of) Brathwaite but not these particular works. I will have a look. No MLA for me this year, alas.

  kevix wrote @

I noticed that use referred to the personal computer and the software sold and marketed to it. Have you considered the use of Unix-like systems which had various word processing software and the TeX typesetting language which started in 1978 which had main frame and pc versions?

  mkirschenbaum wrote @

I’ve certainly considered it, and that will be part of the general historical context for the book, but I’m also trying to keep the project manageable by setting some boundaries, however arbitrary. Thus the focus on the personal computer.

  cdthomas wrote @

Parallel to what writers were able to buy for themselves were the tools they borrowed during their day gigs: the dedicated word processing equipment used during breaks and after-hours.

Factoring that in, corporate solutions might be worth exploring — the IBM Displaywrite system (with 8-inch OS and data disks), the IBM Displaywriter (the build-out of a Selectric with an internal tape drive), plus early adopters of WordStar and WordPerfect software on office systems.

I worked on them all during the 80s, until the new IT managers consolidated purchasing (and their dancing-girl bribes) into office standards.. and secretaries actually got trained to use them.

  mkirschenbaum wrote @

Sneaking time on the big corporate systems after hours–that’s a great point. I love it. Could you follow up with me by email?

  wkatastrof wrote @

Slightly off topic, but you may find this essay interesting:

  mkirschenbaum wrote @

Very nice, thank you.

  Jessica Weissman wrote @

Take a look at Michael Frayn’s novel The Tin Men – published in 1965 and long out of print but easily available used.

His depiction of how computers affect journalists was both funny and insightful, and decades ahead of reality.

  Andy wrote @

Just listening to your piece on CBC’s Spark. Fascinating topic and I look forward to the book.

If you haven’t already spoken to author Robert J. Sawyer. You need to. He’s definitely an early adopter and has great memories of using early software such as WordStar –

Check out his site I think he even has a few blog posts about his early use of writing software.

Like this one on Gramatik software –

  Carol wrote @

In the mid-70’s IBM had a machine called a Magcard. As the name suggests, it used a magnetic strip card to record typing, allow for corrections and do automatic playback.
I used this machine to transcribe tech writers information for technical manuals.
I also discovered how to override the line length restrictions and then taught that to the IBM trainer!
This machine was not likely used for personal writing but it is another machine that was between the typewriter and the computer.

  michel wrote @

Fritz Leiber’s satirical sf novel, The Silver Eggheads, is an anti-dystopian story of writers rising up in revolution after “wordmills” emasculate their creativity. One of my favorite aspects: the hero’s best friend is a robot who writes adventure novels for other robots. Lesser known than some of his other works, but among his best.

  Yes I do. « The Hive Network wrote @

[…] about the history of word processing. Matthew Kirschenbaum is researching and writing a book called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, which will come out from Harvard University Press in […]

  Ruth wrote @

I was the production editor on the first desk-top published book that Prentice-Hall Canada produced, a textbook called Whole Language: Practice and Theory. We all loved the idea that computers would make our work so much easier and cut down on the amount of paper we used. However, the book went through 9 proofs, instead of the usual 3, because of all the glitches in getting used to the new system. In the end, I had to sit beside the typesetter and tell her what to do page by page because she was a computer person and not a designer. That was in 1989 or 1990. I’m not sure that we use less paper even today what with advance reading copies, etc. I think we are finally starting to though as proofs go PDF and Acrobat Standard is so good.

Best Regards,
Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr

  Reliquias del futuro – JorgeLetralia wrote @

[…] literaria de los procesadores de texto). Debe estar listo en 2013, por lo que el investigador está invitando a quienes se animen a ayudarlo, que encajen en alguna de estas categorías (y, supongo, que puedan […]

  Norbert Ryska wrote @

In the German exhibition catalogue
“Literatur im Industriezeitalter 2”
(Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach)
you will find the answers of 48 writers/poets to the question “Do you already (!) use a PC for your writing work?”
It was 1987.

  mkirschenbaum wrote @

Thanks for that, just got a copy.

  Claudius Reich wrote @

For a humor piece from 1985, check out John Varley’s epistolary short story “The Unprocessed Word” (there’s a poorly formatted version available via Google search).

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