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I Used a Typewriter to Write an Essay & Here's What Happened


When I was 16 years old, I had this absurdly romantic idea of what a writer should look like. Imagine a woman sitting in a wooden straight-backed chair, her wispy bun held in place by a fountain pen. She would be surrounded by piles of loose papers and leather-bound books stacked high and she types furiously on a pristine black typewriter. The click-clack of the keys sounds like a train as she produces page after page of pure poetry. If I wanted to be a Pulitzer Prize winner by the time I graduated college, my romantic teenage self thought a typewriter would get me there.

Even though I had to wait four more years, I finally received a typewriter for an early birthday present. When I least expected it, a group of my college and high school friends all chipped in to buy me a 1940s Underwood typewriter (Best. Friends. Ever.). In exchange for the gift, I had to promise to use the typewriter to unearth my secret British tendencies to write the next Harry Potter series and dedicate the books to my friends. While I definitely planned on working toward that Pulitzer Prize, my more logical college self realized my term paper wasn’t going to finish itself.

No matter how far ahead I plan, I always succumb to the power of procrastination when I write. I’ve tried turning off my WiFi signal, using innovative mobile apps and even writing drafts by hand. My friend suggested disabling my social media accounts completely, but I don’t think I could go a few days without scrolling through memes. While trying to solve my procrastination dilemma, I remembered my parents telling stories about using typewriters in college. The exact moment I connected my own typewriter with procrastination prevention, I jumped up from my dorm floor and mentally thanked the universe for finally granting me (at least what I hoped would be) a good idea.

Here’s what I learned from typing four pages of my 3,000 word essay on a manual typewriter:

Writing a sentence actually takes time

Being a speedy typist is something I’ve taken pride in since the day I became the fastest typist in middle school computer class. The skill allows me to transcribe my thoughts before I forget what I want to say. When I started to use the typewriter, I had to slow down my speed because I discovered pressing the keys too quickly jams the strikers. Sometimes the letters come out too light, so you have to backspace and go over the words again in order for the sentence to be legible. One of the good things about writing slower is you can make your language more precise and pay closer attention to structure and vocabulary.

You can’t worry about mistakes

When I realized the backspace key on my typewriter doesn't actually erase a typo, I gave up on using it at all. Instead of typing the correct letter over the mistake, I just kept typing because sometimes I’d type over the wrong letter and have to backspace again. It was an endless, time-consuming cycle. If my draft was graded for formatting, I’d fail automatically. It took at least a half page to stop alternating between single and double spacing. The margins also ranged from half inch to one inch on every page. It looked like I typed the draft with my eyes closed.

Distractions still exist and will tempt you

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself during writing sessions, it’s that I get very easily distracted. Preventative procrastination measures I usually take include shutting the door, turning off my phone and putting earphones in. Even though the typewriter doesn't have access to internet, I found other distractions on my desk, in the hallway and outside my window. They were everywhere. Because typing my essay took much longer than I anticipated, my mind started to wander after the first hour.

Your hands will hurt afterward

I played the piano for almost eight years, so I know how achy your hands get after practice. The position you have to hold your hands on a piano is similar to a typewriter. Unlike a laptop, there’s no place to rest your wrists when typing. You’re forced to keep your wrists straight so you can strike the keys like you’re playing staccato. After multiple hours of typing, my hands were more sore than if I wrote the draft by hand for the same amount of time. However, I think with more usage my hands will get used to the position and heavy striking.

The Takeaway

Despite the mental and physical effort it takes to use a typewriter, I definitely will continue to utilize it for creative projects. I’ve never enjoyed writing essays, so I think the entire experience felt like a chore. To match the romantic image of a writer I had when I was 16, I need to leave the school work for my laptop. This way, when I'm writing my prize winning novel, I can lose myself in the rhythmic click-clack of the keys and let the world fade out around me as I produce what I love.  


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