William Zinsser says he may not be the last person in the world you would expect to write with a word processor, but he's "one of the last." Why? Why would a superior writer, editor and writing teacher avoid a computer? And why are so many writers threatened or angered or frightened by the idea of trading in their typewriters for word processors?
One reason is what Zinsser calls "the humanist hangup . . . this is the snobbery of liberal-arts types who don't understand science or technology and don't want to. It's a group that I belong to myself, so I know its biases and phobias . . . 'I don't want to have anything to do with computers,' I keep hearing people say. I used to say it myself . . ."
Word processors were for other people, Zinsser decided. Just because newspapers everywhere were switching to computers--"forcing their reporters into electronic bondage"--was no reason for him to give up pounding the keys on his ancient manual Underwood or reworking his prose with "holy objects" (paper and pencil) and rearranging his text with "honorable writers' tools" (scissors and paste).
"But the notion of writers at their word processors started to tug at my consciousness," he says. Personal computers and word processors were popping up everywhere. "Clearly," Zinsser admits, "the day was not far off when vast numbers of Americans would be writing on word processors--not just 'writers,' but all the people who had to do any writing to transact the ordinary business of the day . . . Writing on a word processor, in short, would soon become second nature."
So, "clogged with anxiety and resistance," Zinsser bravely decided to investigate this new, awesome technology. After taking a three-year lease on an IBM Displaywriter, and parking the trusty Underwood in a corner, he contemplated the "user-friendly" future: a 96-character keyboard, green video screen, electronic module, diskette drive, printer and a box with eight pounds of instructional materials bristling with gobbledygook. It wasn't love at first sight.
When he finally managed to get something written ("real sentences began to appear on the screen, one after another . . . I was writing! . . . Nirvana! Technology was my buddy after all"), his words, "mere shadows of light," vanished into thin air. ("No air is thinner than the air into which a writer starting out on a word processor thinks his words will vanish.") A frantic call to an IBM "systems support person" confirmed the worst:
"What happened?" I asked.
"Well," she said, "your stuff was just out in the electricity and it's gone."
"Oh," I said.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Zinsser."
"Me too, Kathy."
"You've got to understand that all media like this are subject to loss."
"O.K.," she said. "Well, goodbye. Have a nice day."
But Zinsser persevered, battling computerdom's arcane exclusionary language ("I had never seen the verb 'to obsolete' before and never wanted to see it again"), and his own technophobia ("Would the machine lie to me? Sure it would. What better revenge on a person who doesn't trust machinery?"), until he not only mastered his word processor, but came to love working on it.
"I could hardly believe how quickly and easily and silently I typed as my writing gathered momentum. The physical labor of pounding on a typewriter was gone; the weight of a lifetime was lifted from my fingers and shoulders. My words leaped instantly onto the screen--and instantly off again when I changed or erased them."
His experiences convinced Zinsser that no matter what kind of writing you do--whether you're a novelist, office worker, scholar or student--writing with a word processor can dramatically improve your prose and ease the burdens of editing.
"I also think of poets. Maybe I shouldn't--poets and machines are supposed to be natural enemies. Still, no other writer works in so constrained a form, or juggles words so doggedly to make them fit that form, or slaves in such obedience to rhyme and meter, or gives such thought to arranging the shape of a line to suggest to the eye what he hears in his ear. Surely such a born fiddler with words will revel in a machine that so liberates the act of fiddling."
What distinguishes "Writing With a Word Processor" from other computer books is that it's about the craft of good writing, and not about the technical aspects of computers. Zinsser cheerfully admits that he's still "one of science's timid souls . . . a mechanical boob" who dislikes machines. So his explanations of word processing techniques are a thorough demystification, a survey of the computer's benefits and disadvantages for writers.
And as in his superb "On Writing Well," Zinsser accomplishes this with warmth and intelligent humor, adhering to his "three cardinal goals of good writing--clarity, simplicity, and humanity." Anyone contemplating word processing, whether with high hopes or with fear and loathing, will welcome Zinsser's entertaining and informative guide