A second essay on Delightful Writing

Originally published in Everyday Writing Newsletter

Homage To Qwert Yuiop by Anthony Burgess. Picture by me

Qwert Yuiop, in case you don’t know already, is the top line of a typewriter keyboard. And a book that calls itself an homage to the typewriter keyboard still seems to me, decades after I bought this collection of essays by Anthony Burgess, to be a very fine book indeed.

He’s dead now, Burgess, and I fear he is still in the process of being forgotten before being rediscovered (assuming that he ever will be “rediscovered”). I admired him enormously when I was young, and still do. Partly because he was so entertaining in his wordplay (see: the title of this book, but also A Clockwork Orange, in which he made up an entire vocab).

The other reason I admired him was because he was insanely prolific. Look at that list of other works, on the left-hand page – and just try to imagine what a pummelling he gave his typewriters.

Burgess died in 1993. About 14 years later, I wrote an article for The Sunday Times (about something entirely different) using a manual typewriter. As I wrote at the time, It wasn’t easy:

Unlike a computer, a typewriter doesn’t let you move blocks of text around. There’s no word-count function. You can’t press a button and switch to the internet to look something up. It’s also bone-shakingly hard work – a bit like a work out at the gym.

But I enjoyed myself. For starters, the typewriter didn’t interrupt me with junk email. Plus, and this was the reason for my writing that magazine article on it, a typewriter doesn’t need a supply of electricity.1

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I didn’t know then, but have since discovered (thanks to the internet, inaccessible to typewriters), that Burgess had of course written before me about the sheer manual effort of typing on a manual machine (“hard on the brain and excruciating to the body”). You might imagine, from this, that he welcomed the arrival of the word-processor. Not at all.

He believed that the typewriter, precisely because it was hard work, improved the quality of writing. It promoted greater discipline, he said.

[The word processor] is a dangerous apparatus, because you tend to be very careless. You tend to write something, because you know anything will do, because you can correct it. But if you are writing on the typewriter, you tend to get the sentence in your head first as a piece of music. Does it sound all right? Is it good? I think the word processor will ruin prose in time. I think it already is.2

I think he was right. In 2007, coming at the issue from the other direction – as a computer user who only ever mucked about with my father’s typewriter – I quickly realised that typing just the first draft of my magazine story would be exhausting. So I was very careful about what I did.

Afterwards, I took a red pen and made marks on the draft – marks I had been taught at journalism school, kind of marks that old fashioned sub-editors had made in newspaper offices for decades, possibly longer, to guide the printers who would set the words in metal type.

Here are some of those marks I was taught:

Having made those marks with my red pen, I typed out a second – and final – draft.3

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These thoughts about typing are inspired, at least in part, by the response I received to a recent episode of my podcast4. In that episode, I created what I called a “symphony” of writers writing together – using combined recordings of the typing fingers of five writer friends.

Another writer, who heard this, subsequently got in touch:

Having just completed two writing retreats this month as well as being in contact with writer friends from a wide range of disciplines I have thought I would share with you a finding which to me, on reflection, is somewhat extraordinary. I include myself here. Almost without exception, very few of my fellow writers have actually ever learnt to type.

It is odd, isn’t it? Typing is something that almost everybody has to do occasionally. People who work in offices do it every day, if not all the time. Why don’t more people learn to touch type?

I used to pride myself on having learned to touch type5, and on having become very fast indeed. On a tight deadline, I would often do interviews and type every word people said, without asking them to slow down. So far as this goes, I suppose that it is a decent skill, and I do have some right to be pleased.

But then I remember what Burgess wrote, about how a manual typewriter slows you down, and gives you time to think – and I wonder whether my typing fluency might also be a disadvantage.

Something to ponder. Perhaps I should write the rest of this essay on a typewriter…

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I did. Here it is. (You may find it easier to read in a PDF, which you can download below6.)

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Before you go, here (below) is an example of how formats impose constraints, which are also opportunities, because they requires us to make choices, and in turn induce creativity.

It’s a page of mad typesetting, from Alasdair Gray’s novel 1982, Janine.

I remember being so excited when I bought the book, because flicking through it in the shop I had seen this lay ahead, and I wondered what on earth it could be.

When I reached these pages, I was stumped. Where to start? What to read first? It seemed demented. And that, it turned out, was the point. It represents a moment of madness. The calm that followed was represented by large areas of white space.

To be very clear: the format/constraint, in this case, is a novel designed to be printed on paper.

Sure, it could also work on a digital screen, though Gray wrote the novel long before the Kindle and the iPad. But my point is that the content of these pages is profoundly, fundamentally visual: the information is delivered across space, rather than through time.

I can’t imagine how the publisher might have attempted to render the same demented effect in an audio book. I know that in some audiobooks, this kind of visual device is bypassed altogether. Take A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech (author: me). The print edition contained a joke about a parenthesis that went on so long that readers might think I had forgotten to put in a closing bracket, so I made a big deal of planting the bracket on a line of its own, at the end of the section, thus:


The audiobook left out that joke altogether. With Gray’s mad pages, they could, I suppose, create a cacophony of all the voices together. Fine, or even: brilliant. And I daresay that musicians and dancers could turn it into an amazing ballet. It just wouldn’t be the same.

It wouldn’t be any kind of homage to QWERT YUIOP.

And more importantly – because I’m writing this not to be a clever clogs but to help myself as a writer, and anybody else who happens to read this, and wants to write more, or better – the printed page gave Gray a context, a structure into which he could pour out his creativity.

He made a choice, just as I made a choice to write this particular essay for digital distribution, initially in an email newsletter (signup below) and then on my website, with a drawing by me of the inside of somebody else’s book (WTF as they say), plus footnotes that you can click on and then click back to where you were before7. I made a choice to include within it examples of proofreader’s marks, and a PDF of manually typewritten thoughts about paper, splodgy because the ink ribbon is ancient, and marks in red pen.

It amused me. It might not suit you. So decide for yourself: what would?

Till next time.

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1 ↩︎ Typewriter. The story I wrote was about trying to use as little electricity as possible.

2 ↩︎ Ruin Prose. Amazingly, he said that as long ago as 1987, before I ever laid fingers on a word processor, and before I learned touch-typing. You can read more about him and his typewriters on the Anthony Burgess Foundation.

3 ↩︎ Second Draft. To save electricity, I took my draft to the offices of The Sunday Times on a bicycle.

4 ↩︎ Symphony for Five Writers. You can hear that episode of an ADEQUATE podcast.

5 ↩︎ Touch type. I learned at university, so that I could earn more cash during the holidays. I had been working as a waiter and a postman, and a friend told me that she earned twice as much per hour as a secretary. In practice, she said, she did little actual typing. Mostly she answered the phone, and pressed a buzzer to let people through the front door. She worked in a literary agency. It sounded pretty good to me. I signed up for evening classes, became quite fast, and did indeed become a secretary. Being a male secretary was, at that time, quite unusual – which gave me subject for the first article I had published in a national newspaper, in (as it happens) the year Anthony Burgess died.

6 ↩︎ Downloadable PDF. Click here: Homage To QWERT YUIOP 2 contd.pdf (420.7 kB)

7 ↩︎ Footnotes. I nicked the idea for these footnotes with a clickable little “↩︎” from Wikipedia.