Back in the Day

old-typewriterHit the wrong key when typing your 300-page manuscript, what do you do?  Why, backspace and retype, duh!

We’re so lucky these days to have these fabulous machines that let us not only correct when we make a typo, but autocorrect for us, let us lift whole passages and move them around, cut out vast swathes, insert new material 20 pages back, spell and grammar check and generally do everything but wipe our noses for us.  And we still think the physical act of typing is a chore.

It wasn’t that long ago people wrote entire manuscripts on manual machines which required them to roll each individual page through a platen, and hit heavy, clunky keys, triggering an arm to come forward letter-by-letter and hit the paper through a ribbon.  All that to provide a one and only copy of their work (plus carbon copies).  It has only been a few decades since tippex was not only available but permissible for business or publishing use.  Instead, each typing error required a writer or typist to grab a special typewriting eraser and literally rub out their error, gently enough so as not to damage the paper.  If they were making carbon copies, they had to correct each of those, too.

I recently had the opportunity to look through ‘The Writer’s Desk Book’, (A Reference Work for Authors and Journalists).  It was written way back in 1932 and reading it reminded me how far technology has progressed for the humble writer, and how hard it must have been for guys like Tolkien to produce a clean, submissible copy of their work.

Here’s a snippet:


Regular attention to the typewriter is essential to the good running order of the machine.  It should be oiled once a week and cleaned before using. The implements provided by typewriter manufacturers – not ordinary pins or other articles which will injure the type – should be used for cleaning.  Benzine is excellent for removing corroded ink and dirt. Cover the machine after use.

When typing an MS. :

Use a backing sheet with the paper to be typed.

Allow a margin of 1 1/2 inches on the lefthand side of the sheet and leave about seven spaces on the righthand side.

Indent – that is, set in – the first line of each paragraph ten spaces.

Type MSS. in double spacing.

Make sure that spaces are correctly made.

The following rules should be kept :

No space is required (a) before or after a hyphen linking words, e.g., cross-bow, bi-monthly ; (b) before or after the comma used with a number, e.g., 1,000,000.

One space is required (a) after a comma ; (b) after initials and between the comma and “Esq.” in a name, e.g., A. B. Crawley, Esq. ; (c) after the full stop following an abbreviated word, e.g., Mr. Henry Ridge ; This MS. needs attention.

Two spaces are required after a semicolon or a colon.

Three spaces are required after the end of each sentence.

Don’t start your work too near the top of the page.

Don’t start a fresh paragraph at the bottom of a page when there is room for only one line.

Don’t drop in at the bottom of the page the word which will appear first on the next page.  This is an old-fashioned device.

When typing book-length MSS. number the pages consecutively from first to last, not each chapter separately.

Finally – aim to give your typescript a clean, professional look.  Avoid the use of worn ribbons.  Don’t hit letters over incorrect wording.  Rub out and make the correction neatly.

A step up from longhand, but just looking through that list, it’s easy to see how you couldn’t just get lost in your writing.  You had to be aware of how many lines you have left of your paper,  Keep going obliviously (or copytyping from longhand without checking) and you’ll end up typing onto the platen (roller).  You had to be aware of the ‘ding’ at the end of each line, telling you you only had 8 more spaces available before you hit the margin. There was no right-hand justification, no word count, no choice of font.  WYSIWYG was most likely a nonsense word magicians said in circus tents.

So when you’re up against it, and cursing your word processor for not being the latest version, or needing features they haven’t invented yet, spare a thought for the authors of yesteryear.  In comparison, we’ve got it easy.

By Martine Lillycrop

Science fiction author. I write about worlds that could be and worlds that never were. My books are full of action, adventure and suspense along with cool heroes and likeable villains. Join me on an adventure to worlds unseen, along paths untrodden.


  1. My first 6 published novels were written on a typewriter.
    In those days we just used to write them and send them off. I never kept copies, they never got lost!
    In some ways life is more complicated now.
    (For the 7th one, I upgraded to an Amstrad. (Which was okay, except you couldn’t use it in the garden: you couldn’t see the screen in sunlight. And it took 48 hours to stir into life.))

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha ha, Peter. I started writing on a tiny portable manual and felt really sophisticated when I upgraded to a clunky electric with floppy disk drive to save my work on. I also remember never being able to afford the ribbons for the damned things, or the gallons of tippex!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s