A retrospective look at the wordprocessor

When the Apple Macintosh ushered in the golden age of personal computing fifteen years ago, computer experts declared that the typewriter would soon be rendered obsolete by wordprocessing software. (For the purposes of this essay, wordprocessor refers to wordprocessing software, like ClarisWorks and WordPerfect - not actual machines dedicated to wordprocessing, since these have long since vanished off the face of the planet.) Their reason for this prediction was the ability of wordprocessors to remove much of the frustration and delay that used to be a nasty side-effect of the writing process. There are those who claim that wordprocessors have done nothing to aid the writing process, much less revolutionize it as was expected. However, I tend to disagree with this viewpoint. My writing experience includes the use of many brands of wordprocessing software on several computing platforms, in addition to typewriters (both manual and electric), as well as the humble ball-point pen. And based on this experience and that of my friends, relatives and collegues, I am a vehement supporter of the superiority of wordprocessors over typewriters.

The first time I used a typewriter to produce a document was in the seventh grade. Up to that point, paper and ink (or graphite) had been the extent of my literary technology. My first reaction, upon sitting in front of the typewriter, was something along the lines of, "Why are all the letters jumbled up?". It was many years before I discovered that the ubiquitous QWERTY system was a vestigial holdover from the days when the first typewriters used to constantly get jammed by the flying fingers of secretaries. Unfortunately, the QWERTY keyboard layout has survived the rise of the personal computer (even in the face of competition from technically superior layout schemes like Dvorak), forcing most people to pick up touch typing. Oddly enough, for someone who would choose typing over handwriting any day, I am still limited to the hunt-and-peck method of typing. Surprisingly, my inability to type efficiently has not hampered my enthusiasm for using wordprocessors as tools in the writing process. The only mechanical difficulty I have ever experienced while typing was the need to hammer away at the stiff keys on my original typewriter. This is probably why I still tend to bang the keys on my spring-loaded computer keyboard. Since I lack sufficient finger dexterity to master touch typing, this situation is not likely to change much until voice/handwriting recognition improves enough for me to drop-kick my keyboard over the Columbia Icefields. Despite this awkward keyboard layout, modern computer keyboards tend to be more ergonomically friendly than the typewriters of yore, which adds to the convenience of using a wordprocessor.

A frequent complaint I hear is that computers crash while people are in the midst of writing something, resulting in the loss of all their work. This is a moot point, as the simple process of saving their work every so often would drastically reduce the amount of work they lose when their computers do crash. Yet, people steadfastly fail to take even this most basic of precautions, out of either stubbornness or sheer ignorance. The funniest true story I have ever heard regarding this was about a university student who sat down at a computer, typed up a thousand word essay, printed it out and then turned the computer off - all without once saving her document to disk. She then read through the printout and discovered a critical error. Turning to the person beside her, she exclaimed, "Oh, great! Now I have to type this up again!" This anecdote may sound hard to believe but such incidents are not that rare among novice computer users, who are often too intimidated by computers to attempt to learn how to use them. I have actually seen people type up documents of several hundred words in length without even bothering to save their work once. At any rate, this issue cannot really be considered a blow against the usefulness of wordprocessors. After all, desktop computers were not designed with bulletproof stability in mind - they can be expected to crash or freeze up on a regular basis (especially if they run Windows). The easiest way for people to minimize the amount of work lost to computer crashes is to save early and often.

A more cerebral complaint regarding wordprocessors is that the ubiquitous spellchecking feature tends to undermine people's mastery of spellings by giving them a false sense of security in the computer's ability to do their thinking for them. That is tantamount to saying that automobiles make us lazy because we use them to drive around the block to the convenience store. If people choose to abuse their ownership of a vehicle by driving when they could just as easily walk, it is hardly the fault of the vehicle. As with technology in general, wordprocessors simply provide us with the means to do things. How we use them is entirely our own responsibility. Spellchecking is far from perfect: "It lets yew get a whey width such disasters as this beak horse nun of the words in dissent tense have bean spilt incorrectly." Yet, it can be quite efficient at picking out the most common errors before a document gets edited or reviewed by another person. The grammar checking feature, which is becoming increasingly popular in modern wordprocessors, is of even more dubious reliability and ought to make users far more wary of letting their software take too much of the writing process out of their hands.

When personal computers began to be used in offices, experts predicted that the volume of paper used for communcation would drop sharply as people began to use their computers to read and write documents that would formerly have been done by hand. Paradoxically, quite the reverse happened. As office workers got drowned in a sea of information, they began to use their printers and fax machines even more they they did before, simply because they did not feel comfortable reading reams of text directly off the screen. When I worked at the Royal Bank last summer, my co-workers had the habit of sending all their email directly to the printer, without even bothering to glance at it. They would then walk over and pick up the tome of messages that the printer had just spewed out and discard the spam, reading what they deemed important. It seemed like a phenomenonal waste of paper to me. Being an environmentalist, one of my goals is to minimize my paper use, which is why I try, wherever possible, to use email instead of paper to exchange information. This option would not have been available to us had it not been for the existence of wordprocessors, which allow us to create, store and retrieve words without the need for a relatively static storage/display medium like paper.

There are some features of wordprocessors that have undoubtedly made writing a less time-consuming and troublesome affair for us all, such as the ability to instantly get a count of how many words are in a document or to look up all the synonyms of a particular word with a click of the mouse. Before the advent of wordprocessors, it was quite an ordeal to count all the words in a document, especially a large one. This meant that writers would generally have to guess at the number of words on a page and extrapolate that to judge how long their piece of work had become. Similarly, looking up synonyms in a thesaurus, while not nearly as annoying, was still a bit of a hassle, thus preventing all but the most dedicated from using one. Some modern wordprocessors, however, allow the user to highlight a word and instantly view a list of its synonyms. I am particularly fond of this feature, which allows me to utilize my vocabulary without the need to flip through a thesaurus, trying to find the word that expresses the exact shade of meaning that I want to convey.

When producing reports and essays, it is a significant advantage to be able to have them look nice and be easy on the eye. The use of serif fonts, variable font sizes, line spacing and text justification, for example, can make a document far more attractive than one that has been done using plain text. These style and layout options have allowed people to make their work much more presentable than they ever could have done with a typewriter. Although this does not really have too much bearing on the actual content of the document, it is still a very useful feature that the wordprocessor has made possible.

My favourite feature of the wordprocessor is its ability to easily alter and rearrange the words in a document. Although this is one of the most basic elements of a wordprocessor, it continues to remain the most critical. If I had to lose every other advantage of having a wordprocessor, this one would be sufficient to keep me from giving up on writing altogether. I remember the first time I used a wordprocessor: The delight I felt at discovering the backspace key is more than mere words (even processed ones) can describe. Later on, when I learned how to copy and paste text within and between documents, I developed an appreciation for wordprocessors that I never truly realized I had - until one day my computer commited hara-kiri. During the ensuing weeks, in which I was forced to write assignments and do homework in pen, I developed an appreciation for the amazing piece of technology we know as the wordprocessor.

I believe that the experts were right when they hailed the wordprocessor as the tool that would radically alter the writing process. It has allowed us to speed up editing by simply fixing errors, instead of rewriting entire documents from scratch, and it has provided us with tools that make it drastically easier to produce higher quality writing (if we so choose). For all the little problems it may have introduced, the wordprocessor remains the most ingenius literary instrument since the printing press.

This is an original work by Antonio M. D'souza (aka digitalboy).

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