Typewriters? No thanks!

I’ve been asked by the Load2Learn team to let people know about the Load2Learn seminars taking place at BETT in January 2013.  Load2Learn is a partnership venture between Dyslexia Action and the RNIB. Rather than write what would amount to a page-long advertisement, I thought I’d tie it in to another technology, from another time, that I have been thinking about recently: the typewriter. I hope you enjoy reading this. 

Royal Portable Typewriter, by Alex Kerhead, http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexkerhead/I’m not completely sure whether or not this is an elaborate spoof, but an article recently talked about the hacking of typewriters to, in effect, turn them into keyboards for a digital device such as an iPad. Check it out for yourself if you like: Old Technology Meets New / Typewriter Meets iPad…. Say What? It’s OK, I’ll wait!

There is something romantic about an old manual typewriter. The clattering of the keys sounds somewhat industrial, which connotes “industrious”. Bashing away at a typewriter is what real writers do. No spellchecker, no thesaurus, no internet, and no forgiveness if you make a mistake. So typing something that looked reasonable, and which didn’t involve too much correction fluid, gave one a sense of achievement.

Or should I say, it gave me a sense of achievement? I know some writers remain wedded to their typewriters, while others have gone back to using one (the “no distractions” argument). There is even a school which claims that using a typewriter improves students’ test scores in English by enhancing the creative writing process. How? Because you don’t have distractions, and you don’t have a computer telling you when you’ve misspelt a word: you are left to your own devices.

Personally, I don’t buy it. I’m sure the school has experienced higher grades, but I bet if you gave a class of students quills and inkwells their test scores would improve, just because of the novelty value if nothing else. I can see how having to fend for yourself, as it were, might be a good thing – but there are lots of disadvantages, not least for those students who can’t fend for themselves.

The thing about this sort of techno-romanticism is that it ignores all the problems with the old technology, and all the advantages of the new. Here are just a few reasons why I think typewriters are inferior to modern devices:

  • If you made a mistake, or thought of something extra to add, you could end up retyping three pages just to accommodate half a dozen new words. (There was a bit of an advantage there actually, in that after the third revision and two hours later you would stop adding or changing anything unless it was absolutely essential. These days, of course, endless tweaking is possible, which is not always useful.)
  • “Accessible” technology meant a machine that you could, just about, lift with one hand so you could take it with you on your travels. I had a portable typewriter which we used to move from the cupboard to the kitchen table. It really helped to develop my biceps, and was cheaper than going to a gym.
  • You couldn’t change the font or font size, unless you happened to have what was called a ‘golfball typewriter’, and a spare golfball or two with a different typeface.
  • And talking about typefaces, you mainly had a choice of one: a monospaced font like this one, which looked boring and was difficult to read. 
  • Creating a “structured document”, which is something Load2Learn advocates strongly, meant learning about, and using, tabs, and was a complete pain in the posterior, because if you made a mistake with the indentation you’d have to type the whole page again.
  • Colour-coding? Forget it. You could underline or type stuff in red, if you bought yourself a two-colour ribbon and remembered to use it (and how to use it).
  • Bold? Don’t make me laugh. A really skilled typist could go over the same word a few times to make it look really black, but when I tried anything like that the person reading it would immediately book an appointment with their optician to see about their double vision. The only real options for making text stand out were CAPITALS, which today we regard as shouting, underlining, which usually resulted in an uneven line rather than the nice one you see here, or double underlining. Both kinds tended to cut the bottom of letters like “g”.

The Load2Learn seminar is about helping students to read independently, with the help of free or cheap tools. As part of that, the talk will look at how you can make text accessible to students in the documents you create. It’s surprisingly easy, once you’re shown how!

In my opinion, this is not something that is relevant only to people who have a form of dyslexia. The objective of the accessibility of documents and technologies is to support students with reading difficulties, and this may be up to 10% of the class.If you make your documents accessible to those who find reading difficult, you’re bound to make them easier to read and understand by everyone. Given that the customary aim of writing something is to have it read, that sounds like a pretty good idea to me! 

So, hammer away at a typewriter if it gives you pleasure, but bear in mind that the idea of using one to create documents that are accessible to all is, to all intents and purposes, a non-starter. You’d be much better off using digital technology, perhaps with one or two of the enhancements that some well-chosen applications can supply.

Seminar details

Click these links for dates, times and venues, and to register for any or all of the Load2Learn seminars:

Load2Learn at BETT

As well as being free, the seminars will also include the giving away of Load2Learn’s very handy cue cards, which contain all sorts of useful suggestions and how-to’s – find out more about these in my review of the Technologies for Print Disability Training Day.

I wrote this as a guest blogger on behalf of Dyslexia Action, but my opinions are my own.