Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, by Matthew Kirschenbaum.

Disclaimer: I’m a computer geek, an aficionado of both computing history and the history of the written and printed word (writing systems, the history of printing, typesetting, and typewriting), and a voracious reader of multiple genres (belles-lettres/classics, pop fiction, popular and scholarly nonfiction, the occasional monograph) so the title of the book immediately spoke to me. Your mileage may vary depending on which of these categories apply to you.

The book delivers what it promises: a scholarly but readable overview of how word-processor technology has been adopted (or not) by authors of various genres; word processors’ widely varying effects, positive and negative, on the craft of those writers, as reported by the writers themselves; and its impacts, positive and negative, on literature scholarship. For example, if modern Track Changes features are turned on, or if using cloud-basde document processors like Google Docs that effectively track revisions explicitly and automatically, scholars of literature have a new goldmine of detailed instrumentation of the writer at work; but for earlier word processors lacking such features (basically any word processor before the late 1980s), author “manuscripts” (document files) reflect only the final product, without any of the crossings-out or margin annotations that have made historical handwritten manuscripts (no longer a redundant phrase!) such as the USA’s founding documents such a compelling window into the workings of the authors’ minds. Indeed, because of legacy computer issues and the limited life of magnetic media, some such manuscripts have become permanently inaccessible.

I learned quite a bit, and I manage to forgive the author’s periodic indulgence in wordplay that seems intended to test your erudition (or prove his) rather than illuminate a point—an academic writing habit I dislike, and I say that as an academic myself. For example, although it seems obvious in retrospect, I had always assumed professional writers would be among the earliest to adopt such a “power tool” for writing (I’ve done a nontrivial amount of professional writing myself), and at the same time, as a student of computing history I have always known that word processing technology was always targeted not at such professionals but at an office environment, for memos, letters, and business documents. Merely putting those facts together suddenly makes it more interesting to ask how professional writers adopted this technology.

What I learned was that many didn’t, and that among those who did (or tried to) there was a wide range of attitudes towards how and whether it improved or otherwise modified their writing process and quantity of output, and whether it fundamentally enabled new ways of approaching writing (for better or worse) that would be impossible with typewriters or pen-and-paper. For example, you can use search-and-replace to change the name of a character throughout a novel, you can insert and delete and move chunks of text around freely, and so on. (The author points out that “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is an example of the kind of work that is unique to the word-processor age.) A number of quotations and interview excerpts from professional writers ranging from John Updike to Stephen King made the observations concrete and illustrated the range of perspectives and observations that different writers brought to the technology. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pop fiction and science fiction authors were among the earliest adopters (though even sci-fi writers who adopted the technology early failed to predict its soon-to-be ubiquity in their visionary novels), and belles-lettres authors among the longest holdouts. As the author does a nice job of describing, of course, typewriters elicited many of the same controversies and polarizing views in their own turn, especially as the earliest models (e.g. Twain’s Remington #1) didn’t allow the typist to see the text as it was being printed on the page.

Another item in the category of something I always knew, but never connected to its impact on professional writing: using a word processor on the one hand separates the act of composition from the act of fixing something in tangible form (printing, typing) in both time and space (you can print later than you write, and the printer may be in another room), but on the other hand blurs the boundary between composition and revision/editing, which are necessarily separate operations when working with a typewriter or handwritten text. As well, by offering options such as font changes and other formatting, word processors bring layout and typography potentially within the author’s purview; some authors embraced this additional freedom and made it part of their work, others resented the extra learning effort required to navigate a “feature” they had pretty well been able to do without in the past, and yet others have embraced new “minimalist” word processors that have emerged as a reaction to feature-bloat and whose user interfaces hearken back to the days of WordPerfect for DOS, which presented the writer with a featureless blank screen and blinking cursor when a new document was opened.

A particularly interesting chapter is devoted to the “gender-ness” of word processing, which from the start was aimed at secretaries, who at the time of the technology’s emergence were still overwhelmingly female. The idea was to double down on the concept of the typing pool: rather than being a peripatetic do-whatever-is-necessary executive assistant, there would be specialized secretaries who would master the learning curve of word processing and compartmentalize this specific function. I didn’t realize that one of the early dedicated word processors was developed by a female engineer who started her own company to manufacture and market it, and ran an advertisement aimed squarely at secretaries in the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine.

Some of the material that focuses on the history of the technology itself will be familiar to students of the history of computing: for example, even as Xerox PARC was demonstrating the first functional GUI (on the Xerox Alto research prototype) and first WYSIWYG word processor (Bravo), commercial offerings didn’t offer a mouse-and-windows interface but one in which the affordances were “hidden” behind nonobvious control-key combinations that made for a steep learning curve for those new to computing. For those who don’t know this history, the author does a good job telling both stories and juxtaposing them in time.

I also learned that I am still a philistine when it comes to appreciating literary conceptual art. Publishing the text of classic works as viewed through Word AutoSummary, a text consisting of Wite-Out used to overpaint the letters of an existing work, or verbatim transcripts of arbitrary ephemeral texts like traffic reports to “reflect the effortless contemporary duplication and proliferation of texts wiothout regard for the volume and mass of words”—sorry, to me those things are just silly. (And as an academic and an artist, I’m willing to give substantial benefit of the doubt, but it was bemusing to hear that these products are presumably worthy of the term “art”.)

There is a lot here for writers who have an interest in how technology has affected the history of their profession (and conversely), and what their fellow writers have had to say about its effect on their craft. It’s not an easy read, but if these topics interest you, it’s a well constructed one.