Typing, an underappreciated skill

For high school kids in honors classes typing isn’t usually on the syllabus, but my mom insisted I know how to type. This is why I found myself in a room with 25 manual typewriters, 21 girls, 3 other guys and one very cranky teacher whom I’ll call Mrs X.

Even though the PC revolution was well under way Mrs. X was a firm advocate of the glories of manual typewriters. And while she grudgingly acknowledged the benefits of the IBM Selectrics with the Correcting key she didn’t cotton to the ever-present hum of electrics and greatly preferred the calming clickety-clack and silence of the manual typewriter. She especially didn’t want us spoiled by those new-fangled electric keyboards because if we were going to learn typing we were going to learn the hard way.   

A classic tank of a manual typewriter. I spent many hours typing away on this exact model.

A classic tank of a manual typewriter. I spent many hours typing away on this exact model.

So we learned on Royal manual typewriters – I don’t know the model # but they were battleship gray with green keys. It took a fair amount of pressure to hit each key and some skill not to hit two keys simultaneously creating a death knot of metal in front of your page. Our days in class consisted of us typing a s d f  j k l ; over and over. Eventually we advanced to more complex tasks like a q s w e d r f and so on.  Tests were timed and the keyboard was covered with paper so that you couldn’t see the keys requiring you to remember the qwerty key layout.

Eventually we were deemed worthy of typing actual sentences and transcribing speeches. The clatter of 25 typewriters was surprising loud but Mrs. X always made herself understood oh so clearly as she dictated random business letters. We made lots and lot of errors and the backspace on a manual keyboard didn’t erase the characters,  so errors were left in place because Whiteout, correction paper and erasable ribbon ink were all verboten.  The endless repetition coupled with no talking meant that we were all bored out of our minds as we typed nonsense in an effort the learn the qwerty keyboard. Imagine typing Quick, Quiet, Zoo, zebra, plucky, mighty, etc. Eventually we all gained a certain proficiency, although true sight typing still isn’t my forte.

Once that semester was over I quickly left the memories of the qwerty world behind but whenever I worked on the computer my typing speed was helpful – especially in college on deadline when writing sports stories for the Columbia Missourian. In fact it was my reasonably decent typing speed that qualified me for a job as a Kelly Girl back when Kelly Services’ workers were still referred to by that term.

Aside from computer keyboards, I hadn’t touched a typewriter since that class. One summer in Columbia, Mo as a summer student  I frequently found myself with lots of time and little money. So to amuse myself and stretch my meager funds I would go to garage sales looking for deals on books, furniture and kitchen supplies. Cruising around on my bike meant I could cover a lot of ground without spending any money on gas and frequently I could negotiate a better deal. “Will you take $.10 for that hardback of Steinbeck?”;  “How about $2 for that dutch oven?”;  “I don’t really need it, but would you take $10 for the Papasan chair?” Carrying the Papasan chair required three separate precarious round-trips on the bike.

It was at just such a garage sale with the usual assortment of knickknacks that I saw my Royal typewriter. Almost the exact same model I learned on – it turns out the owner was a former typing teacher and had kept this one machine after retiring. Overcome with nostalgia and hearing Mrs. X’s exaltations in my mind I quickly opened my wallet and $5 later it was mine.

It was only when I was strapping the typewriter onto my bike that I realized just how heavy those Royals were – the only plastic on the machine was on the keys, everything else was solid, heavy metal. Despite the weight  it was in perfect working order with the magic tab key and the two color ribbon so I could type in bold red when the occasion arose. I pounded out more than a few letters that summer even taping several sheets of paper together for continuous feed ala Jack Kerouac. 9 moves and 1 overhaul later, it still works like a charm. Its presence is mostly a ceremonial at this point, but I will still occasionally bang out a letter just to keep in practice.

It’s those time when I do whip out some paper that I realize that while staring at a blank computer screen can be humbling, it can’t compare to staring at a blank page. With paper you actually have to know what you want to say, how you plan to say it and even how to spell it because unlike a computer, you can’t just start typing out your thoughts, cutting and pasting them into a final document. Drafts really are drafts because those first pages rarely see anything but the recycle bin.

Whipping out 500 words in Word is a piece of cake, doing it on a typewriter is another thing altogether. The typewriter imbues a certain clarity to one’s thoughts. It does this by eliminating distractions – there is no ‘I wonder what the red sox score is – let me go check in my browser’. The focus necessary to write effectively on a manual typewriter continues to serve me well. Both in the clarity of my thoughts (when called for) and the speed at which I can get them into the computer.

I’m not as fast as I was in high school, my typing speed has stablized at about 40 wpm, but I’m forever grateful to my mom that I’m not a two-finger hunt-n-pecker plodding along. What about you? How fast do you type? -t

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