Carbon Copies, Typewriters, & Dot-Matrix Printers

Technology moves so fast, it’s easy to forget how we used to do things. Back in the 1980s, a Ph.D. student from Ohio State University paid me to type her dissertation. She’d finished her coursework and was living in Lexington, commuting back to Columbus as needed to meet with her committee. Experiencing the process with her was enough to keep me from ever pursuing a Ph.D of my own.

Volkswriter had just replaced WordStar as the word processing software of choice. Each of the dissertation chapters was saved on a separate five-inch floppy disk. I’d print out drafts on the dot matrix printer for her to ship to her professors.  She’d come back a month or so later with a billion revisions. We spent weeks just adding and deleting commas from the references to comply with APA style guidelines.

Revisions were complicated by the fact that her five committee members worked independent of one another, mailing back dot matrix copies with hand-written notes in the margins. Figuring out how to handle conflicting suggestions was a huge problem that often required conference calls or travel to Columbus for a face-to-face meeting with everyone in the same room. Tedium, ad naseum.

For the final copy, I switched the printer cable over from the dot matrix printer to my IBM Selectric typewriter, inserted a piece of paper, and hit return. When the page finished… typing, I removed it from the typewriter, positioned a new piece of paper, and hit return on the typewriter for the next page to print. I forget how many pages the final copy ended up being, but printing one out took all afternoon.

The last stage of the process involved sending the final copy to someone who went over the whole thing with a fine-toothed comb and a ruler to make sure all the rules had been followed. Nobody gets it right the first time. Fixing these problems usually involved changing settings in the software and then printing another copy.

Think that’s bad? As we were finishing up, an aging professor told us she’d typed her dissertation on a manual typewriter with carbon copies because the photocopier hadn’t yet been invented. When changes couldn’t be handled with a typewriter eraser for the original and correcting fluid on the carbon copies, she had to retype the whole thing.

If I’d had to write Until Thanksgiving with pen and paper, I don’t know if I ever would have finished. Beyond a doubt, the book I would have ended up with would never have found a publisher. Never mind the challenges of writing out a book that’s constantly changing and evolving. Without a digital version to share via email, I’d miss out on all the comments and suggestions I got from sharing 5000 word chunks with my writers group and drafts with my beta readers.

Thanks to technology, getting published has never been easier. Editors, publishers, and agents are optional. Ebooks and print-on-demand make self-publishing an easy and attractive option. For self-published authors, skill with all the social networking applications and how to get the most out of them has as much to do with success as the quality of the writing. More, some would say.

I’ll stick with traditional publishing. It’s not a snobby thing. If that were the case, I’d be looking for an agent — optional in my genre, but a necessity in some. I like having professional artists design the cover and editors to make sure the wording is clear and precise with commas in all the right places. The marketing and promotion stuff a publisher does is just icing on the cake.

Thirty years ago, I never could have predicted the technological capability we have today. No telling what we’ll be doing thirty years from now. I just hope I can keep up.

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