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In praise of typewriters

Olympia typewriter

I love typewriters. When I was a kid I had a Petite: red with white keys and a blue ribbon. I used to type letters and compose my very earliest fictional masterpieces on this plastic machine. I also had a William Caxton printing press. This consisted of a set of plastic stamps, small rubber letters and an ink pad. The press was fun, but I found the letters fiddly to insert into the stamps with tweezers, and the ink pad a bit messy for my delicate hands. I much preferred the typewriter, which produced more uniform results and didn’t get my fingers dirty. While in time I would be seduced by the glamour of computers, my first love has recently welcomed me back with open arms.

When I started writing as an adult I scribbled stories longhand behind market stalls. People gradually became aware of my writing aspirations, and an aunt of my then girlfriend – now my wife of almost thirty years – gave me an electric typewriter: a substantial piece of kit from the 1970s. Upon receiving this machine I was instantly transported back to my childhood, and memories of the Petite; I wrote with enthusiasm. When this machine finally sputtered its last, my girlfriend bought me a brand-new Brother electric typewriter with correcting ribbon. I continued typing, and did a lot of correcting.

Years passed, during which time I took my writing increasingly seriously. In the mid-1990s I decided it was time to become more professional, so I took out a personal loan, bought a PC and started using WordPerfect. I began to cut, paste and produce multiple copies without having to go anywhere near scissors, glue or carbon paper. A cursor blinked on a screen; disks whirred; a dot-matrix printer scratched and scurried. I felt like a character from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And so for the next twenty-five years I bought into the computing dream. My writing career progressed. I wrote and published articles, short stories and novels. Because I had a computer I also played games: I must have spent two years exploring the caverns of Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, casting spells and fighting beasties; adventures that took up many hours I could have spent writing. Then the internet emerged, and I began to communicate by email, visit forums and shop online. My computer needed updating. There were viruses, security issues, lost floppy disks, corrupted data and frazzled hard drives. And with all this, computers’ time-saving benefits and convenience became diluted as the distractions and problems multiplied.

Computers are now essential to everyday life. They enable and encourage speed, both of which are good for corporations looking to maximise productivity and profit, but are not necessarily the friends of creative work. My writing origins are in science fiction, a genre in which the authors of the fifties and sixties knocked out short stories on a cents-per-word payment model, and novels were slim: if they wrote fast, it was possible to make a living. This filtered down through the SF community over the decades, and by the mid-2000s publishers were offering book-a-year contracts, requiring rapid output. Possibly due to a combination of lifestage and a floundering career, it’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate the creative benefits of taking things more slowly. And so in turn I’ve rediscovered the joys of the typewriter.

These machines have become an essential, fun, and rewarding part of my creative process. While I used to dive straight into the computer, I’ve recognised that if I take a piece of writing into the digital environment too early, encasing my words in a shell of glass and metal, I detach myself from the work. I’ve therefore returned to writing first drafts longhand, which I then type up on a manual typewriter. This way I can record my barely legible scribblings on paper, for further consideration and development. What can be more writerly than typed sheet that can be annotated, cut up, pasted, and possibly even screwed up and thrown away? I do that a lot.

Without distractions, I can be more productive in an hour or two on the typewriter than a whole morning in front of my Mac. Paper is also much easier on the eyes than gazing at a screen for hours on end. But perhaps most importantly of all, I just enjoy doing something I love, using a sturdy, beautiful machine that was made to do one thing well: put words on paper. Typewriters have their shortcomings, but to me these are more than offset by the benefits. It’s easy to make mistaks (you see what I did there?) but these can be fixed in the redraft, and are also evidence that work had been done, the corrections evidence of my thought processes. With digital, there’ll be nothing like this for future generations: in decades to come, it’ll appear that from the late twentieth century writers produced perfect work straight off the blocks.

My preference is for portable typewriters from the 1950s to the 1970s, although by the latter decade quality was declining as reducing costs became more important than longevity and reliability. I’ve currently got four: a mid-60s Olympia SM9 that’s my ‘working machine’; a 1950s Olympia SM4, which although fully functional is largely decorative; a mid-70s Underwood 18, given to me by my sister-in-law; a late-60s Olympia Splendid 66, recently purchased via eBay for the princely sum of £16. My SMs have a sturdiness and mechanical confidence lacking from the Underwood and Splendid, which were budget units in their day. Despite being decades old, none of them needed more than a good clean (old toothbrushes are particularly good for this), minimal lubrication with good quality sewing-machine oil (never WD40!), and a new ribbon, before being set to work. The rubber platen on the SM4 is rock-hard, so while still useable it is quite loud, and punches holes in the paper even when using three or four backing sheets.

I’m no mechanic – if ever you see me under the bonnet of a car dial 999 with all haste – but the workings of a typewriter can largely be deduced with a little patience and observation, and I do love to tinker. With their thousands of parts, these machines are mechanical marvels that supported manufacturers of springs, linkages and rubber gaskets for decades, not to mention the skills of those who serviced them. During tutorials with students, I’ll often suggest that it may be useful to change the font to Courier for proofreading purposes. I explain that Courier is a monospace font from the days when people used typewriters, and every character had to be the same width because of the way typewriters work. Proportional fonts – especially serif fonts – are designed to enable fast, easy reading, I tell them, which isn’t necessarily what you want when looking for mistakes. Some students actually look interested.

In India, typewriter servicing remains in demand, and it’s reported that the Russian government still uses these machines due to their security: typewriters simply can’t be hacked. But there’s also something of a resurgence of interest in typewriters across the Western world, where computers are ubiquitous. Notes From a Public Typewriter contains notes, essays and photos published by the owners of the Literati Bookstore in Michigan, where a typewriter provided for public use produced all manner of questions, confessions and statements. The Typewriter Revolution enthuses about the beauty of these machines, and has encouraged me to start buying old typewriters to refurbish and sell on; a Wheeler Dealers for typewriters, if you like. I’ll start with the Underwood: while perfectly functional, this might have greater appeal with a funky paint job. I’ll then move on to the Splendid, and keep an eye out for other machines in second-hand shops and flea markets.

Yes, that’s all well and good, Martin, I hear you cry, but did you draft this article on a typewriter?

Alas, dear reader, I must confess I did not. I fully intended to, but time pressures and a looming deadline meant I had to type my hand-written notes directly into a computer. This required staring at a screen, frequent distractions and use of electricity — a further contrast to the green credentials of manual typewriters.

While they do have their limitations and drawbacks, typewriters will remain part of my creative writing from now on. They’re cheap and simple to use, require no electricity, and with regular use and maintenance, will likely be serviceable for decades to come — something that can’t be said of my digital devices. So if you have an old typewriter you’d like to sell – or, indeed, would like to buy one – get in touch! Especially if it’s a Petite: red with white keys, and a blue ribbon.

In 2019 Martin Sketchley was writer/producer/director on the My Beating Heart showcase in aid of MacMillan Cancer Support, and he was writer-in-residence at Stafford’s Gatehouse Theatre. 2020 will see the publication of his latest short story, ‘Fanning the Flames’, based on the life of Dead or Alive singer Pete Burns.

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