November 20, 2014

Hunting and pecking for a living

ONCE IN A WHILE somebody will ask me how many words I have written during my career as a professional writer. I can honestly say I don’t know. Millions, certainly. Maybe even millions of millions. But I don’t know. Only amateurs count the words.

For 20 years I wrote a 1,000-word newspaper column six days a week. I seem to remember that came to about 5,000 columns. At the same time I wrote editorials for seven years. That’s somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 editorials. Then I wrote editorials full-time for another paper for two years, six a week. That’s an extra 600 or so.  

Then I wrote books about boats. Twelve or so were accepted by publishers. Three or four never did find a home. In between, I wrote articles for magazines. I never kept count of them, but there were certainly scores, possibly hundreds. And these days I write columns for my blog. I’ve done more than 900 so far. So what I say to the people who ask is “Go ahead, you do the math.”

The second thing they ask is why I never learned to touch-type. They see me hunting and pecking at the keyboard and jump to the conclusion that I was never taught properly. Well I was, as a matter of fact.

One of the subjects we studied at journalists’ college was touch-typing. We were all young men, then, of course. Women newspaper reporters were very rare at that time. I don’t think our editors trusted them to know what news was. We certainly didn’t have any women cub reporters at our college.

We took lessons in typing from a rather nice middle-aged lady who wore a resigned look on her face. She knew what would happen. She knew the young male reporters bursting with testosterone and awash with hormones would never want to be seen touch-typing in the newsroom like a bunch of fairies. Real reporters pounded their typewriters with two fingers and swore at the keys when they got stuck.

We didn’t actually wear fedoras and trench coats, and we all did pass our typing exams because we had to, to keep our jobs, but as soon as we got back to our respective newspaper offices we all abandoned touch-typing and regressed to manly hunting and pecking.

For one thing, it made our stories more concise, which endeared us to the copy editors. They had great power over us. They could change our spelling and our grammar and cuss us out in front of everybody. We were very scared of the copy editors.

The other thing about two-finger typing was that it slowed down the communication between the brain and the fingertips. That was a good thing because it gave you a chance to criticize your writing. When we did eventually get a woman in the reporters’ room she was hated by the copy editors because her stories were always three times as long as they needed to be, and filled with useless twiddly-bits, as if she were chatting idly to her next-door neighbor.

The problem, as we figured it out, was that she was a star touch-typist. She typed at the speed of a blazing comet. She didn’t have to think about where to find the m or the n or remember when to hit the caps lock or anything. Her fingers flew to each hidden key surely and automatically, and there was nothing to stop the steady stream of words from her brain flowing straight out of her fingertips, no time to assess the true sense of the words that flowed like Niagara out of her typewriter, no chance to do a modicum of self-editing as she wrote.

In the press club bar in the evening, the poor copy editors who had the dreaded task of cutting her copy down to size would order large whiskies with shaking hands and we young-blood male reporters would shake our heads solemnly and commiserate with them. We actually bought them drinks when we could afford it. It was always a good thing to keep in with the copy editors.

I still hunt and peck. I am still an atrocious typist. But what the heck. Who cares? I don’t have to worry about copy editors any more. And, glory be, the keys don’t get stuck together now, either.

Today’s Thought
He wrote for certain papers which, as everybody knows,
Is worse than serving in a shop or scaring off the crows.
— Rudyard Kipling

There was an old lady of Worcester
Who was often annoyed by a rorcester.
She cut off his head
Until he was dead,
And now he don’t crow like he yorcester.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Kevin Vigor said...

It may amuse you to know that I also hunt & peck. Decades ago I said I'd learn to type properly when my brain became fast enough that my typing was the limiting factor in my work. That day has not yet come and seems increasingly less likely to.

(Also, I sometimes end sentences with prepositions).

John Vigor said...

It may also amuse my readers to know that Kevin is my son. Like father, like son.
As for the preposition problem, wasn't it Churchhill who said "That is something up with which I will not put."?

John V.