Technology and Freelance Writing Go Hand-in-Hand

May 12th, 2015 | Posted by Steve in Nonfiction | Odds and Ends | The Writing Life | Uncategorized

I’m not much of an expert on advanced computer technology. That’s a generational thing. I still use a fountain pen and words Chaucer might have recognized. I’m of the generation that is barely hanging onto the tail of the technological  tiger and trying not to let go, lest it turn and consume me.

IBM Selectric I started freelance writing for magazines back in 1982. I was a part-timer, still working for a company in a downtown office and I wrote in evenings and on weekends. I used a typewriter, a portable at that. I dreamed of the day when I could afford a genuine IBM Selectric II, the crème de la crème of office typewriters, the one with the “golf ball” in it. (Those cost $1200 in 1984 and years later I bought one for $25 in a Salvation Army store, paid the last living IBM typewriter repairman in the area $100 to make it perfect once more—and then never had any use for it. I finally mailed it to another writer who had also long dreamed of owning an IBM Selectric II. The shipping cost me more than $50.)

At first I was concerned with perfection and if I made a typo or a small change in the manuscript I would re-type that entire page. Eventually I came to realize that it was sufficient to just make some pen-and-ink corrections and nobody would hold that against me. It was  one reason to double-space manuscripts, the other being that the editor and/or proofreader would use the extra space to make proofreading marks.

When the manuscript was complete I either drove to the magazine office and turned it in (I wrote for, at one time or another, every local city and business magazine) or I mailed it. Often I sent it by Federal Express.

I used FedEx because I’d learned about the sloppy and lackadaisical attitude of the USPS “Express Mail” system which rendered it useless to serious businesses requiring serious overnight delivery. In fact, at the company I worked for in the 1970s-1980s we used FedEx, the airline freight system overseas (seriously) and a nifty program called Delta Dash wherein airline pilots would hand-carry our mail to the destination airport and hand that over to someone there. Sometimes I even hopped an airplane and flew to airports around the country to hand-deliver papers. Sometimes we hired couriers to do the same.

epson QX-10In late 1984 I went full-time as a writer. I also bought my first computer, an Epson QX-10. It had two 5 1/4-inch floppy drives storing a vast 250 kilobytes of data (except that one was the program too), making it the Cadillac of computers. There was no hard drive but I added a memory card with an incredible 2K of storage and a separate power supply to keep that active.

I was the hottest thing in local writerdom. With my computer and my new printer (a daisy-wheel version that sounded like a .50-caliber machine gun) I could now make corrections and rewrites and those didn’t matter because I could print only when the manuscript was complete. I had one editor tell me that she was almost afraid to edit my work because it looked so perfect. I now sent or delivered both a floppy with the manuscript in digital form, and also a printed version. Even back then I thought that was dumb.

I recall two events from those times where I found myself astonished at the technology. First, I discovered that I could transmit a document—a manuscript in my case—direct to a publisher in Sweden for which I wrote articles about maritime trade. This was not called e-mail. I don’t think it was called anything at all. Before, I’d needed to mail those manuscripts and allow almost a week for delivery, just in case. Now I had an extra week before my deadline. It was very liberating to know that I could piddle around for an extra week before starting work once my deadline was upon me. Sometimes technology doesn’t make work more efficient, it only makes work happen later.

Then I discovered the Internet. There was no “web” yet but I could navigate through endless lists of connections and one day I found myself looking at some document stored in a library in Japan.

I’m in Japan, I thought. I’m inside a library in Japan. This is amazing. Wonder who’s paying the phone bill? Never did get an answer to that one. Most research involved phone calls to experts or visits to the public library to do long and tedious research. I learned to make a lot of phone calls; those were a more efficient use of my time.

Phone bills were a major issue. Every job had to have a separate phone invoice to be submitted for reimbursement. At more than a hundred manuscripts a year for me, that was a lot of time spent adding up phone calls. There were instances where the phone bill was more than the fee I was being paid.

Fast-forward thirty years. Computers with good solid, capacious hard drives and backups. E-mail, Dropbox and whatever for transmitting documents. Word processing programs easy to use and capable of almost any layout. I write articles and books in single-space in Word and editors still want those sent in double-spaced—why, I have no clue. Proofreader marks are an arcane thing of the past. We do editing now using Word’s Track Changes option.

For information we have web sites and blogs. The World Wide Web with all the information we could ever want at our fingertips—not to mention that latest cute kitten video. (When Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, was asked once what most surprised him about how it was used he instantly replied, “Cats. I never expected to see so many cats.” Me? I don’t think I’ve been inside a library in twenty years. Libraries, at their best, can access the same information sources I can use from home. At worst, they’re where printed books go to die and where street people go to stay warm.

Phones? I still have a land line only because it’s  free, bundled with my computer modem and it has a serious big ugly headset good for freeing up my hands for typing during interviews. But everyone has cell phones. More important to my sanity, everyone has phones with unlimited plans. No more toting up phone bills to submit with my invoice. Even overseas calls are too cheap to bother invoicing for. If I did a lot of those, I’d use Skype.

Back to modern technology being a generational thing and how some of us barely have hold of the tail of the tiger. And, apparently, some have lost their grip. Got a call a few days ago from a fellow freelance writer. In fact he was the first freelance writer I ever met and he’s been doing it a decade longer than I. He wanted to interview me for something about writing memoirs and I had just completed one for a client. I mentioned how I had interviewed the client, an hour at a time, each Tuesday and Thursday for about two months. The client lives in Los Angeles; I’m in Tampa.

“So . . . who paid for all those long-distance phone calls,” he asked me.

Your jaw just dropped. I know this even without seeing you. I said nothing at first because I was stunned by the question.

“You must use Skype,” he said into my incredulous silence. “Save on phone charges that way.” At least he knew what Skype was.

“Um . . . there are no phone charges,” I managed to say. “Nobody pays for long-distant phone calls within the U.S. any more.”


Pong“Yeah. Everyone has unlimited-calling plans.”

Long silence from him and then he changed the subject. We hung up shortly thereafter. I stared at my land-line phone, itself a relic most people today would laugh at.

He’s still paying for long-distance calls, I thought. How is that even possible?

One answer is that he’s one generation older than me. And technology is a generational thing. For all I know, he may still have a Pong game in his rec room.









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