Help me pick out a typewriter for an aspiring novelist
April 11, 2014 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Mrs. Thistledown has been working on a novel, but getting motivation to write has been difficult since she spends most of her workday staring at a computer screen. Coming home to stare at another one to write is hard for her. A typewriter on the other hand...

I suggested the idea of a typewriter and she loved it. Her birthday is next week and I'd like to get her one. The feel of the typing with the immediate word on the page is something we talked about, and she really digs the idea.

My experience with typewriters is limited. I've used IBM Selectrics before, and they seemed like good machines. They also seem fairly well-supported still. But is that too much typewriter? Would a more vintage, quainter machine be easier to use? Manual or electric? Correcting or not?

I realize there will be some learning curve with it, but I just need some advice on what I should look for, what supplies I'll need to get for her, and what she might need to know. Thanks in advance, y'all!
posted by Thistledown to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should have added that I've seen the What You Should Know about Buying a Typewriter wordpress blog, but I'd like some direct experiences from y'all as well.
posted by Thistledown at 7:11 AM on April 11, 2014

Manual typewriters are a fun retro novelty -- I have a few of various vintages -- but I wouldn't want to use one for serious writing unless I wanted to develop really strong finger muscles as a side project.
posted by ook at 7:14 AM on April 11, 2014

Response by poster: Ook - that's cool, and I appreciate it. But she wants one to try, so if you've got some brand advice, or user-knowledge that would be beneficial, I'd really appreciate it.
posted by Thistledown at 7:38 AM on April 11, 2014

Don't go with manual unless you've got a good reason; they require a different style of typing that might be uncomfortable to someone with computer experience.

I would go with the kind of electric typewriters that you can still buy new -- they generally have a 'backspace' key that whites-out a mistake, or a certain amount of internal memory so you can backspace an entire word or save macros or type for a little while and edit before committing the words to the page. They are designed to be much more computer-y than a regular typewriter, which is an asset. Many writers prefer typewriters because of the permanence at the time, discouraging large-scale editing as you go, and modern electric typewriters do that extremely well. Plus ,the new ones make it pretty easy to find replacement parts or get it fixed under warranty.

If you've got access to a classic Selectric, that might be a good machine to try -- they're beasts and nigh indestructible, which might be overkill for Mrs. Thistledown.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:42 AM on April 11, 2014

and what she might need to know

What she might need to know is that the difference between her being motivated to work on her novel and her not being motivated to work on her novel is almost definitely not whether or not she has a typewriter.

I write, and I know people who write, and I know people who don't write. What I can tell you is that the people who don't write (but want to) have the habit of deciding that there's going to be just one accessory they need, one tool or one change in their routine and then they'll start writing. More than one person has decided that a typewriter is absolutely it. They buy a typewriter. They type one page, maybe one chapter. And then that's all. From then on, they keep meaning to write their book on a typewriter, instead of meaning to write it on a computer.

You'll also find that a typewriter was a revelation for people trying to write around the time the typewriter was invented, but it will represent a serious impediment for someone trying to write nowadays, someone who's used to the Office suite or even a decent word processor. She will not be able to cut or copy or paste, and correction will be limited. She may find this very frustrating. Changes will have to be made by hand, after the fact, so make sure she remembers to double-space.

None of that should necessarily stop you from buying her a typewriter. They're fun things to play around with. And who knows? Maybe that's the kick she needs. I guess what I'm saying is, don't be disappointed if this isn't the silver bullet.

That all said:

I've had the most luck with Brother typewriters - they kept making typewriters long after the world had moved on. The ML 300 looks like it could be pretty nice. Unfortunately I can't recall which model I used. It offers about as much correction as you're going to get out of a typewriter. Practically, something like this is your best bet.

A little less practically, I would shop around a bit and see if you can find something pretty and vintage, something that works. If this winds up being more of a romantic gift than a practical one, you may want something that looks nice in the home.

A friend of mine had great luck with Kasbah Mod, although I freely admit their site is not easy to navigate. She went from not writing her novel on a computer to not writing her novel on a lovely vintage sunny yellow typewriter. I have no idea how to access their product line from their website (it's seriously awful), so here's their Facebook page with a phone number. The good thing about going through a central retailer is that they'll be able to hook you up with ribbons and places to get it serviced if need be.

So you have options. You know her better than we do, so figure out what would best suit her needs and go for it.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:45 AM on April 11, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: If you go with an older manual model, make sure you'll be able to also get replacement ribbons for it.

This is less hard than it sounds, given that ebay has replacements which are universal (ish) - this is easy to check against the model number. Just make sure to do this piece of legwork before you buy the typewriter itself.
posted by jessicapierce at 7:56 AM on April 11, 2014

There's also a USB Typewriter
posted by Sophont at 8:24 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you're going to go with a typewriter, you need to go with a manual (the switch goes pretty fast if you use it daily). And for manual typewriters, you need to go with the Hermes 3000.

The action on that typewriter is truly dreamy. Very easy on the fingers, and very easy on the eyes. Replacement ribbons abound.

She'll love it.
posted by rocketman at 8:25 AM on April 11, 2014

Best answer: I would caution you away from the Brother model linked several times above. As I understand it from reading the Amazon page and reviews, that model has line by line printing rather than character by character - that means you type to the end of the line (which you see on the little LCD screen above the keyboard), wait for the line to print, type the next line, and etc.. This may work well for some people, but is a very different aesthetic/kinesthetic experience than what most people imagine when they imagine using a typewriter.

When I decided I wanted a typewriter so I could write without having to look at a screen, I got a manual typewriter from Hammacher Schlemmer for the cautious reasons listed above - that it was newly made rather than vintage, that it would be easy to find ribbons, etc. etc..

It was a plastic piece of crap that broke in less than a week of light use.

To replace it, I looked around on eBay and ending up buying a manual Smith Corona Galaxie Deluxe from the early 70s. I think I spent $30 (including shipping) for it? The action was a little tight when I first got it and some keys weren't as responsive (I've heard this is common), but after a couple of days of typing, it loosened up fine. You can also buy cheap standard ribbons that fit most vintage typewriters on eBay.

Classic electric typewriters are cool, but because of the complexity of the machinery, it's much harder to come by ones that still work and the ones that are out there are more expensive. I recommend starting with a manual for her because they're so cheap that if it turns out it doesn't work for her, you won't have wasted money. It's true that manuals take more finger strength than people use for typing on computers, but I found that I adjusted pretty quickly.

(If it's just about getting away from the screen, you could also look into the Alphasmart 3000 typing keyboards, which are abundantly available for low prices on eBay as well)
posted by raisindebt at 8:29 AM on April 11, 2014

But she wants one to try, so if you've got some brand advice, or user-knowledge that would be beneficial, I'd really appreciate it.

Sorry if I was unclear: I wasn't recommending against typewriters altogether, just manual ones. At least the ones I've tried -- two underwoods and I think a smith corona (that one's in storage so I can't doublecheck) -- require more physical exertion than I find comfortable. If you're going to try this for real writing, electric is probably better.
posted by ook at 9:05 AM on April 11, 2014

What about one of the Alphasmart Neo or Dana models? With those, she will be able to transfer what she writes to a computer to avoid retyping everything. You should be able to find them on Amazon or eBay.
posted by perhapses at 9:53 AM on April 11, 2014

I was recently mooning over those big IBM Selectric typewriters that were in every office until the late 90s. There's something very satisfying about typing on one. It hums when you start it up, vibrating slightly, like it can't wait to go. Then when you type, you can go much more quickly and smoothly than with a manual (I heartily agree with ook, above, you really have to punch your fingers down hard on a manual--it's a very different experience than a springloaded computer keyboard or a smooth electric typewriter). I'd look for a Selectric if I were you. (If I were me, too, actually. Think I'll try Craigslist...)
posted by eve harrington at 4:30 PM on April 11, 2014

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