Monday, September 10, 2018

Word processing through the ages

This article was originally published in ISTC Communicator, Autumn 2018 Supplement.

Neil Perlin looks at the impact word processing has had on technical communication and his career.

In February, 1979, I was hired by a computer company called Digital Equipment Corporation to write the user manual for a general ledger accounting package. I have an MBA in accounting and operations management – mathematical process control – from Boston University, so I knew how a general ledger worked.

I wrote the manual by hand, 400 pages, using pencil and paper. We didn’t have word processors, and all typing was done on typewriters by ‘the girls’ in the typing group. (Stay with me…)

I sent the finished manual out for review. Four of my reviewers said I’d gotten it wrong – a general ledger didn’t work the way I described. What they said ran counter to what I’d learned in my MBA program but I assumed that a big computer company would have gotten a waiver on the standard. (I was very young and innocent then…) No word from the fifth reviewer.

So, I threw out the 400 hand-written pages and wrote a new 400-page manual. By hand. Pencil and paper.

When I finished, I sent it out for review. The four reviewers blessed it. However, the fifth, who had been on vacation during the first review pass, called and spent five minutes giving me an epic chewing out.

When he finished, I explained what happened. After he finally stopped laughing, he said ‘Tell me what you wrote the first time.’

I did, and he said ‘That was exactly right. The other reviewers don’t understand accounting. Go ahead and rewrite what you wrote the first time.’ Which I did. By hand. Pencil and paper.

So, I ultimately wrote 1200 pages – by hand, pencil and paper – to get 400, with the last 400 saying the same thing as the first 400.

Many technical communicators from that era have similar ludicrous stories.

The appearance of word processing changed technical communication forever. Stories like mine became things of the past. Things like ‘paste-up’ and ‘carbons’ vanished into history. In this article, I’ll look at how word processing came to be and end with some thoughts about where it may be going.


Word processing dates to Gutenberg and movable type. But for this article, I’ll start with the electronic version.

According to a Computer Nostalgia article1, the first units functionally recognisable as word
processors appeared in 1964 with IBM’s introduction of the MT/ST (Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter) which added magnetic tape storage to a standard IBM Selectric. Users could store, edit, re-use, and even share documents. But it was still a typewriter – no screen.

People also did word processing on mainframe computers with time-shared terminals. To get a sense of this, see the first page of ‘Word Processing on the Mainframe Computer’, written in 1984 by Sue Varnon2.

The first units with screens – recognisable as modern word-processors – debuted in the early 1970s from companies like Lexitron and Vydec. Wang Laboratories’ CRT-based word processing system, introduced in 1976, became the standard and made Wang the dominant player in the word processing market. These systems were crude compared to today’s. Most had no navigation keys and instead used the e/s/d/x keys on the keyboard. They had no function keys for attributes like boldfacing, which was done by pressing key combinations at the beginning and end of the text to be emboldened. There were no options for fonts, and other things that we take for granted today.

WYSIWYG displays didn’t exist. Monitors showed text using the system’s default font. Formatting was done by inserting control characters. There’s debate as to when WYSIWYG appeared – some claim that the early Apple MacIntosh with a bitmapped display made it possible. Others claim that it wasn’t until laser printers became affordable and could fit on a desk that true WYSIWYG became possible and you were able to see what was printed, on screen.

But they offered the kernel of what we expect in word processors today.

Furthermore, the term ‘word processor’ referred to dedicated machines rather than software running on general purpose PCs. The general-purpose PCs we use today were just emerging. But once they did, the dedicated machines were doomed. Wang went through internal turmoil due to changing markets, management, and strategy and filed for bankruptcy in 1992. (A fragment of the company survived until 2014.) Other companies like Lexitron, Lanier, and Vydec disappeared so thoroughly that Google searches return only fragmentary mentions.

To put this in perspective, and for an interesting aspect of cultural sociology – (see the following item, reference “the girl”), consider this piece of history from the Computer Nostalgia1 article :

The New York Times, reporting on a 1971 business equipment trade show, said:

The ‘buzz word’ for this year's show was ‘word processing’, or the use of electronic equipment, such as typewriters; procedures and trained personnel to maximize office efficiency. At the IBM exhibition a girl typed on an electronic typewriter. The copy was received on a magnetic tape cassette which accepted corrections, deletions, and additions and then produced a perfect letter for the boss's signature....

These pioneers were replaced by software with almost legendary names – MacWrite, Lotus AmiPro and Manuscript, PC-Write, Electric Pencil, VolksWrite, MultiMate, PeachText, XyWrite, and three that will be more familiar – WordStar, WordPerfect, and Word.

WordStar was the leading application in the early 1980s when CP/M and MS-DOS were competitors. But changes in technology and interface and customer service issues made it falter. WordPerfect took its place as the leading word-processor in the 1980s. But problems with a release for Microsoft Windows gave Microsoft an entrée into the market with Word. Between a smoother introduction and bundling deals that led to Microsoft Office, Word took the lead in the 1990s and has not looked back.


What has this evolution wrought?

  • Word processing has changed how we write, for the worse according to some literary critics. See ‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’ by John Naughton in the January 14, 2012 issue of The Guardian3 and ‘How Technology Has Changed the Way Authors Write’ by Matthew Kirschenbaum in the July 26, 2016 issue of The New Republic4.

    Personally, I agree that it has changed how I work - for the better. Using a typewriter, changing the material was difficult, often involving White-Out or perhaps even pulling the page out and re-typing it entirely. This made it easy to lose my train of thought. With a word-processor, I can write material, modify it as I go, and easily revert to a previous version. And I can try different wordings to see which is clearer or gives a better readability score. So, overall, and especially after my general ledger user manual fiasco in 1979, I could never give up my word-processor.
  • WYSIWYG authoring is useful but there are periodic arguments about whether it leads authors to focus on formatting content rather than on writing it – appearance over substance. Here’s one example, ‘Word Processors: Stupid and Inefficient’ by Allin Cottrell5.

    Personally, I agree with some of his positions but I think word processing as it currently exists is too entrenched to change in the near future. Also, and interestingly, Cottrell’s position ties in well with the emerging need for content in HTML or XHTML that has no format of its own but that can use multiple stylesheets for single sourcing.

  • WYSIWYG authoring, plus the ability to insert and position graphics electronically, has sharply reduced the role of the graphic designer. That’s not to say that a graphic designer couldn’t do a better job, just that graphic designers are no longer needed.

  • Authoring support tools like spell-checkers and readability analysers in word-processors sharply reduced the role of editors. (When I was at Digital Equipment Corp in 1982, there were, as I recall, about 20 writers supported by a formal editorial group. Today, I’m surprised and pleased if one of my clients has even one editor on staff.)

  • Many managers wanted computers in their offices because computers were cool, but didn’t want to actually use them because typing was considered to be secretarial work. So, some unsung marketing genius coined the term ‘keyboarding’ instead.

  • Typing pools were almost entirely female because management viewed typing as a secretarial function. The advent of word processing caused debate about whether it would perpetuate the typing pool as a so-called ‘pink ghetto’ or open new avenues for advancement for women. My experience from Digital Equipment was the latter. One woman who started as a typist became one of the coordinators of the company’s export control compliance programme.

  • The culture of technical writing changed. In 1980, my department got two word-processors for the writers to share. Soon after, the manager told me that he had offered jobs to two writers, both of whom turned him down on the grounds that 'technical writers don't use computers'.

  • The culture of technical writing changed. In 1980, my department got two word-processors for the writers to share. Soon after, the manager told me that he had offered jobs to two writers, both of whom turned him down on the grounds that ‘technical writers don’t use computers’. 
  • In the same vein, one of the greatest presentations in the STC conference’s Beyond the Bleeding Edge stem, which I started in 1999 and managed until it ended in 2014, was a retrospective look at changes in writing culture by a speaker who showed a video of a presentation he gave in 1980 entitled ‘why technical writers should be allowed to use computers’. It’s one of the funniest but most meaningful presentations I’ve ever seen at a conference. (Why meaningful? Because it examined a huge technical and philosophical shift in technical communication. Why funny? Because, almost on cue, the older attendees looked at each other and said “I remember those days!” while the younger attendees looked at each other and said “No word processors? No way!”)
  • Users of word-processors, primarily Word these days, break all kinds of rules to make sure the document prints well. But these users rarely consider that their documents may have to be converted to HTML or XHTML for use online. So, breaking the rules, often using local formatting rather than styles, seemed to have no down-side but now causes frequent problems.

  • Related to the prior point, management tends to view word-processors as akin to typewriters and thus doesn’t train the users on how to use the tool effectively and correctly. The result is usually chaos.

The Future?

Will today’s word processing powerhouses eventually go extinct? Word processing is so embedded in business and technical communication that it’s hard to imagine, but many once-dominant tools and companies have vanished.

I can think of two things that might change the future of word processing:

  • It’s been said of Word that most people use 5% of its features. The problem is that each person uses a different 5%. So, an interface that users can easily customise, without a consultant to do so, would be a big help.

  • Eliminating typing. A speech-to-text interface, an Alexa of word-processors, may be possible in the future. But the system will have to be smart enough to recognise and remove all the throat clearing and ‘like’ and ‘you know’. And, each person’s voice is different so the system will need a lot of training. And AI might be needed to help the system understand when to emphasise a word without the authors having to tell it to do so and breaking their train of thought.

And the need for word processing as we know it might disappear. An article called ‘Getting The Next Word In’ by Ernie Smith6 from 2016 makes some interesting philosophical points. “The reasons we have traditionally used word processors has slowly been eroded away,” he explained. “LinkedIn is replacing the resume, GitHub is replacing documentation, and blogging (and respective tools) have chipped into journalism. Even documents that are meant to be printed are largely being standardised and automated. Most letters in your physical mailbox today are probably from some bank that generated and printed it without touching Word.”

Perhaps the best indicator of how thoroughly word processing has penetrated the world, especially that of technical communication is the fact that it’s taken for granted except when we complain about some feature of Word. The wonder that it evoked in 1971 is long gone. And that’s a sign of success.


1.     Computer Nostalgia (no date) ‘Computer History. Tracing the History of the Computer – History of Word Processors’ (accessed July 2018)
2.     Varnon S (1984) ‘Word Processing on the Mainframe Computer’ The Journal of Data Education, Volume 24, 1984 – Issue 2 (accessed July 2018)
3.     Naughton J (2012) ‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’ The Guardian (accessed July 2018)
4.     Kirschenbaum M (2016) ‘How Technology Has Changed the Way Authors Write’ The New Republic (accessed July 2018)
5.     Cottrell A (1999) ‘Word Processors: Stupid and Inefficient’ (accessed July 2018)
6.     Smith E (2016) ‘Getting The Next Word In’ Tedium. (accessed July 2018)

Related reading

Ashworth M (2017) 'The death of sub-editing' Communicator, Spring 2017: 14-17

Dawson H (2017) 'Industrial revolution in Fleet Street' Communicator, Summer 2017: 26-29


AI. AI (artificial intelligence) is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems.

Alexa. Alexa is a virtual digital assistant developed by Amazon for its Amazon Echo and Echo Dot line of computing devices.

Carbon copy. A carbon copy (or carbons) was the under-copy of a document created when carbon paper was placed between the original and the under-copy during the production of a document. In email, the abbreviation CC indicates those who are to receive a copy of a message addressed primarily to another (CC is the abbreviation of carbon copy).

CP/M. CP/M originally stood for Control Program/Monitor and later Control Program for Microcomputers, is a mass-market operating system created for Intel 8080/85-based microcomputers by Gary Kildall of Digital Research, Inc.

GitHub. GitHub is a web-based version-control and collaboration platform for software developers.

HTML. Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is the standard markup language for creating web pages and web applications.

Keyboarding. Enter data by means of a keyboard.

MS-DOS. (Microsoft Disk Operating System). MS‑DOS was the main operating system for IBM PC compatible personal computers during the 1980s and the early 1990s.

Paste-up. A document prepared for copying or printing by combining and pasting various sections on a backing.

Pink ghetto. ‘Pink ghetto’ is a term used to refer to jobs dominated by women. The term was coined in 1983 to describe the limits women have in furthering their careers, since the jobs are often dead-end, stressful and underpaid.

White-Out. White-out is a correction fluid. It is an opaque, usually white, fluid applied to paper to mask errors in text. Once dried, it can be written over. It is typically packaged in small bottles, and the lid has an attached brush (or a triangular piece of foam) which dips into the bottle. The brush is used to apply the fluid onto the paper. In the UK, ‘Tipp-Ex’ is used more commonly.

WYSIWYG. WYSIWYG is an acronym for ‘what you see is what you get’.

XHTML. Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML) is part of the family of XML markup languages. 

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