Typewriter Brigade FAQ

* What's NaNoWriMo?

NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, held every November. It's become a worldwide challenge: write a 50,000 word novel entirely during a 30-day month. For far more details on NaNoWriMo, set aside some time and check out their FAQ:


* What's a typewriter?

A mechanical device that lays down a series of letters, one letter at a time, on a page. A child once described one as "a computer that prints as you type and doesn't need batteries."

Typewriters are doggedly clever, surprisingly long-lasting, and cool. They also breed when you are not looking, so be careful to keep your collection spread out. Some folks have dozens, or even hundreds of machines, all because they didn't take precautions.

* What's the Typewriter Brigade?

A bunch of crazy people that use the latter to participate in the former. That is, we write our draft, in part or whole, on a typewriter. Many of us use strictly manual (non-electric) machines, but some use electric or electronic machines. The Brigade is a loose group of like-minded people who have discovered the joy of writing on a machine devoted to exactly that, which will not allow you to screw around by checking email and Facebook and Twitter and SnapChat and the forums and Instagram when you should be writing, dammit.

The 2016 topic is live and available for your Brigadier-powered amusement.

* Seriously? You really do this?

Yes we do, though we're not terribly serious. That's why everyone wants to be like us. We're cool and hilarious and loads of fun at parties.

If you're familiar with NaNoWriMo, you probably want to know how to count words: in short, estimate. A double-spaced page with margins is roughly 250 words. You can easily win NaNo on a typewriter going on this estimate alone. Expect to type about seven one-sided pages a day to make the goal.

Some of us have more fancy or accurate ways of counting, but they all come down to estimating words on a page and multiplying by the total number of pages. At the end of November, we use a text generator or multiple copy/pastes in a word processor to make a file with the proper number of words to validate and claim our winner goodies.

And yes, this means that you don't have a digital copy of your draft in December. Keep reading for tips on digitizing your typewritten draft.

* Supplies: ribbon and paper

Most typewriters use a standard 1/2-inch wide ribbon. If you have a typewriter with spools on it, it's possible to unwind the old, dead, dry ribbon and wind a new one on. This is called "respooling" and can be messy, but is a quick way to get started if you're impatient.

Always keep the original spools of a typewriter as some are unusual or more rare than others. Especially keep ones made of metal or (for older typewriters) wood. Proper-sized ribbons can often be found disguised as printer ribbons in your local office supply store.

You do not need two-color ribbons (red and black) unless you like it. Some Brigadiers use all black ribbons, and use the switch on their typewriter to choose which half to type on. This can double the life of a ribbon.

Do not buy ribbons that have a white "correction" strip on them (usually in place of the red half.) It does not work, it will flake off and clog up your machine, and we will mock you mercilessly. Better to get an all-black one, or if you're desperate, use an adding machine ribbon.

Paper is easier: any standard office paper will suffice. Using two sheets is recommended on older machines, to cushion the platen. If you work in an office, check the recycling bins: perfectly usable typing paper may be tossed out every day, all around you. Or buy a ream of paper and have enough for the next two years.

* Help! My typewriter doesn't work

Your best bet is to join one or both of the Yahoo! typewriter groups:


The membership in both is friendly and knowledgeable, and consists of collectors and users of every age. Chances are someone there has your exact model. We can also field basic-type questions here and on the NaNo boards.

Typewriter repair shops are even rarer than typewriter users these days, so becoming an owner sometimes means deducing problems and gaining a little bit of mechanical aptitude. Don't worry: we're here to help.

We also have a map and list of people and repair shops on the Typosphere.net web site, which is a collective of typewriter-lovin' bloggers. If you're looking for something to do with your machine in the off season, come on by.

* Help! I don't have a typewriter but I want one

Don't we all!

Typewriters are surprisingly fragile when packed improperly and shipped -- horror stories abound -- so start looking locally first. Typewriters were made by the tens of thousands, and surely someone in your area has one in the attic or tucked in the back of a closet. Try checking Craigslist, local thrift and charity stores, church bazaars and yard sales. Post on "wanted" boards like Freecycle. Chances are you will find one. Or more. (See above comment about breeding.)

eBay and other auction sites always have a machine available, but for your first machine, if you can lay hands upon one and (better yet!) ask questions of the previous owner, you'll come out ahead.

Despite what you may see from online sellers, a "new" typewriter need not be expensive. If you are diligent about looking, you may be able to find a great deal, especially if you sweeten the story about how you're going to use it to write a novel. A decent typewriter should be able to be found for under $50, and probably even far less. Many of mine were under $25, and a couple were free.

* I reached 50K/NaNoWriMo is over! Now what?

Aside from the usual novel aftercare issues that all Wrimos face, we have the extra issue that our draft is not in electronic form. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because you don't have to use up all your printer's ink making a copy, and a curse, because you probably want it in electronic form for editing and sharing and publishing and becoming rich and famous. Especially that last part.

There are a few ways to do this:

Retype it

This is the most obvious, of course. Retyping also gives you a chance to clean up the draft as you go.

Let the computer type it

If you have access to a scanner, especially one with a sheet-feeder, this may be a good option for you. Scan a high resolution copy of your typescript, and then run Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on the resulting image to lift out the text. Many people swear by OmniPage as good OCR software. There are also versions built in to Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, and some free versions are available on the Internet. Try a sample before you commit, though, as a smudged letter or stray marks on the page can often defeat OCR software.

Do not perform any edits on your original typescript when using OCR: scan first, then edit, or make your notes elsewhere. Expect to make a least a pass through the document to find strange OCR glitches.

Read it out loud

Speech-to-text software is a good option too, if you have an environment where you're comfortable reading your prose out loud. Windows 7 has Windows Speech Recognition built in, and Nuance publishes Dragon Dictate software. Some Wrimos do their original novels this way. Be sure to get a decent microphone, ideally one with noise-cancellation technology if you have noisemakers about (children, pets, combat zone.) Modern computers and software are fast and clever enough to recognize natural speech with very little training. Homophones (there, their, they're) may cause problems, so expect to make a pass through the digital draft for these later.

No matter how you digitize your draft, all the other tips offered on the NaNoWriMo site apply: edit again and again, find someone honest to read your novel and listen to their advice, especially about parts they disliked. Edit some more. And more still. And when you publish at last, don't forget your pals in the Brigade.

* Bonus FAQ: Rhinos? Pants versus no pants?

The reclusive North American NaNoRhino is a tiny fellow that frequents the type-baskets of many a Brigadier. Part mascot, part muse, the rhino is thick-skinned, short-sighted, and crabby, and endangered, much like members of the Typewriter Brigade and our coveted machines. NaNoRhinos live on a steady diet of words, and are handy to prod you in case you feel like slacking off.

If you are so equipped, feel free to post pictures of your typer (rhino optional) in our communal Flickr group:


We're pretty sure the pantsless thing is the Rhino's fault. Rhinos are generally bad with pants, having no luck with zippers or buttons or fasteners of any kind. It's better not to ask.


Captain Mike said...

Could I use the 'Genius' app on my phone to digitize individual typewritten pages? Would those 'photos' allow me to edit the copy? Captain Mike (Lenexa KS)

Richard P said...

Captain Mike: dunno! There are lots of scanning/OCR apps out there for phone and laptop. Try it and let us know.

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