Writing Instruments I Have Known

It’s funny how the anniversaries of certain historic events make you reminisce. Today, I’ve been reminiscing about the typewriter, a writing instrument with which I’m almost as familiar as I am a pencil or pen. On this date in 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes patented a typewriting machine, a giant leap forward for his time.

Inventors had been working to develop a typewriter since as early as 1714 (Henry Mill) and then to “reinvent” it, making it something practical and useful. Sholes was successful in developing one of the first commercially successful such machines.

Sholes was a newspaper editor in Milwaukee. His newspaper’s compositors went on strike, prompting Sholes to try (unsuccessfully) to build a machine that would set type. He and printer Samuel Soule later were working together to develop a ticket-numbering machine when lawyer and inventor Carlos Glidden suggested that they might be able to make a machine that produced not only numbers but also letters. They began with a machine called a Pterotype, developed by John Pratt, and tried to simplify it. The result was the typewriting machine, which is shown to the right of Pratt’s machine.

The men received a patent for their invention on June 23, 1868. Their machine sold for an average of about $250 each, not a paltry sum in those days. Remington, a company better known for its firearms, bought the patent in 1873. The inventors continued, however, to improve on their original design, the most lasting improvement being the QWERTY keyboard arrangement to reduce jamming of the keys, and the arrangement is still in use today (although with computers it is no longer necessary).

The first typewriter that I worked on wasn’t quite as old as Sholes’s machine, but it was old. It was my mother’s Remington portable with a small suitcase-sized carrying case and a ribbon that allowed one to type in either black or red ink. I used that machine before I even took a typing class; I used the hunt-and-peck technique instead.

Then I took typing in high school. (My “wise” guidance counselor tried to convince me that I wouldn’t need to know how to type for college, but my father convinced him otherwise!) We learned on heavy Smith-Corona manual machines that required a heavy hand. To this day, I still pound the keyboard although it’s no longer necessary. (I guess I just enjoy both the feeling of strength it gives me and the sound of the keys being struck. It makes me feel as though I’m actually accomplishing something.)

I enjoyed the typing class so much that my parents bought me a refurbished but very functional Royal typewriter for Christmas that year. I took that machine to college with me and used the carbon paper, erasable bond paper, and hair spray to bond the ink to the erasable bond so it wouldn’t smear when the professors read my papers. I used that machine not only throughout college and grad school but also during much of my teaching career–typing mimeograph and ditto stencils–until I decided (foolishly, I now realize) that I needed an electric machine to be successful as a writer.

The electric machine that I bought was a Brother Correct-O-Ball, which had a golf ball-sized ball in the center where the letters used to be on long, curved arms. The ball would spin around to the letter that corresponded to the key one struck. The idea was that the keys would not get jammed when one typed too fast. I liked that idea because my writing was slowed every time I had to untangle the keys, and that happened often to me. The only problem was that I was so enthralled by watching that ball spin around that I ended up watching the ball rather than writing. And before I knew it, it became hard–and expensive–to get the ribbon cartridges for the machine. I decided I needed to upgrade.

A friend told me that the wave of the future was in word processors, so I bought a used Magnavox Video Writer word processor. It had an ugly yellow-on-black screen display about the size of the modern iPad screen. It also had a neat feature whereby when you began to type a word, the machine guessed what you meant and completed the word for you. When I began one day to type one of my daughter’s names–Tisha–the machine changed it to Tissue. For a while, that feature provided some interesting entertainment, but eventually it became frustrating because I had to proofread even more closely, and that slowed me down. For all the hype about speeding up my production, I found that I was wasting even more time.

Then I pursued a full computer, something that I could use for multiple functions, not just word processing. That’s when I bought and paid for the Tandy computer–and then the franchise went bankrupt before they could deliver it. Then they refused to deliver it. I was called as a witness in the resulting bankruptcy proceedings. When the franchisee lost, I won my computer, but by then I had bought another (a Gateway desktop). I didn’t need and couldn’t afford two computers, so I had to sell the Tandy at a loss.

More recently, I joined the laptop trend. I’ve had Gateways, Toshibas, and now an HP Pavilion. And I’ve suffered through crashes of hard drives, obsolescence of the 5 1/4- and 3-1/2-inch floppy disks, and constantly required upgrades to software and hardware. While this rapidly changing technology has had its advantages, I still look back upon the days of the old manual typewriter with fond memories.

How Many Words Are Left?

The other morning, while I was toiling through my regular routine on the treadmill and struggling with arthritis-pained knees, toes, and wrists, I found myself looking at the bookcase on the opposite wall. There, on the top shelf, were several anthologies and other books that include some of my own writings.

That set me to thinking of how many articles I’ve written. Those thoughts made me realize that I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words over the years since the first article I ever submitted was published back in 1981. One thought led to another.

Behind me, I remembered the huge notebook filled with tear sheets of my published articles. (I say remembered because I didn’t turn to look at it. I once learned a painful lesson about trying to turn around and run backwards on a moving treadmill, and I’m not fool enough to repeat that session!)

As I continued my morning run, warm (very warm!) and dry on a cool, rainy day, I wondered how many words I still have in me. Because we are each given a set amount of time in this life, and, knowing that we, like David, should pray that God would “teach us to number our days” (Psa. 90:12), it seems only natural that we should also ask Him to teach us to calculate our production in whatever our field of service might be. In my own case, it was first in teaching and now in writing and editing. So I wonder how many more words I have left in me to write.

Do I have another book left in me? Perhaps a couple? None? How many more articles are in me?

The question is not how many more writing ideas I have left in me. Those are a dime a dozen; they’re in every direction I look and in everything I read, see, and do. (And even if my idea well did happen to run dry, myriad people are more than happy to volunteer their ideas that they think I should write about!) The issue is how many of my  ideas I will actually be able to express in words fit for public consumption. Correction: it’s actually how many of those words will editors find acceptable to share with their readers. Without editors willing to buy and publish my words, no number of written words will amount to anything. To make a difference, there must be willing editors and willing readers. And that is the rub.

My mind was racing faster than my feet. The pace of the treadmill decreased, but the incline increased dramatically. As I huffed, puffed, and perspired, I asked myself the next logical questions: What will my last written words be? And will anything I’ve written have made any difference?

I know how I read. Whenever I pick up a magazine or newspaper, I skim and scan. Seeing an interesting title or headline, I might read the lead paragraph. If my attention is not immediately arrested, however, I move on to something else. I don’t have time to waste. As the librarian’s t-shirt read, “So many books, so little time.”

I probably read more than the average person, but I rarely read a complete article unless it really grabs me. If it does, I might even print or photocopy it for possible later use.

But most readers skim and scan even more loosely than I do. And we all forget so quickly. Someone once said that yesterday’s newspaper is good only for wrapping fish or lining a birdcage. Today, we don’t even wrap fish in newspaper, so its value is even less.

Can you name even one article that has made a lasting difference in your life? On the spur of the moment, I can think of only one, an article titled “The Tyranny of the Urgent” (about how we allow urgent demands to crowd out the truly important things of life), but I can’t remember its author’s name or which publication it was in.

Today, we suffer information overload, and we forget so much more quickly and easily. Can any words really take root in our lives to the point of making a lasting difference? Will any of the words that I write make any difference to anyone else?

Only one author’s words have the infallible promise that they will live eternally and make a lasting impression and difference in their readers’ lives, and those are God’s. He said, “My word . . . shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).

If written, my words might not get published. If published, they might not be read. If read, they might not be remembered or make any difference in anyone’s life. But it’s nonetheless my responsibility to write them, whether many or few. What happens to them after that is beyond my control. As Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson said, “Duty is mine; consequences are God’s.”

Jesse Stuart, another writer-teacher, encouraged fellow writers to persevere:

And if men thwart you, take no heed.

If men hate you, have no care.

Sing your song.

Dream your Dream.

Hope your hope.

Pray your prayer.

So I write. I don’t know how many words I have left in me, just as I don’t know how much longer my life will last. But I simply do what God has called me to do and leave the results with Him.

And the Nominations Are In

My publisher, McFarland & Company, has informed me that they have submitted my book in nomination for the following two awards.

The 2017 Bobby and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History is given by the John L. Nau Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia for what they deem the best book on that topic published in 2016. The winner will be announced July 1, 2017.

The Wiley-Silver Prize for Best First Book in Civil War History published in 2016 is given by the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. The winner will be announced by August 1, 2017.

From the beginning, when I first started my search for a publisher of my manuscript, I gave the book over for the Lord to do with as He pleased. I prayed that, if it was His will for it to be published, He would open the door with the right publisher. He did, and it was published by McFarland in May 2016. Then I prayed that He would work His will concerning sales of the book. To date, scores of major universities, libraries, and museums across the nation and even several overseas have purchased it. I would like to see many people benefit from what my book offers, but its sales will be what God wants them to be, and I give all the glory for any success it might have to Him alone.

Book Cover Peterson_978-1-4766-6521-4Similarly, with these two award nominations. I’m grateful to have my book included among the many books published during 2016 in the field of Civil War history, and I consider the mere nomination to be a great honor. Humanly speaking, however, the chance of its winning either award is a long shot. If it goes beyond the nomination to win any acclaim, whether an award or even a mere mention, it will be up to God to bring it to pass, and I’ll thank Him for it.

If you are inclined to pray, I’d appreciate your prayers that God’s will be done and that whatever He does with the book will bring honor to Him alone.

Catch Me If You Can!

img_0823Those of us who read a lot (and maybe even some of you who don’t) tend to be critical of writers and editors whose products contain typos or other errors. We sometimes get a chuckle (or maybe even a full belly laugh) at their expense from the unintentional humorous things that sometimes result from such errors.

For example, perhaps you’ve heard about the hapless headline writer and his (or her) editor who allowed the following blooper to slip through and get onto the front page of the newspaper: MAN HELPS DOG BITE VICTIM. (The missing hyphen between dog and bite gave the headline an unintended and, though humorous, misleading twist.)

I’ve been on all three sides of such editorial oopsies, having read such mistakes, having written some of them, and having missed them as an editor. So I can both laugh at and enjoy them and yet commiserate and empathize with those who make them.

When I was an author for a major Christian textbook publisher, I was amazed by how often “obvious” errors slipped through the various editorial sentries that we had in place and got printed. We had a virtual army of watchful pickets and guards against such intruders’ attacking the quality of our products–authors, editors, proofreaders, etc.–and yet the buggers still got through.

It happens because we’re all human. Try as we might to be detail oriented and to catch errors both big and small, we’re still sometimes their victims. As an author, I had read and reread the same material so much during the research, writing, editing, and proofing stages of the publication process that my mind automatically and subconsciously supplied missing letters, words, punctuation, etc. It refused to acknowledge repeated words. When my work went to the editors, all of whom were meticulous, detail-conscious, and well-qualified professionals, even they missed some things. Similarly with the proofreaders. Sometimes compositors or even illustrators caught some errors, although that wasn’t even their responsibility, because they had a distance from the text that allowed them to spot such things.

What amazes me about the publishing world is not so much the fact that errors often slip through unnoticed until the readers point them out, but rather that we are able to catch so many of them. But readers don’t call or write to tell us how many errors we didn’t allow to get past our watchful eyes.

find-editors-mistake-1I said all of that to preface an error that I recently found in the November 2016 issue of Editor & Publisher. It was in the accompanying quarter-page advertisement. See if you can find it.

In case you didn’t catch it (the print is a little small), I’ve circled it in the second photo.


This editorial oversight is no big deal in the vast scheme of universal history, but it does matter because quality matters. And if we writers and editors expect quality anywhere, it’s in publications that focus on publishing, writing, and editing.

No, I won’t call or write to E&P to point out their oversight or cancel my subscription in self-righteous protest of editorial laxness, but this example is a reminder to me that even the “big guys,” the movers and shakers in our industry, sometimes make mistakes. Some of the mistakes, like this one, are no big deal, but others can cost big bucks and perhaps even jobs.

It is also a reminder that I, as a professing Christian, should be even more vigilant about the quality of my own work. The Bible teaches me that I should do my best in everything I do, that I should do it heartily, as unto my Lord and not only for fellow humans who might read what I write. I am to “give of my best to the Master.” He gave His best, His own Son, for me; giving Him my best in return should be a given.

Yet, even the best that I do will still fall short of perfection because I am only human. That awareness should make me less hasty in condemning the mistakes of others. Whenever I point my index finger at an editorial oopsie made by someone else, whether writer or editor, I should remember that my other three fingers are pointing back at the errors of omission and commission in my own work.

So let’s get a good laugh together at the honest but inadvertent mistakes that we and others make. But let’s also learn from them and be sure to examine ourselves and the quality of our own work to ensure that it’s the very best we can make it for our Master.

[Now I will sit back and wait for all of you eagle-eyed editor types to email me with a list of all the mistakes you’ve found in this blog post!]


The Good Editor, a Rare Breed

Reading about editors the other day reminded me of two things: my own experiences as an editor and the editors with whom I’ve been privileged to work in my writing career.

Every writer, no matter how good, needs a good editor. Even editors who write need good editors. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and I know the value of a good editor. Editors abound; good editors are rare.

For seven years, I was an editor with Lockheed Martin Energy Systems. (Before the merger, it was Martin Marietta Energy Systems.) I came in as a lowly Technical Publications Analyst I (the title makes the position sound more impressive than it really was) and was assigned a mentor, Mary Guy. Mary was a short, frail, chain-smoking, elderly woman who had begun editing at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant shortly after the Manhattan Project became public knowledge. She knew the Chicago Manual of Style like the back of her hand. She also knew the government bureaucracy of contract work and how to work it to her and other editors’ advantage. She was patient and taught me a lot, even sharing her work with me when things got slow after the Cold War ended and contract work dried up. Thanks to her, I quickly learned the ropes and advanced to TPA II and eventually Senior Editor.

When the layoffs came, shutting down the entire Publications Division, I ventured into independent editing for seven years. The Lockheed Martin years might be symbolic of the biblical seven years of plenty and the next seven (or maybe the first two or three) years the time of famine, but things got progressively better. I went from taking on any and all jobs that came along (eating when I had clients and dieting when I didn’t) to being more selective and even turning down jobs. All the while, I was writing my own stuff, dreaming of the day when I could write full time–for myself, not for a corporate boss.

When my last two daughters entered college, I got an opportunity to write (albeit for that corporate boss) history curricula. That’s when I was privileged to work with two great editors, Manda Kalagayan and Grace Zockel Geide.

Manda was a joy to work with because she was trained as a historian and knew and loved not only the subject matter but also editing. She was especially good at pointing out inconsistencies and redundancies in my work and was never afraid to challenge me.

Grace, although not educated in the historical content, was a stickler for the details of grammar and composition. She was also computer savvy and attuned to ways to fact check little details, especially the wording and punctuation of obscure quotations.

The examples of these three editors demonstrate to me the value of good editors. Each editor is–by his or her personality and bent–adept at a particular specialty, be it grammar, punctuation, capitalization, documentation, number usage, or any of the other myriad things editors must keep track of. An author is too focused on his or her content and often too close to the writing to recognize or identify such problems. That’s why a good editor is so valuable.

So thank you (posthumously), Mary Guy, for mentoring me. And thank you, Manda and Grace, for your patient hard work. All of you deserve more credit than you’ve received.

And if you who have read this are aspiring to write, be sure to find yourself a good editor. Find your own Mary, or Manda, or Grace to make your writing shine.