The things I really enjoyed about writing the first draft of my book
I finished the first draft of my first book.
I wanted to write down what I liked (and didn’t like) about this experience, while the memory of it is still fresh. Here we go:
I became a better writer! It’s sort of an obvious thing to expect, after having spent months on a book, and 87 days of full-time writing…
But that thing also arrived in a very peculiar shape. When I sit down to a keyboard, I can point to no particular one property that makes me obviously more skilled than I was before.
But: Early on, I dreaded a few chapters needing to be written (one about QWERTY, one about sexism, one about RSI). I saved them for closer to the end, and worried about that day. But when the time arrived… I simply wrote them. There was nothing scary about it. I researched the subject, I put a narrative together, and then I fleshed it out with words. It was not a big deal.
And also: I was really worried about explaining the incredibly complicated evolution that keyboards took between typewriters and computers. Not only I didn’t know how to write about it, I also didn’t know what to write about! And yet, focusing first on a dozen or so chapters I knew about helped me warm up to this, and then it just… sort of happened. I learned how to learn better as I learned how to write better.
And then: I also learned from seeing patterns emerge. For example, my book writing was a checkerboard: I alternated final research for a given chapter, followed by writing that chapter — and then repeated it for the next chapter in line.
Whenever I started researching a chapter, it most often meant feeling overwhelmed by millions of facts running around in my head (and in my database) without any sort of coherent structure… but then, given a day or two, I would find a way to bundle it together into something that felt great. And after researching, sitting down to a new empty chapter canvas never stopped being painful… but I could power through that early friction and end up writing something I eventually would feel at least okay about.
This surprised me: I became a better writer not by seeing these things go away — they never did — but simply by getting used to them and remembering that I’ve done this before, and it worked out then, so it’s likely to work out one more time.
Learning how to put together the structure of the book and the structure of each chapter was immensely satisfying.
There were so many moments where I pieced something together in a way I haven’t before, or juxtaposed two disconnected events, or found a way for one thing to lead to another. It was like solving a fractal puzzle, and felt like among the biggest contributions my book could make.
Among the many fears I had and still do, this one is no longer there. I worried what new exactly was I bringing to this? But I already know, even before an editor taking a look: it’s those connections; it’s taking the keyboard and treating it as a lens to look at other things; it’s certain things I focus on; it’s coming back to people as often as possible. I wasn’t sure at the beginning, but I am now: this book has a reason to exist.
I learned how to do something at this scale. Long time ago, in high school, I tried to write a game that was too ambitious for my skillset — but more importantly, also for my project management abilities. I grossly mismanaged the whole game in ways that felt scary then, and laughably obvious now.
And I worked on this. I prepared for the book by handling a few projects of a bigger scale. I not only wrote a lot on Medium, but also created a series of posts about typography and typewriters first, then a much longer series of posts about presentations. Subtitling a TV show turned movie was another big endeavour. None of these were at the scale of a book (and I underestimated the scale of my book), but they paved the way.
The book taught me how to take things one at a time. It’s simply too big of a project to plan in its entirety, so I learned how to focus on the immediate next task, next chapter, next puzzle, without knowing exactly what’s beyond the close horizon. This approach is so very against my nature that embracing this more is a gift the book already gave me and, without exaggeration, a gift that will make it easier for me to live my life.
The feeling of becoming an expert in something has been pretty great. I figured out many of the things I was curious about by either digging up the answers in some obscure sources, or by coming up with answers that nobody put together before.
I now know all about the difference between word processors and text editors, and whether QWERTY was really that bad, or Dvorak really that good. Many of those things don’t have clean, nice, pithy answers, but I feel much more comfortable with those, too. (I saw a tweet the other day saying how impossible it is to give talks later in your career; you learn everything’s complicated and shades of gray, and talks are no longer interesting. I think it’s quite the opposite! Talking and unpacking complexity is one of the best things.)
I also learned so much more than I expected: how Chinese and Japanese writing systems work (it’s fascinating), what New York was like in 1910, what happened on the night of the 1952 presidential election… It’s thrilling to know all this — at this point, I feel you could put me in a conference of any industry, and I could put together a relevant talk about keyboards — and even more so to be sharing this with you!
I figured out the mechanics of how I write: That it’s easier to write in the morning, that my phone needs to be on DND and far away, that most music will distract me (but some can actually help). That I needed to treat it like a job, dressing up and preparing even though my desk is ten feet away from my bed. I learned what kind of keyboard I like, and that I like candles burning nearby. That going to the gym in the middle of the day (something I thoroughly avoided before) can greatly help. That walking around with my baseball bat (longer story) helps me think.
I also learned I could actually write from home, which was one of the bigger question marks. Most of my previous writing was done from coffee shops, but I found them unpredictable: a noisy neighbour, an occupied favourite place, or slow internet could kill the mood of writing. Having a home office — I bought my first desk in a long while shortly before this — made the experience consistent and controlled; my research books were always right next to me, the temperature and light always what I wanted. This will give me something I never did before: an opportunity to consider working remotely in some future design job, too.
I know now how much I can write every day, before my brain turns to mush. Turns out, it’s about 3,000–4,000 words. It’s funny, just this little number, but it’s so useful: I can plan around it and anticipate things. If I think a chapter will be longer, I simply have to allocate two or more days for it. That’s it. (I can, and have, pushed harder, but that means I will pay for it in the next few days with exhaustion.) There’s something really comforting about knowing the constants of your private little universe.
It was often drudgery, but adding to my research database and keeping it organized made me really happy and proud. It’s not just that I have a unique place with tons of keyboard-related stuff side by side — thousands of photos, articles, snippets of info. It’s also that they are organized and categorized, with special tools I made to make things easier and faster. (It feels so good I keep thinking that maybe this database itself needs to be preserved in some way?)
I feel similarly about my exhaustive bibliography, most of it physically there right next to me as I was writing. And here, there was one more layer: imagining that at some point the thing I’m working on will also become a book that will end up on many people’s various book piles. (I really love books.)
The book taught me how to be patient with myself. A bunch of times, I would give myself two days to research the next chapter, but in the middle of the second day I would still feel under water and overwhelmed. It took me some time to learn that I could just say give yourself one more day, Marcin, and in that very instant, life would become so much easier.
So often, the best decision I could make was allow myself a good night of sleep. The very self-imposed drive and pressure that made it possible for the first draft to be written was also something that sometimes stood in its way — and I feel finding out ways to push back on it will be helpful in the years to come.
The book taught me many new and fun ways on how to do research. I learned that making a timeline that didn’t exist before is really useful and rewarding. Or that writing a document to summarize my understanding of things and then asking specific people for feedback is very useful (here’s one simple example; I’ll share more in due time). Or that you can find interesting personal accounts on Quora (and even ask specific people on Quora). Or videos of even obscure objects in use on YouTube. Or that if you want to understand old machines it’s sometimes easiest to… read their manuals. Or that self-published books can be awfully written and otherwise forgettable — but they might contain one or two interesting tidbits or anecdotes or language that you won’t find anywhere else. Or that you can ask your library to do an “interlibrary request,” and summon a book or an article from another faraway library, for free.
I learned some of this already when researching for my Phelan Building article, but this was even more!
I learned that I really liked sticky notes. The wall I put together that allowed me to see my book in its entirety and move it around continues to be my favourite physical artifact of writing.
I learned that it’s really fun to finish a chapter. Not just in the sense of pure accomplishment and the sticky note celebration, but in another, surprising sense.
With no exception, after writing a chapter, I inevitably learned something new, found a better angle, came up with a better way to sequence something. I expected this to make me angry or disappointed — now I have to redo this thing that felt forever to write already — but it felt quite different. The chapter flipped to the “done” category in my head, and every new discovery felt like making it better, just like adding extra polish.
I’m sure this will go away; after all, at some point I have to literally finish the book and never touch it again. But so far, in this space right after the first draft, this feels great.
I am continued to be amazed at how supportive people are, friends and strangers alike. They — you — send me little notes, share keyboards they stumbled upon, forward interesting links. I’ve gotten so many tweets that started with “I’m sure you’ve already seen this,” and followed by something I’ve never seen before.
It was owing to kindness of strangers that I got to see the excellent exhibit on typewriters at San Francisco Airport without having to fly anywhere, got sent a fascinating German touch typing manual filled with Nazi propaganda, or learned how to say “touch typing” in all sorts of languages.
And, so many people simply told me “I can’t wait to read your book.” My initial (secret) reaction has been how can you be saying this? you haven’t seen my other books because there aren’t any! But I appreciated each and every one of these.
The book led me to meeting so many interesting people: both people really into keyboards, and “keyboard civilians.” I met a Chicago stranger with a cool Dvorak typewriter, I talked on the phone with someone who used a computer called Univac in 1951 (sic!), I became friends with a few keyboard makers, I met a typewriter poet. In a tiny office in Japan, I talked to someone who put together one of the most coveted keyboards in history.
Hand in hand with the above: I also visited a bunch of wonderful places and participated in some events. Some by wonderful accident (the Spanish typewriter museum and the nearby tech museum), some deliberately but still with surprisingly wonderful outcomes. Two co-owners of a small typewriter shop in Bremerton, Washington and a few curators at the Living Computer Museum, in a nearby little town named Seattle, made me feel excited about the project at its early beginnings. A visit to Milwaukee and the place the QWERTY keyboard was born gave me a boost when the first draft was almost done. I also won a touch typing contest and — during a vintage computing festival — I typed on Xerox Alto, the first machine where you could press Ctrl+B and Make Something Bold.
I got to see and play with really cool artifacts. I learned how to calculate on a Comptometer, I wrote on a Canon Cat, I half-restored an Olivetti Praxis 48. Some of those were rather disappointing in the “never meet your inanimate heroes” sense, others — like typing on a Correcting Selectric, touching the first QWERTY keyboard, or finding a copy of a rare thesis — were incredible moments, particularly since I’ve already researched those machines and people behind them.
I now have a small list of other artifacts I want to check out (not to mention a list of destinations for my eventual time machine).
I’ve had writing jobs before, but part of what I feared was writing the chapters I didn’t want to write, writing things that are hard, or writing on days I didn’t feel like writing. What if I could not overcome these, or what if overcoming these would take all the pleasure I found in writing?
I am happy to report the book taught me how to be a more professional writer and didn’t take much away in the process. I wrote hard things. I wrote through headaches. I wrote through a very painful break-up. But I still found joy in writing, too — just joy of a newfound kind. Some chapters felt like work, but others felt fun. Maybe I was lucky, but I also worked hard on keeping the book an interesting thing in my head, and in my heart. But that’s a whole different story.