Goodbye, Ctrl-S

I am saved

I miss Ctrl-S and the habit, the twitch, the protection, the distraction, the responsibility, and the imperative that saving my work has been for me every few moments since I started writing on computers 40 years ago.

How often have all we learned — the hard way — the price of not hitting the Save button (in the early days of what we called word-processing) or then Ctrl-S (in Microsoft’s Word era, now ending)? “Did you save your work?” the unsupportive support guy would scold whenever the machine would lose everything I’d been working on since last hitting those comfort keys. The loss was never the computer’s fault. One was supposed to assume, oddly, that the machine was the fallible one in this relationship — it was destined to crash sometime; you simply didn’t know when — and it was the human’s job to cover for the computer, saving one’s work to save its ass.

Today I live entirely in the cloud and the tools I use to write most of the time — Google Docs and Medium, too — do the saving for me, automatically. “All changes saved,” Google informs me. “Saved,” Medium says. These are like benedictions assuring me of God’s grace and salvation from weakness and sin. Godle loves me.

Since I don’t need Ctrl-S anymore, I can now appreciate how much it had become a part of my ritual of writing and even of thinking. I used to hit Ctrl-S not just as data insurance — hell, I’d often hit it after having not made a single change in my text since the last time I’d hit it. I hit Ctrl-S as a break, a psychic, semiotic semicolon. It gave me a moment to search for the right word, to plan the structure of where I would go next, to commit to what I’d written, or to wonder whether I had the courage to erase what I’d written and try again.

Library of Congress photo

When I started in the business of writing — or what we now call making content — back in the ’70s for Chicago Today, a newspaper that had no tomorrow, then the Chicago Tribune, I was a rewriteman (the job and title both disappeared long before gender sensitivity would have had the opportunity to update it to rewriteperson, rewriter, rewriteist, or live-blogger). Writing on deadline, we’d type on half-length pieces of paper with many carbon copies for our many editors, turning out one paragraph at a time and then yelling “COPY!” (oh, how I loved that), so our words could be edited and then wooshed away by pneumatic tube to be turned into lead, line by line on the Linotype, ready to compose in a page (so many quaint media relics in that sentence).

There was no going back. The rewriteman had just a second to pause to consider his next move, for that smash of the key would be his last chance to commit to that sentence before it was gone. We wrote in inverted pyramids — a form we still teach in journalism school today, a useful device for structuring and prioritizing the information in an article, but one that is being unbundled by the link online. In truth, we wrote this way so the bottoms of our stories could be lopped off on the composing room floor and still make sense. That’s why old newspaper stories could not have punchlines or wrap up with neat returns to a theme set in the lede [sic]. That’s why newspaper stories never ended, they just faded away.

Boston Public Library image of Boston Globe composing room

I remember working rewrite on the story of an Indiana prison break on the Tribune night shift. I called over to the news editor, Ralph Hallenstein, who was known for smoking so many cigarettes that the midnight shift held pools betting on how many butts they’d find in his ashtray. “Ralph,” I asked, “how long do you want it?” Dear Ralph took a long drag on his cigarette — this was his means of taking a moment to pause and consider, his Ctrl-S, though it didn’t save him, it ended up killing him — and he croaked back: “Find the nearest period.”

When computers were turned on in our newsroom in 1974 (as a threat to bust a possible strike by the now-long-gone International Typographical Union, as it turned out), I was working the midnight shift, waiting for someone to die a horrible death so I could write stories slugged SLASH, CRASH, SLAY, or BURN. I started playing with what were then called VDTs, or video display terminals, learning such arcane concepts as the cursor and scrolling and saving. By the time they were put into use, I was the kid in the newsroom who wasn’t scared of them. Thus, I was marked a geek for life. So addicted was I to writing on computers that I bought my own in 1981 — my Osborne 1.

Computers changed the way I wrote. Trained as a rewriteman, I’d rush through writing a story as quickly as possible to get the structure in place and include every fact I had so I’d have the comfort of knowing I had a complete article. Then I would use every available second to edit. I came to write by editing. I still do that. I like to get a draft done and then go back and reconsider word choices, no need for WiteOut. I take the luxury of cut-and-paste — without the scissors and glue pot of my formative years — to reconstruct a tale. I cram in another fact or quote. I trim and trim again — a discipline demanded by scarce paper now lost online. And I pause to think by saving. Or I used to.

The medium isn’t so much the message as the tool is. Tools do affect creation on them. These days, my fellow blatherers about the future of news will argue that the CMS — the horribly named content management system — determines the fate of news organizations that use them. I disagree, for most news organizations produce what most other news organizations produce: paragraphs.

But I will concede that each tool can have its own distinct impact on writing. When I started Entertainment Weekly, we were (thanks to my genius wife) the first major weekly to be produced entirely on Macs with QuarkXPress, which gave editors and even writers minute control over what type looked like — no more was text monotype on a typewriter roll or on a green screen; now, as in life, text had shape. The magic of kerning allowed us to make heds [sic] fit. Quark also made it possible to fit text to a page. When I wrote for TV Guide on its then-tiny pages, I could replace long phrases with more economical wording, kill widows and orphans, and cram and cram again until my beloved last line would fit. Welcome the punchline.

Here on Medium, text has shape — its creators are positively anal about such typographical details as underscores and descenders — and the tool is simply elegant. That affects how I write; words here deserve more careful attention than in unaesthetic blog boxes. So I have all the more reason to pause and consider my choices. I need momentary distraction.

But I have no Ctrl-S. Well, Ev giveth and Ev taketh away. Now, instead of Ctrl-S, I resort to his cocreation, Twitter. But Twitter has been terribly damaging to my writing — first because when I have something to say I can just tweet it instead of writing about it, and second because Twitter is no momentary distraction, it’s a rabbit hole. Now I do my best writing away from that distraction — on long flights, never turning on the wifi.

On those flights, working on Google Docs offline on my Chromebook, my thumb and middle finger twitch over the Ctrl and and S but Google beats me to it. Now if only Google could anticipate my mistakes and fix them before I make them, eliminating the need for Ctrl-Z.