Sunday, January 29, 2006

The anachronistic word processor

My first (and worst) full-time job was as the proofreader in a then Big 8 accounting/consulting firm's word processing department, proofing benefit plan documents, actuary's reports, responses to RFPs, etc. The word processors (people) used primitive stand-alone machines called Vydecs; enormous, flimsy floppy disks (the origin of "floppy," no doubt); and a printer that utilized daisywheels. This wasn't state of the art, even for 1983.

The professional staff, as they were known, used a mainframe computer with workstations in a central computer room to perform calculations, manage databases, and so forth. They also maintained hard copy workpapers as a paper trail. To revise or create new documents, they photocopied previous or similar ones and marked them up. The word processors would store the new document on one of the flimsy, oversized floppies, which I think could hold up to 30 pages per side. They were prone to failure, as were the machines. The Vydec repairman was a frequent guest in our office.

At some point in the 1980s, perhaps about the same time we moved to another building, we changed over to personal computers and WordPerfect (DOS). The word processors spent many hours converting Vydec disks. Later, because of a client relationship, we switched to the indescribably awful AmiPro, then to Microsoft Word.

As time passed, more individuals were given their own PCs at their desks (rather than sharing those in the computer room. For the most part, staff still marked up documents, and the relative ease and speed with which they could be produced and sent (via FedEx overnight) contributed to an increase in volume for the word processing center, which expanded.

With more new hires who were comfortable with computers, typing, and editing, slowly most people started writing their own documents on their own computers, coming to word processing only to have them "cleaned up" and finalized. The business of the word processing center waned, and a once-indispensable service became almost superfluous within a matter of a year or two. The proofreader who had replaced me spent half or more of each day reading books.

Someone had the questionable idea of transforming the word processors into graphic designers, as though access to QuarkXPress and graphics software was all it took, as though this weren't a specialized skill, like a dental hygienist becoming an orthodontist on the job and on the fly. At about the same time, someone came in to manage document processing as though it were a combination of graphic design and word processing. I have the impression that people were unhappy with the results, that there were personnel, workflow, and quality issues (all problems that you want your high-priced business consultant to have).

My understanding is that ultimately all of the department-specific word processing groups were centralized. If that still exists, I wouldn't be surprised if more attempts had been made to outsource the function, just as many organizations outsource mail and supply centers, copying, scanning, and so forth. With Microsoft Word templates, e-mail, and notebook computers, along with BlackBerrys and the like, it's even likely that there's no longer a need for any word processing function.

I remember the times that I went to work on Saturdays, even Sundays, to spend hours marking up documents in red pen, then verifying that the necessary changes had been made with the word processor and the project lead, while partners and managers continued to refine the scope, offering, verbiage, and numbers. Today I would mostly likely receive documents at home via e-mail or through connecting to a company intranet. I would redline them and e-mail them back or upload them for the next person to review. That person would accept or reject changes and make additional substantive edits—possibly from his or her home, too. What was once a painful, frustrating, laborious process is, I would hope, now more streamlined, efficient, and nonintrusive on personal time.

This was only nine or ten years ago. Much about how we work has changed. Everything is "teamwork" and "collaboration," even though it really isn't. There are no more secretaries who type and file; there are administrative and executive assistants who often have the inside track for operations positions. I wonder how many word processors are left—perhaps in law firms? But I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it had become an anachronistic profession, like chimney sweep. The irony is that the technology that created the profession has led to its demise.

On the other hand, 23 years ago very few people could write and spell well, and that has not changed. Even if the need for proofreaders and copyeditors is not admitted or acknowledged, it still exists. More documents, more pages, more words—more errors.

After reading some of the work produced in the new era, however, I wonder if anyone cares. Maybe proofreading and copyediting are anachronistic as well.

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