The following is an observation I stumbled across a few months ago, but it’s one I’ve found repeated elsewhere:
In the days when you had to copy out each succeeding draft of a script by hand, or at best with a typewriter, you had time to look at every word and consider its savour, fine or foul. If you left a sentence unchanged in your second draft, you did it deliberately, because you had to type every word over again. It was once thought that word processing would improve the quality of writing, because it made editing so much less laborious. This expectation has been dashed. Part of the trouble is that it is so easy to leave sections of a so-called revision unrevised. When you polish a tabletop you have to rub every inch of the surface with the chamois, because if you miss a patch it will be obvious by its dullness. But words on a screen are all equally bright, whether written at the first pass or the tenth. You may think you have polished your whole story when in fact whole pages have scarcely been looked at since the first draft. This does not show in the hardcopy, which is always neat and clean and machine-perfect …. But the reader can feel the effects. (Tom Simon, “Procrustes the Publisher”)
It’s a compelling argument, especially when the massive size of some recent fantasy tomes is on your mind. However, composition from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries was always by hand, and that didn’t stop long-winded works from appearing anyhow. Henry Fielding didn’t seem to have the point of view that every word was precious, because, well, a great deal of words are wasted in Tom Jones. Charles Dickens’s books aren’t known for terseness either; we understand the “paid by word” nature of his work, but the use of a pen hardly seemed to stay the word-bloat. Or, for a better example, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (he of “it was a dark and stormy night” fame) wrote some suitably lengthy texts, and I’m sure we can all agree he didn’t “rub every inch” of his sentences. The never-ending sentence of bygone years did not, I think, emerge from any consideration of every word. Rather more likely that the author just couldn’t be bothered to go back and revise, since the work was already brilliant the first time!
There’s no real correlation between technologies used for writing and the quality of writing itself. While we might look back to the terseness of some (not all) medieval texts, that seems more a question of scarcity in paper and ink than the actual process of revision by hand. But even then, Guibert de Nogent produced a history of the Crusades in Latin that is notoriously turgid, wordy, and difficult to read. T.H. White noted a great deal of unnecessary repetition in The Book of Beasts (dating from the twelfth century), and carefully omitted these stylistic stumbles in his translation.
Quality of work (or lack of it) all comes down to style, and the ability of the author. It is just as easy to strike out a word in pen as it is to hit the “delete” key on your keyboard, and takes about as much time. Some writers simply made revisions and insertions on the first draft manuscript and turned that in to the presses (the manuscript pages of War and Peace Tolstoy handed over to his publisher has nearly all the original text struck out, with the actual text written in-between the lines and in the margins), and, in fact, rewriting or retyping a manuscript tended to discourage some from bothering with revising a line that might have been improved when the rest seemed fine. The same types of writers these days will leave their pages unrevised, word processor or no. And there are still plenty of writers (and I do this, as well) who print out their first draft, mark it up with a nice red pen, and then retype their next draft on a fresh document. The only difference I can see is that we don’t need to pay as much attention to spelling. Not that earlier writers paid much attention to spelling, either.
Tom Simon was quite right in saying that, because word processors made editing easy, they should have improved the general quality of writing. But that ease of editing doesn’t matter if you’re not willing to edit your work as it is. The same person who carefully hones his or her words today is the same one who laboriously retyped or rewrote manuscripts in the past. Using a stylus, or a pen, or a typewriter, or a word processor hasn’t changed that fact. If we’re to look for reasons why books in the fantasy field are ballooning in the size, we’ll need to look elsewhere.