Editing Your Stories on Paper? Not if I can help it.

(A reprint from 'Chuck vs. the Google Group', 7/2/2010).

Referencing this article in Slate:

There’s always a contrarian in every bunch, and I guess I have to stand up and admit that, for this article, it’s going to be me.

I certainly understand how McLuhan’s vision of people switching modes of perception based solely on the individual medium’s characteristics could lead them to commit different mistakes in their writing.  A person who learned how to text or email their friends informally may never develop habits vital to learning more formal writing later.  Conversely, someone who learned how to write critically using longhand and later learns electronic correspondence may see these as fundamentally different pursuits and never adapt their processes across that boundary.

It might even be that the very advantages of the different mediums themselves are the culprit.  For instance, I type because I can enter and edit words far faster than I can write and edit longhand.  Maybe it’s this speed and convenience that seduces me into moving on rather than paying more attention to the quality of what I just wrote (more on that in a couple of paragraphs).

But even with all of that, I can’t accept the premise that I must print something out in order to perceive it properly.  Doing so makes the, IMO, preposterous assumption that we’re simply unable to see the same mistakes on a computer screen that we can see on paper, rather than the more reasonable assumption that we are not conditioned to see those mistakes that way.  And before I would subject myself to the tediousness of dealing with paper trays and ink cartridges I think it would be worth exploring a few more tolerable alternatives.

For instance, if the issue of seeing “better” on paper is simply that the text changes appearance, either in its arrangement or physical form, one easy trick is to make a PDF out of it.  I do this all the time, and I can attest to seeing my work differently when it’s committed to a form more closely resembling a printed work.  From Word, I can just use “Save as PDF” from the “Save” menu and there it is.  It takes five seconds and doesn’t require wood pulp.  Is this roughly akin to printing it?  I would suggest it is.  If you can live without the feel of paper in your hands and the smell of the pulp and ink in your nostrils, then this might be enough for you.

But getting back to what I referred to earlier, I would like to suggest another possibility.  Our habit of writing casually online makes us sloppy.  And these habits are hard to break.  I make many of the same mistakes Jan Swafford ascribes to her students.  I leave out punctuation, use words and phrases redundantly, forget to delete revisions, etc…  But I fix these problems when I re-read my own work, and I don’t mean just “skimming back over”.  Sure, I don’t catch everything, but I didn’t when I used a typewriter and paper, either.  I think many of Jan’s students just didn’t bother to edit effectively and the only blame to lay on using a computer is that its ease-of-use made them lazy.

Want to write something solid?  Read the whole thing again when you think you’re done.  Then, go back to the top and read it again.  And then do it again.  And repeat this until you stop finding things that you obviously need to change and you’re only finding things that you might want to change.  Reading your own work repeatedly gets you used to the cadence of your speech, the rhythm of the beats in your story.  It helps you tune your timing.

A simple trick?  Read your fic out loud during your final edits, as if you’re telling your story to someone else.  It forces you to read what’s on the page instead of what your brain is filling in for you.  And it’s my experience that you will trip yourself over those ugly errors when you hear them come out of your mouth.

And speaking of “coming out of your mouth”, this is what goes through my head when the very suggestion of writing anything out longhand comes up:

‘Nuff said.  🙂

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About aardvark7734

Tech friendly; People friendly; Cyborg friendly; Zombie unfriendly
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One Response to Editing Your Stories on Paper? Not if I can help it.

  1. Baylink says:

    Would that be… the Wilhelm Scream? (Ok, yes; I’ve spent far too much time on TVTropes this month… 🙂

    I agree with you: I have no trouble editing my stuff — or anyone else’s; Jeff’s, for example — on a computer, be it in vi in an xterm, or OOo. Truth be told, my typing speed suffers horribly, sacrificed to turning out relatively clean copy on the first pass, but I still make the extra passes…

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