Essential writing skills: why paper’s an essential editing tool

Over the past few weeks I’ve outlined the three types of editing and where they apply in the writing process. And when you are aiming to be published, writing is a process.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.
My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

As we’ve seen, editing isn’t just a quick pass through followed by publication. There are three types, each with their own separate demands – and skills demanded to do them:

1. Content editing – getting the large-scale content and structure of the writing correct (this might involve checking against a beat sheet, of which more anon).
2. Proof editing – making sure the content reads OK, grammar is correct, etc.
3. Line editing – making sure it’s letter-perfect, all letters, punctuation and so forth is right.

I often fear the distinctions are lost in this age where computers make it so easy to display and change manuscripts. That same ease of change also makes it easy to make mistakes.

The way around it is to change medium. In short – print out the manuscript. Then edit it. Using pen and ink. The old system. And see how much stuff you discover needs changing. I find it works for all three varieties of editing – and for me, particularly, content and line editing.

Why does this work? Part of it is because reading on paper differs, technically, from reading on screen. A study done here in New Zealand made clear that on-screen reading is up to thirty percent slower than reading on paper, and that line length has an effect. Certainly there’s no doubt that changing the medium changes the way we look at the material. Literally. You’ll be surprised what detail you spot on a printout – having missed it on screen.

Having the document as a printout also means you get an overview that’s impossible on screen. I’ll sometimes spread the pages out on the floor, step back and peruse. This ‘aerial’ view offers a one-glance structural overview (‘content edit’) you simply can’t get on computer, even via software that collapses material into headings. It gives a literal and complete way of measuring the proportions of the various components versus the length of the whole.

A printout also means you get a direct and different look at the specifics of the grammar and written content, including whether you name something or someone before they’re introduced (it happens).

Often it’s worth doing a second printout after all that’s been implemented, in order to do that final line-edit check. It’s just amazing what shows up on paper.

I figure it’s worth a try. Do you have an editing technique that works for you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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18 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: why paper’s an essential editing tool

  1. Couldn’t agree more about the need for a paper-and-pen edit. I’m getting better at using MS Word’s editing features (lots and lots of lovely practice) but then, Word notoriously does not distinguish homonyms — which can be quite embarrassing, if a group of characters should have scene a seen or, oops! But you see what I mean.

    Regardless, the feel is different when you look at it on paper and take a pen to the manuscript, as opposed to doing it on screen. The slightly different presentation makes catching errors easier, to me. I think doing it both ways adds one more layer of care to the process. You may not catch all the errors but you can come close!

    1. I agree whole-heartedly. I use Word as a typewriter. Auto-correct is brilliant – for me, it fixes the way my typing inevitably either misses letters or mangles the order of them (including spaces, which causes some amusement), but as you say, it can’t nab homonyms. I usually turn off the grammar checker, which often balks at some of my stylistic patterns. These aren’t actually wrong, but they’re not ‘strict’ (I figure writing that strictly follows those rules becomes mechanistic and boring).

  2. Thoroughly agree. A paper copy of any document (be it creative writing or work-related) always seems to reveal flaws that are not apparent on the screen.

    Having a friend read your work aloud is also a great help (including the thrill/mortification of hearing your written words out in the real world at last)

    1. Reading aloud is an incredible tool for proofing. Two people sit down in a room; one reads out the manuscript – and the other checks against a second copy. A transliteration of what’s said is weird: “Capital C, Call Me Capital I Ishmael, I-S-H-M-A-E-L…full stop, space, capital S, some space years space ago….” But it works.

      1. Wow, that’s even more detailed than I imagined! The process is quite fascinating. I have a legal background, so am used to painstakingly checking title references and contract amendments, and track changes and version control (and the problems). Reviewing creative writing is much more interesting!

  3. Interesting concept – paper and pen! I usually read through for content, then line by line for copy editing, then look at the storyline to make sure all ends are connected, no silly mistakes like errors in names or places. Then I read it again with fresh eyes to see if it all makes sense and is gripping to the reader.

    I step away from it for a week or more then read it again. I find things I didn’t see before. I inevitably add more or make changes once again. There is a time when we authors have to step back and say, ‘fin.’ It is a good idea to give your MS to another skilled person, editor, to give it a final eye.

    No matter how many times a book is edited there is still a slight chance there will be an error. I found some in the best authors’ books.

    Happy editing! Thanks for these great tips!

  4. Being new to all this I only edit on paper copies. I just assumed everyone did! So much clearer. I agree with the reading aloud too. Really great. I also find just sending a chapter to a friend to see helps me edit too. Not for what they say but for how I tighten it up before pressing send! Knowing someone else is going to read it makes me sharpen up.

  5. I definitely catch different things when I print something vs. editing on the computer. I’ve found, as well, that if you’ve been reading the printed version of something over and over that it can also help to print the next version with a different font. The key is making sure that you are keeping it looking fresh to your eyes, so you don’t skim over things. At least for me. Because I actually have to focus on anything I’m reading to NOT skim.

    1. Keeping that ‘fresh look’ is definitely the key to it on my experience. I hadn’t thought of changing the font! I know that one of the reasons authors often tinker with the typeset version, when the publisher sends them drafts, is because they suddenly see things that were ‘invisible’ on the original manuscript.

  6. When I’m editing a client’s manuscript I always send it back to them for checking in a different font to how they sent it to me – it makes a big difference in how closely they read through it and they almost always find new things they decide to change. Almost as good as a week away or fresh eyes!

  7. I always print off the copy i want to edit. i find it easier to read, easier to find errors and easier to correct mistakes in editing. That way the MS stays the same until I’m ready to sit down and complete my edits of a given section.

  8. I like your advice and should have read this months sooner. I never thought it made a difference between the screen and paper until last month. Cindy who does my editing always wants hers stuff printed out. I thought it was because she had a slow dial-up computer. Last month I wrote a short story for the Writer’s Guild. Most of the time I’ve done a single page to read and rarely found any mistakes after it was printed. Even though I had read my work on the screen several times and made a number of corrections, when I read the printed copy to the group I noticed 3 more mistakes. I did not bother to read it after it was printed because I was sure it was perfect! It was a bit embarrassing to read the goofs out loud.

    1. It’s a great technique. The printout approach works at all levels of editing – structural and line alike. I use it all the time & the act of re-keying the changes back into the computer acts as a further check.

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