Editing and Paper

I had a question today from a lovely lady in Japan asking whether I usually edit my books on paper. I had put up a photo of my morning desk

This is what a 580 page novel at the edit stage looks like!

This is what a 580 page novel at the edit stage looks like!

(which was embarrassing, but I can cope), and prominent on it was the pile of paper that will be my next novel: BLOOD ON THE SAND, published by Simon & Schuster. Jolly good story and an excellent read!

Yes, it looks hideously old fashioned. Why on earth would anyone edit on paper.

Actually there are many reasons why it’s far better to edit on paper.

First and foremost, you can have paper in your hand. For me, that means I can get up from my desk, walk to the kitchen and work on the table. Or I can carry the book into the sitting room, where the fire may be lit and I therefore stop freezing. Laptop, I hear you say? Yes, laptops work well, and yes, I have one. But I prefer to see full-screen.

Okay, you say, but I could easily use something like an iPad. Yes, and in fact I did.

When the tablets started selling, I thought they would be the answer to my prayers. I’m by nature an early adopter, and so I bought an iPad very quickly. The idea in my mind was, I could stop printing out books, and instead work on them on the screen. After a fair amount of juggling, I managed to load my work in progress into the iPad and started working. And it was a good experience. It felt more like holding a book than, for example, wandering around holding 580 pages of A4. When I went away on a speaking engagement, carrying the iPad was rather easier and lighter, too.

But there were problems. The memory was dire and the speed of working appalling. I could highlight text and make notes, but more than that Mr Jobs would not allow. I could not edit or add text, so when home again, I had to go through the notes from the iPad and retype them into my iMac. Now, that wasn’t a killer, because it’s what I’ve always done: make notes on paper and put them back into the text later. However, the slowness of opening a ‘note’, and then typing, before returning to reading, was for me a killer.

So, I sold the iPad and instead bought an HTC Flyer on the advice of my friend David Hewson. He’s an even earlier adopter (if he could, he’d be in there before the idea had become a gleam in the inventor’s eye) and had gone HTC for sound reasons. He liked the fact that there was a pen to go with the HTC, and with that pen, notes could be scribbled on a manuscript. Those notes would then appear, magically, on the screen of my computer, I learned. And synchronising between the tablet and my Apple would be a doddle.

Did it work? Yes. Do I still use it? Nope.

HTC Flyer hard at work with an edit - nice machine, but wrong for me.

HTC Flyer hard at work with an edit – nice machine, but wrong for me.

The HTC was much more practical than the iPad. It was smaller, lighter, and more compact. Result? I couldn’t read the damn screen. I went back to paper.

You know what? It was a relief, because of the second point. This second factor, for me, is more key than all the technological issues.

As my regular readers will know, last year I spent a bunch of time working with the Royal Literary Fund as a Fellow helping students with one-on-one tuition. It was enormous fun, but what was interesting was the report I saw while there: it was from a US university and was all about reading from screens. After a lot of checking, it concluded that reading from a screen was much more difficult than from paper. This refers to computers, but not necessarily Kindle paper-style devices. For tablets that depend on backlighting, though, most use a form of LED that has been shown to distract the human brain. When editing, it confuses the mind so that many typos and other errors are missed. When reading, much of the detail is missed. That is the same whether reading on a tablet or a large iMac screen, I believe. Certainly, when editing it is very easy to miss the majority of mistakes when reading quietly from a computer.

In fact it’s universally accepted by authors that the only way to really check your work is to read aloud from your manuscript, and to do so while reading from paper. There is something about the enunciation of each word that aids editing.

I demonstrated this regularly while at university. Many of my students would doubt the efficacy of reading aloud, so I would ask them to read paragraphs in which there were typos. Every time, when they read through their text silently, they would miss the errors, but when reading aloud, they spotted them.

So, yes, I do always edit from print outs. And I also read aloud. Which makes me feel a twerp, but does mean my editor has an easier job!


PS – I’m late on my work, so this hasn’t been edited on paper! Apologies for the typos if you spot them. If you don’t, of course, you are welcome to be impressed by my ability to write without mistake!

30 Responses to “Editing and Paper”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    I used to use trees like you once upon a time Michael. These days I use Adobe and Calibre to give me two further editing options. Seeing the WIP in different formats works damned well. ;)


    • Cheers , Jack, and thanks for the reblog. I have tried working that way. In fact, I always look at mine in Scrivener, then Nisus and finally on paper; still, it’s the last stage where I spot the mistakes!


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Michael on the traditional editing method – paper :)


  3. Good points about using paper. I can’t imagine using any other medium for revisions and editing. I am hoping to find a better way that won’t involve destroying a forest, though. If you come up with one, I’d love to hear about it.


    • Keep your eyes on this blog and when, in about thirty years or so, I find something that actually works, I’ll let you know! I seriously cannot think of a technology that’s likely to beat paper. I just love doodling, scribbling, making notes and generally abusing bits of dead wood! Especially now I have my Midori Traveller’s Notebook.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. noelleg44 says:

    After I’ve made all the changes from my various reviewers by computer, I do print out a copy that I can lug around with me, reading it aloud to find errors – typos, awkward dialog, missing items. I figure I’m not doing a lot of damage to the trees, to print it out just once.


  5. ann slicer says:

    Hi MICHAEL I have missed seeing your photos,are you going to send any soon?????


  6. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    AUTHORS – What do YOU prefer when editing – Paper or Screen?
    Share your thoughts with Michael :D


  7. I am blind and can not read print. Consequently I write and edit using Jaws software which converts text into speech and braille enabling me to use a Windows 7 laptop. I do have a sighted friend check my books, however she does this on screen. I may start to print off hard copy to see whether this enhances my ability to spot errors which, of course I never make …! Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ah, love my technology :) Think I would go nuts editing on paper! I find I enjoy editing on my kindle. I usually just highlight the bit that is bothering me or jot a few notes if I think I will forget before I am back at my computer.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ali Isaac says:

    I think it depends where its going to be read. A paperback needs to be seen on paper. It throws up all kinds of errors and issues which wouldnt matter at all on an ereader. Typos can be picked up, or missed, in any format as works best for you. No matter how good you are, you will miss them. The more pairs of eyes on the manuscript before publishing, the better. Even then some will slip through. Even famous trad pubbed authors are susceptable.


  10. thelumosrose says:

    Although I do a lot of editing on a screen, I do try and get at least one round of editing on paper. I find it easier and more flexible.


  11. Colin Guest says:

    After editing my work several times on the computer, once I think it looks good, I then make a hard copy. This I find shows me more things that I had not seen on the screen.


  12. Sometimes you need paper. You can shift pages and put them both in front of you if you need to double check/compare things – which can be critical to keep things straight. To me it’s just easier to spot stuff in final read through.
    Notes and colors on screens are OK – (but still just one page in front of you and comparisons/ backtracking not as easy as with paper)
    Maybe at some point in the future with editors/writers who grew up totally meshed with screens, paper will seem odd to them. We’ll see.


  13. I print out and edit on paper, as well. It’s less strain on the eyes and more portable for taking to ballet class and tae kwon do session to wait on the kids.


  14. I work best with a paper copy to edit as well.


  15. Toni Betzner says:

    I used to edit on paper, but my sister doesn’t understand the marks, so I have to put all changes in comments when I edit her stuff.


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