Editing on screen and paper

an email discussion amongst professional writers

Editing documentsThis discussion first took place on the WRICOM (Writing and Computers) mailing list, which is hosted by Mailbase (UK). Note that these are personal opinions, exchanged in the casual manner of email messaging. The language and style are deliberately informal. There is no guarantee that the email addresses of individual contributors will be up to date.



From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.co.uk>

If you write using a word-processor, you may have
noticed something rather odd. You can create a perfect
document, check the spelling, and even check the grammar –
but when you come to print out the document you
notice things which you missed on screen.

These might be mistakes, or they might just be points
of style or emphasis you want to change. If it’s a long
document, you’ll feel like kicking yourself and you
might feel guilty about all the paper you’re wasting.

For many writers, editing work on screen and on paper
appear to be two different things. Why is this?

Maybe writers are reluctant to edit their work when it is in the
ultimate form it will assume prior to being published. But
perhaps not when it is still in its penultimate form?

That is, if my electronic text, on disk, is destined to become a
printed book, I am reluctant to change the contents of the disk on
which I have worked for hours and hours.

However, when I print out the pages, they seem to me a
penultimate version which can still be chopped around
with impunity.

This seems puzzling. Does anybody have the same experience,
or observations on what’s happening?


From: Jane Dorner <Jane@editor.net>

my theory is that you edit and edit on screen and the printout
(long works) *becomes* the penultimate version that gets the final
tweaks because it looks different.

I’m just editing a 200-page document and am extremely unwilling to
print it out more than once for final tweaks. Its also far easier to edit
for consistency using search & replace with the full document in


From: Janet Atkinson-Grosjean <janag@whidbey.whidbey.com>

a laser printed page looks so *finished-product-ish*, I was trying to
make the writing perfect, before it ever hit the page. Not
surprisingly, my writing became constipated, for lack of a better
word. I was on-screen editing instead of writing/drafting, because,
in my mind, I wasn’t allowed to edit laser-printed copy because it
was *finished.*

After driving myself nuts for a while, I decided to print all drafts in
the yukkiest-looking Courier typeface I could find. This works. It
tricks me enough. Only the ultimate, finished product uses a
different font.


From: Austin Meredith <rchow@benfranklin.hnet.uci.edu>

the WYSIWIG technology is not adequately advanced at this point.
Even in the very best of the current technology … the display of the
material on the screen and the printing of the material across the
printer does not result in precisely the same level of clarity.

my reluctance to edit heavily on phototypesetter page proofs can
entirely be accounted for by the hard and unpleasant fact that the
publisher is going to charge me money for each change I make
which is not the publishers fault, and deduct that amount
unilaterally from my royalty checks later!

I am editing on the screen _and_ on paper. Despite the excellence of
my equipment, my print display is still superior to my screen
display. But there are types of editing which are better done on
screen. Spell-checking is an obvious instance of this, but there are
other types of editing which are better done on screen.


From: Rich Berman <rich@interport.net>

I see things like puncutation and misspellings more easily in hard
copy, but also sentence structure. Things like too many short
sentences together, or too many compounds etc. I also find them
easier to correct in hard copy, with pen and paper.

Is it possible that this is because with hard copy you can compare
new with old. When you make a correction on the screen, you see
only the new. When on hard copy on the other hand, both are
there, the original typed, and the new in pen and ink, (and
somewhat in the imagination.)

certain media allow us to see some things more clearly than others,
although I have read advice to writers that suggested that saving all
the material that we cut helps us experience it as not lost, and
therefor feel no sense of loss. That might support your idea, Roy.


From: <Robert_P_KOLKER@umail.umd.edu>

Ive had similar experiences as Roy Johnson of written text on and
off the page. Ive done a number of books which Ive edited entirely
on screen, and which looked just fine when they got to print.
However, in the instances when I do print out a text to edit, I see
things–nuances of word patterns, mostly–that I miss on the screen.
Whats happening I think, is a holdover from pre-computer days
(yes, I’m a middle-aged early adopter, or is it adapter?). I still find
the printed word of a different texture than the word on CRT. I
find this neither good nor bad. While I cannot read large amounts
of text on the screen, I can write them. And edit them. A different
kind of fine tuning comes when I hold the words in my hand.

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From: Eric Johnson <johnsone@dsuvax.dsu.edu>

I write and edit on a computer screen, but when I think the
document is in final form and print it, I want to make more
revisions. The reason may simply be that it is much easier to see
more of the document at one time when it is printed on paper.

Now, as graphic word processors attempt to present on the screen
what will be printed (WYSIWYG), we may end up doing more — not
less — editing on paper since a monitor that displays WYSIWYG
type in reasonable size often cannot display a whole line at one

Regardless of whether WYSIWYG word processing will result in
more editing on paper, it may be a step backward for careful
writers: good writers want to focus on the words, the language, but
WYSIWYG forces writers to pay more attention to the appearance
of the letters and lines (not to mention the temptation the tool bars
offer of fooling around with fonts, etc.)


From: “R. Allan Reese” <R.A.Reese@gri.hull.ac.uk>

I agree with other contributors that, despite twenty years of writing
on screens (yes, honest, I was using a single-user mini-computer in
the mid 70s and previously used a mainframe editor), I still have to
at some stage revise on a print-out. I suggest that having a small
window on the screen tends to make one focus on micro-revision –
getting the words right in each sentence. I can also read through
and consider the linear logic on screen. However, with the print out
I will look backwards and forwards, review the overall structure,
and the “feel”. Since the “reader” will usually be given a paper copy,
I need to see the same.

What I would say is that the number of printed-out drafts is
considerably reduced, and the marks made on the paper copy are
either minor points of appearance or notes to prompt major
revisions. I do almost all my “writing” on a screen – as I’m doing at
this instant.


From: Christopher G. Fox <cfox@unix.cc.emory.edu>

I don’t think we should neglect the brute, ergonomic factors here as
well. My eyes may be somewhat over-sensitive to this kind of
problem, but I simply cannot stare at the screen with the kind of
intensity I need for visually editing a document. All of the possible
combinations of backlighting, glare reduction, etc. don’t change the
fact that its still a VDT I’m looking at. As LCD displays become
more prevalent and more sophisticated, a fully on-screen writing
process will most likely become more prevalent, but I don’t think
the current state of interface technology (video display, keyboard,
mouse) is quite up to the task. Although I do compose and do
preliminary editing on screen I inevitably need to print out in order
to make typos visible and and to notice more large scale
grammatical and rhetorical mistakes/changes.


From: Mike Sharples <mike@cogs.susx.ac.uk>

For me, whether or not I edit on screen or on paper is not just a
matter of choice – I seem to catch different errors and problems in
the two media. On paper, not surprisingly, I get a better overview of
a large document – its structure and narrative flow. I also seem to
be able to spot niggly errors, such as repeated words, better on
paper. On screen I can often read text more rapidly (by scrolling it
past me) to scan for gist. &&


From: Barbara Diederichs <bdiederi@artsci.wustl.edu>

Electronic word processing tools and of course hypertext facilitate a
way of writing that is not very concerned with linear structures.
When I write a paper using the computer, I start with a
handwritten outline and within that framework put down my
thoughts and research results as more or less independent pieces
and with little regard to logical order. I superimpose that in the
printout, which in a way allows to combine the particularities of
both media.

I am wondering, though, if the necessity to eventually cast (almost)
everything we want to say in the traditional paper form, cuts us off
from a form of creativity that might become accessible in the
electronic medium. The fragmented and associative way of not only
expressing oneself, but thinking, that the electronic medium allows
for, might open new directions for scholarship.

An example might be the idea of an ‘ultimate’ or ‘penultimate’
version that Roy Johnson mentions in the above quote: the
openness of electronic systems that Landow (‘Hypertext. The
Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology’
1992) claims as ‘a revolution in human thought’, abandons the very
concept of final versions. What would that allow for in scholarship?
Maybe bold hypotheses that would provoke dialogue, tests,
verification or dismissal rather than having to be ‘right’. Coming
straight to the point, rather than justifying the path from one point
to another. Giving details that would be uneconomical in the
printed medium but might help us develop the collective
intelligence of the ‘giant compound’ that David Megginson
mentions. Etc.

Has any of you written research in hypertext format? Would you
accept a dissertation written in hypertext?


From: Jerome J. Mc Gann <jjm2f@lizzie.engl.virginia.edu>

1. ANY scholarly-critical edition is ‘research in hypertext format’.
and here one wants to remind everyone that ‘research’ etc., and
litcrit, is hardly confined to the setpiece essay — indeed, that form is
one of the most constricting and restrictive we have evolved. not to
make advertisements for myself, i would still suggest that the
implicit and often explicit subject of both _The Textual Condition_
and _Black Riders. The Visible Language of Modernism_ is
‘hypertext’ (see in the latter the ‘Dialogue on Dialogue’ in

2. look at the back issues of postmodern culture, especially the last
couple (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/pmc/contents.all.html).

3. look at the ‘general publications’ of UVAs institute for advanced
technology in the humanities


4. finally, look at various online homepages for courses. arent
courses ‘research projects’ (in my experience, courses are scenes
where _everyone_ learns; ‘teaching’ is a topdown model of learning
ive never been able to find very attractive. or much help.


From: ‘J. A. Holmes’ <starfyr@access.digex.net>

I find I still do a lot of editing on paper (for text or code) because
watching the screen is not easy on my eyes. Initial creation I do lots
of moving stuff around, but when I think Im getting close to done
the need/desire to linger over each piece (keep/throw away/modify)
while deciding its fate just has me staring too intently at the
screen. Also Ive not ever used a editor with markup capability. I
can make the changes or just move along. When doing an edit,
particularly the final, (or hopefully final) version, I just want to
mark problem spots/changes. If I actually stop to make the changes
I lose the thread, and cant properly deal with how the local
changes affect the document as a whole.

In a similar vein, the trend towards online documentation for
programmers is beginning to be a problem to me, I just cant read
400+ pages onscreen.


From: Patrick TJ McPhee <ptjm@io.org>

For what they’re worth, here are a few thoughts.

1. its (measurably) easier to read text printed at even low (300dpi)
resolutions than current screen resolutions

2. a paper version of a document displays more of the document at
a time than an on-line version, even if you have a big monitor

3. you think differently with a pen in your hand.

These aside, I agree with you that its easier to make a change to a
copy of a document than it is to the master. When you go back to
change the original, you can rethink the changes you write on the
paper, which effectively gives you two revisions for the effort of one.
Its nice to keep an RCS copy of the document, so you can always go
back to an earlier version if you change your mind.


From: ‘J. Hartley’ <psa04@cc.keele.ac.uk>

1. Familiarity with the genre is important as well as length. Well
practiced skills will require less editing. I write long letters, but
rarely edit them – so who the text is for is important too.

2. The method one is using plays a part. I dont edit much on
e-mail, as readers will discover if they read on, no doubt.

3. I used to write by hand and my secretary word-processed the
script. I then copiously edited her paper versions. I now do all (well
nearly all) my writing by machine. I now do a lot more editing on
screen before making a print out – which I then edit by hand. For
much the same reasons as other have expressed.

However, if I am starting an article I sometimes like to rough it
out, and then print it out to see how it is shaping up. I then try and
do as much as I can on screen, and then print out. But I always
regard the print out as a cue to further editing by hand. Until I
force myself to stop.

4. I wonder if people who write differently, edit differently? Do the
planners, who think first and then write, with little corrections, do
less editing than the thinkers who edit as they go along. Obviously
they do, but I wonder how they balance screen and paper editing in
each case?

5. The editing one does may vary if one is _co-authoring_. Here,
how much use of screen and paper editing may depend on whether
one is the main, equal or subordinate author? Currently with my
research assistant, I often print out a paper version for him to read.
I do not give him my disc. When he writes something for me to
check, he hands me his disc as well. So I edit his text on screen, and
he edits mine on paper! If I were co-authoring with another
colleague in a different department I suspect we would both use

6. I find screen editing good for re-jigging old articles for a fresh
audience. One can scissors and paste away. But I then like to see
the result on paper, and I then edit it with the fresh perspective of
the new audience in mind.

7. I always find it helpful to leave something, and then come back
to it to edit it. I find this with both paper and screen – but am
inclined to make bigger changes when dealing with paper versions.


From: AM DUDLEY-EVANS <DUDLEYAM@novell1.bham.ac.uk>

But it has always seemed to me that there are two kinds of writer,
the one who composes by getting down the ideas as quickly as
possible without worrying too much about accuracy, coherence etc.
This is followed by the crafting stage, in which it is all tidied up,
made coherent etc. The second kind of writer seems to enjoy
crafting as s/he writes and does the polishing along with the
composing. I suspect that the former type of writer is more
common, but I know of at least one of my colleagues who fits into
the second category.

But I wonder how the second kind of writer writes with the
word-processor. Does s/he craft on the screen?


From: Judy Madnick <judy.madnick@accessnt.com>

I currently edit court transcripts on-screen. I also have edited
manuscripts on-screen. I must admit that its very easy to miss
things, probably because our reading methods on-screen are not the
same as those off-screen. Ive learned to force myself to slow down
(which seems to be the big issue) and almost say the words to
myself. (Remember how our teachers told us not to move our lips?
Well, they wouldnt want to be watching me proof on-screen!)

So . . . yes, for many people seeing their work on paper seems to
result in additional editing; however, I do believe that with careful
analysis of the methods being used on-screen, editing CAN be done
successfully either way.


From: Ellen Kessler <etk@panix.com>

Ive been a writer/editor for almost 30 years, and I have noticed a
few curious and inexplicable things:

1. The way a piece looks affects the way it is read. I often
think that Ive finished editing something in manuscript, for
instance, only to see the typeset galleys and shudder. Ive never
understood this phenomenon, but now that I think about it, I
believe that when I read something back, I read it as a reader not
the author, and react to it as new material, which, of course, I must
improve. I also think it has something to do with the way the brain
processes visual information.

I can work for a long time on my computer, but when I have
various versions and want to compare them, I often print them out.
I save discarded text at the bottom of the file, in case I want to use
it later. Eventually, I always print the stuff out and read it away
from my computer. I think a bit of distance, in the forms of time
and space, are helpful. I believe everything I write can be better
edited the day after I write it.


From Clare Macdonald <mead@nada.kth.se>

For me, a lot of the pleasure of revising on a printed copy comes from the
fact that the text stays put. This creates an additional context (location
on the page) that I can use to mentally navigate.

When working with a long document, remembering where on the page (and on which page) a particular passage is can help me locate it quickly. I could probably find it even faster by searching for the phrase with my word processor, but then I’d lose something of my mental image of the structure of the document – or at least my working memory would start to feel seriously overloaded. I’d probably get several matches for my search and have to spend some mental resources considering each and rejecting the ones I don’t want. With a printout, I don’t have to bother with instances that occur early in the text if I know that what I’m interested in is part of the Conclusion – just scan the last few pages.

Of course, each time I print the revised document the location of the text
changes, so perhaps this is part of the reason I’ll notice different
problems in different versions – the location-context supports slightly
different comparisons.


From Carol Buchanan <buchanan@sprynet.com>

I work as a technical writer, in the area of cabin electronics and
computer systems, for the Boeing Company. (I also have a PhD in
English.) Although my writing skills are excellent, I cannot edit my own
work. I see what I expect to see. I find I cannot do without the help of
an editor who scrutinizes the manuals for everything from grammar,
punctuation, and spelling to format and logic. She edits online, and I
make corrections online, but for really knowing what the document’s
pages look like and for catching more errors, she prints every draft and
subjects it to another scrutiny. Then, after we think we’ve got it
right, we pass it to a proofreader who reads it closely on paper and
catches still more errors.

The same thing occurs with the books I’ve written. I write the book
online, print it, read it, fix the problems I see, and print the final
copy which I send, along with the diskette, to the publisher. The editor
there edits the typescript, then returns it for correction. I make the
corrections, and back it goes. The editor sends the book to a
copyeditor, who has other questions and sees other problems, which I
respond to and return the typescript and diskette. Then the typesetter
sets the book in final pages, which I read through for the last time
while the proofreader reads the paper copy. Invariably, I find more
mistakes. This time I do not make corrections in the files, but on the

I offer this lengthy description of what happens in corporate technical
editing and in commercial publishing in support of two points:

  1. For some reason, we do not see quite the same online and on paper.
    It would take an expert in perception to explain it. I can’t.
  2. To do a professional job of bringing writing to publication,
    several people have to collaborate in a team, each with his or her own
    skills. Even after that, mistakes will still occur.

© Roy Johnson 2009

Editing links

Red button Editing and Revising Text

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Red button How to edit your writing

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2 Responses to “Editing on screen and paper”

  1. don morberg says:

    There is a physiological reason why paper editing catches more errors. It has to do with the way the brain processes light. Light coming off paper is reflected light; from a screen it is transmitted light. For some reason, we are more critical of information gained from reflected light; and mroe accepting of information from transmitted light. (Probably why I bought a blanket with arms in it from a late night TV infomercial.)


  2. mantex says:

    That’s an interesting observation Don. Might be worth looking into further. Enjoy the blanket.

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