an email discussion amongst professional writers
This 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 <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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 memory.
From: Janet Atkinson-Grosjean <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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 publisher’s 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 <[email protected]>
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: <[email protected]>
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.
From: Eric Johnson <[email protected]>
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 time.
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” <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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 mythoughts 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 <[email protected]>
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 particular).
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. aren’t 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’ <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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’ <[email protected]>
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 screens.
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 <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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 <[email protected]>
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 paper.
I offer this lengthy description of what happens in corporate technical editing and in commercial publishing in support of two points:
- 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.
- 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