Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Editing onscreen vs offscreen

Why does what you’ve written take on a different character when you print it out? Yesterday I printed out what I’d written of The Black and the White so far (about 18 000 words) as I wanted to get back into the book after an enforced 10 day layoff caused by the play, my Mum’s 70th birthday and attendant visits, then sorting out the Ultimate Frisbee Freak for university and taking him up on Sunday.

So, I printed out the words I’d written and proceeded to read them.

Now, you need to bear in mind that, of the (at least) two kinds of writer I am not of the ‘get it down fast and dirty but get it down’ variety. I find it impossible to move on to the next chapter until I’m pretty satisfied with the one I’ve just written. In theory this should keep later editing to a minimum. It doesn’t. I don’t know whether I’m a) a perfectionist b) inefficient c) indecisive or d) all three but, anyway, these chapters that I’d printed out had already been scrutinised, read aloud, cut, augmented and polished. Each had at least four versions of itself saved in a folder marked ‘chapter x’.

And still there was work to do.

Things which I would have expected to notice first time round – infelicities of style, repetitions, saying things twice, confusing paragraphs where I knew what I meant but the poor reader would have to be telepathic to grasp – suddenly leaped out at me.
Was it the ten days’ distance from the words?
Or just that it was printed and not in ‘first draft’ mode on the screen?
Or perhaps I’m being unduly self-critical and not allowing myself the luxury of writing myself in to the book in peace without expecting it to be instantly satsifactory.

I know that lots of longhand first drafters say that when they type up what they’ve written and see the words appearing as print onscreen, they immediately see what needs to be changed, rewritten etc. The change from scrawl to ‘clean text’ seems to be part of the editing process.

So, should I routinely print out my chapters once I’m happy with them on screen?

What does everybody else to in this context?

8 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

I don't print anything out until I have a complete first draft, and even then it will have been extensively revised on screen.

Of course I see a lot of things wrong as soon as I've printed out, but that's OK. I wouldn't want to have slowed down the composition phase to strip out, say, infelicitous repetitions as I went. Plenty of time to catch those later!

I read an interview with Muriel Spark where she claimed never to revise: she'd get it all right first time. You can see why most of her books were only about 50,000 words...

Frances Garrood said...

I don't print my work out at all. Ever. But like you, Alis, I do tend to polish each chapter before I move on to the next. This is partly a hangover from my short story days, when there was very little to edit, so it had to be done in small bites, but partly I suspect, from reluctance to move from my nice finished chapter onto something which may not be so nice and isn't even started.

Alis said...

Hi Tim - as far as getting it right first time is concerned, I'm told that people who write longhand are more careful about what they write as it's more difficult to amend, so they choose their words carefully and listen to them inside their head first before committing them to paper.
I don't really know what I'm going to say until I see it onscreen...

Hi Frances - I know what you mean about not wanting to move on, there's a kind of pleasant security in polishing something that's already there in first draft, isn't there?

Akasha Savage said...

I print out as I go along. I have to edit from a hard copy, I just can't do it on a screen. Whenever I come to the end of a writing session, I print off that day's work and read through it. the next day I read through the previous day's work again, editing if needed. I, like you Alis, can not move forward until I am happy with what I've already produced. A bit of a hard slog, but it's the only way I can work.

Karen said...

I don't always print out what I've written but in Word I change the view to Reader Layout, to give me a different perspective (I'm easily swayed!)

I have an online writing partner, and when we look at each other's writing, we ALWAYS pick up errors we've missed on our own. I think the brain fills in what it expects to see once you've got used to your own story.

Alis said...

Hi Karen - I definitely agree about the brain filling things in. There's also the problem of you knowing what you mean and not necessarily giving the reader enough info so that they know what you mean too!

David Isaak said...

I share a little of both Akasha's and Karen's habits.

I generally start a writing session by printing out the previous day's work and walking around the house reading it under my breath, pen in hand. Having hard copy makes a world of difference to my eye--as does motion.

But altering the format also helps. On one occasion, I used the formatting software Lulu provides to self-publish books to print out chapters as though they were laid out in book form already. My, my, did my eye capture a lot of new problems.

Better there than in galley proofs, I say.

Alis said...

Hi David - yes, isn't it amazing how seeing your book laid out like a- well, a book - makes you read the text differently. I'm reading somebody else's book in MS at the moment and I've put that into reading layout for the same reason.