Editing on Paper

I'm one of those writers who can't edit on a computer. After I write something, I'm always forced to print it out on dead trees, so that I can fix my sentences. When I try to edit on the computer, I always miss repetitions, redundancies and other bits of bad writing that I easily catch when I've got the pages in my hand.

I know several other writers who suffer from a similar dependence on the printed word. But why does this effect exist? Why is it so much harder to edit on a computer?

I suppose one possible answer is habit. Perhaps there's some critical period of reading and writing, and my brain never learned how to properly read on a computer screen. Perhaps. I guess one way to test this hypothesis is to see if younger generations have gotten better at editing on computers, since they were (presumably) exposed to computers at a younger age.

Another explanation is that reading physical pages (as opposed to electronic Word files) triggers some extra bit of Broca's/Wernicke's area, which makes us more sensitive to sentences. This second explanation makes more sense to me, since I can construct a rather lame just-so story in support of it. Reading is a complicated sensory act, and our brain evolved this talent in the context of a physical text (papyrus, sheepskin, etc). Replace that physical text with a flat computer screen and you've got a slightly out of sync brain, which can't quite get used to the disembodied nature of electronic writing.

Obviously, both of my explanations suck. Can you do better? Why do I have to waste paper and ink on my own bad prose?

Update: In the comments, Rosie Redfield comes up with a much, much better hypothesis.


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I haven't noticed this with proofreading my own work, but I know that with reading general articles I have a much better attention span/comprehension is much better with reading printed pages than screens. Even some longish blog posts are hard for me to get through without taking a break, my eyes just don't follow the text as well on a screen. Pdfs are easier than html pages, though, which is kind of interesting, maybe it's not so much the screen as the typical fonts/page layouts that are less like normal printed works?

What's funny is that I'm the exact opposite when it comes to editing. I cannot for the life of me edit on paper, but I love the editing freedom afforded by 1s and 0s, whether it be my own work or a colleague's.

Oddly enough, though, as with Anne-Marie, when it comes to reading for pleasure or learning -- or any reading that isn't for editorial purposes, for that matter -- dead trees or PDFs are a must.

My simple fix is to just read something aloud and slightly slower than usual. The point is to not just scan with eyes or read sotto voce.

I am exactly the same way, and I think the problem is the interface. It takes only slightly longer to move the eyes from the bottom of the page to the top of the next, whereas paging down on a screen means fiddling with a mouse, or scroll bar, or the Page Down key, and then locating the beginning of the next unread line (which may be the second or thirdline visible on the screen). The continuity of the voice, and thought, is violated.

Here's the text of a note I had in Nature in 1999 (Nature 398, 186):


Your Briefing on electronic journals asked "Why do researchers download and print?" rather than reading articles on the screen (Nature 397, 195-2001999). The author suggests that the explanation lies with the poor resolution of text displays on computer screens. I think the real problem lies much deeper, in the way our brains process information, and will not be susceptible to a simple technological fix.

Reading requires us to pile one level of abstraction on top of another. We must recognize letters from the shapes of marks on the page, and the meanings of words from those letters and from the sounds our minds associate with them, and the information in sentences from the meanings of words and from grammatical rules, and still-more-abstract concepts from the sentences. One feature of reading that makes this achievement possible is that it is grounded in a physical object, the page or book.

One example of the importance of physical context in reading is our positional memory for text -- frequently we can easily remember the location of a piece of information on the page and in the book, even though we've forgotten its textual content and context. I suspect that this physical framework is a key part of our reading ability, especially for difficult material.

When we read online we forfeit this level of perception -- all text is ephemeral. It flows like water across the screen, and appears and disappears with the click of a mouse. For serious reading of the scientific literature, an abstract may be all we can absorb from the screen without becoming disoriented. It's as if the ideas we're reading can't be given locations in our minds if they don't have locations in space."

That's a great explanation, Ms. Redfield. Thank you very much. It totally jives with my own experiences as a reader. It also helps explain why I'm a slightly better electronic editor when I display my Word documents in multi-page format, so that several pages are displayed simulateneously. I have a feeling this makes the text less "ephemeral" - I do less vertical scrolling - and so I'm less disoriented.

Potentially showing my youthful ignorance, I disagree with Rosie. I find words in print to be less vital and less able to be related to other things that I know. Perhaps this is like the "study in the same conditions you're going to test in" aspect of activating prior knowledge; maybe it is easier to relate information to other information when they are on the same medium as each other. This context-based style of idea grouping makes sense because you wouldn't need knowledge of river animals in the middle of the desert.

I have traditionally edited things on the computer. However, I often find it easier to markup paper, keep track of my changes on paper (MSWord's "track changes" isn't perfect), and make a note to myself on the margins of paper. I usually use computers to edit because it is faster between drafts, it's more flexible, and "copy and paste" are proof someone loves me. Plus, no one is as worried about poor grammar anymore - it's too hard to notice on computers ;)

Seems to me it's mainly habit. Intrinsically, screens are slightly less comfortable to look at than paper. But as a programmer, I'm constantly editing code on screen, and it's become natural to me to read and edit text the same way. I think the idea that we have trouble grasping abstract concepts that aren't presented on a stable physical medium is a bit silly. Text presented on screen doesn't melt away as soon as you click off it: documents on screen have persistent structures, you just use the mouse or keys to move them, the same way you use your hands to manipulate a book. And anyway, when I'm reading, I'm taking in words and ideas and arranging them in my mind. I don't associate them with their physical source at all. In fact, I'd argue that using smart search tools and hypertext makes navigating and mentally organizing information presented on screen literally far easier than printed text. But of course, these things take effort to get used to.

Another programmer here. Whilst I do lots of code reading, reviewing, editing, et al. on-screen, my text editing is almost always on dead trees.

I also like Rosie Redfield's hypothesis, esp. the point about the general lack of physical position clews when working on-screen.

Presuming there is something to that hypothesis, then why does it seem to not apply to code? Could be habit, could be because I've always done it that way (well, not quite, but my experience with punched cards was very limited), but I'll speculate it's because physical position is (rarely) a significant memory aide for code. The key memory aide, at least for me, is (purported) functionality; i.e., what is it that the code is supposed to be doing? Not in any great detail (usually), just a simple summary--e.g., "find the wookie", "I want a cookie", and so on--which tends to be located by file/module whatever (very broadly, "chapter"). And that's not much of a physical position clew.

Functionality is such a strong aide it works in reverse. I often find myself deducing, or just presuming, the existence of some code which does something (e.g., "wookie opens cookie jar"), and with a bit of speculation how that then functions ("with a hammer"), can quickly locate the code--without having ever seen it before. That sort of thing is usually the sign of a not-too-good book (if I can predict the plot twists, consistently, the story is dull (probably).)

That speculation is, perhaps, mildly supported by the opposite situation: When I can't find the (presumed) code, why not? Perhaps weird organisation (unusual files), or my presumption was wrong, or total misunderstanding on my part, and numerous other reasons (not all of which I'm cognisant of).

So what about when I cannot find the (usually vaguely remembered) text? In my case, it seems to be because I rarely remember names very well (not of authors or books), and so whilst I (think I am) recalling the relevant page's "shape" or "appearance" adequately, I'm lost as to what book... (Which is really annoying!)

Referencing Rosie Redfield's comments, above, I often misplace my keys, my wallet, the vegetable peeler, the tv clicker clacker, the wine opener, and worry that I am too forgetful. Yet, when I read something especially interesting in a book or magazine, I can often remember the page number, so that I can show it to someone else. I think her comment helps explain this oddity, which I have thought about before.

Just a cautionary note regarding the evolutionary just-so story according to which "our brain evolved this talent in the context of a physical text (papyrus, sheepskin, etc)". Quite the contrary, reading is too recent a invention to have exerted any significant selection pressure on the evolution of our brains, even less so when one consider how few were the litterates before the advent of printed text.

However the argument might hold at the ontogenetic level: cognitive processes involved in reading might indeed develop during childhood in relation to the physical support of texts. Once an adult, it might therefore be very demanding to move to virtual text for all the reasons mentionned above.

Nota: Recent theories in neuroscience and psychology of reading go the other way around and insist on the way the brain may recycle the unspecific processes evolved for visual perception to decipher written words (something that could explain some features of our reading competence such as size-invariance or confusion between symmetrical letters by children)

Ref: S. Dehaene. Evolution of human cortical circuits for reading and arithmetic: The �neuronal recycling� hypothesis. http://www.unicog.org/publications/DehaeneFyssenChapterPreemption2004b…

From a cognitive standpoint, you wouldn't think there would be a difference, but I have noticed the same phenomenon myself. Remember that the computer screen is not static as is the printed word, but is flickering. Though this flicker is supposed to be at some imperceptibly rapid rate one can imagine that what is not consciously perceptible could still interfere slightly with visual tracking, and thus with reading.

By Jonathan Babin (not verified) on 22 Aug 2007 #permalink

I apologize for being a comment-hog, but I have done a little more thinking on this question. Might it not just be "comfort" versus "formality?"

When I read from a computer, I am more formal, my body a little more tense, I sit up, accomodate myself more to the screen, not as much the screen to me. When I read a book or magazine, I flop down anywhere, in any position, I can even read a book while hanging upside down on a trapeze. I can stop reading a book whenever I want, for any interruption, however small, even if just my own inner restlessness, and toss the book aside, throw it on the desk or table, or couch, or floor, and grab it back up moments, or hours later and keep going. With a computer, it is all just a little more tense, planned, formal.