Call me a tree killer, but screens make me stupider. When I have to make text scroll down the page, I just can’t keep it in my head. I feel rushed and unproductive, like it’s a job that’s taking too long.
On the other hand, flipping a physical page feels like an accomplishment. Since the paragraphs stay in their place on the page, top left, say, or middle right, I’m not sent astray if my finger twitches. And it’s easier for me to go back and reread the bits I missed.
Sometimes on the weekend, after I’ve heard all week how reporters need to adapt to digital media, I spend time on my husband’s iPad – the better to see what those digital environments are like. But I’ve never made it through an hour. I’ll abandon a perfectly interesting digital story in the New Yorker (the one that hasn’t made it into my mailbox) to pick up whatever paper version is lying around.
I’m not the only one who thinks thoughts get lost on screen. A Washington Post article describes research showing that comprehension drops when students read online. One creative writing professor reports that her students and even she herself have become too used to just scanning for key information while reading texts and tweets. (Full disclosure: I read that article online, so maybe I didn’t fully grasp it.)
If I know that LCD letters sink less deeply into my brain than the inked sort, what does it mean for those of us who make a living with words? How do I balance the efficiency of work on a screen with the efficaciousness (and waste) of paper?
I sent emails to fellow SciLancers to learn when they hit the print button. Not surprisingly, if a scientific paper is long or complicated, several of us print out a pdf so we can spare our eyes and take notes.
Restructuring drafts also often happens on paper. Bullet points stay put, and writers can draw arrows to re-order them. “I’m impressed by people who can do structural edits on screen, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever get there,” says SciLancer Robin Mejia (bio). “For as long as I can remember, I’ve circled paragraphs or chunks.” SciLancer Bryn Nelson (bio) says he prints out his notes and best quotes to help figure out what should go where. “Being able to see multiple pages, usually spread across the dining room table, really helps me shape the piece and find holes that need to be filled.”
Editors do this too. “One of my favorite edits happened last year, when an editor met with me in person to talk about a 3,000- word draft that she had printed, cut with scissors and taped back together to show me how she thought a restructuring might help,” says SciLancer Emily Sohn (bio). The story was much better as a result, she says.
I find paper and sometimes printing in a new font helps me look at stories afresh. When I’m struggling with a long piece, I often print it out, spread the pages over the couch and coffee table and type them in again. It forces me to slow down and spend more time with the text.
Jessica Marshall (bio) likes to print toward the end of the process, when reading through an edit or a final proof. “I mark things to check, things to correct, and make a little numbered to-do list on the paper of who I need to contact, what I need to look up.” Without it, she worries things might slip through the cracks.
Somehow our own words feel more real on paper too. Computer files might have searchable names and reside within a sensible folder structure, but they only capture the words. SciLancer Jenny Cutraro (bio) says she enjoys reviewing notes in her own handwriting. “Looking back at those notebooks can help rekindle memories: which conference was it, which room was I in, who was I talking to,” she says. “Re-reading a .doc doesn’t bring back the same kind of memories.”
In fact, even writing longhand has its own kind of power. See Jessica’s post on producing first drafts with pen and paper.
On the other hand, most of us SciLancers would not be allowed to live in Logan’s domed city. Youngsters, what do you do?
Image credit: flickr