Never Go Back

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgA couple of years ago, I had a completed first draft of a first novel. Hurrah! I also had a month-long residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Double hurrah! That’s the perfect storm for revising a long manuscript. A private studio, no meals to cook, no interruptions. Sounds like bliss, right?

And it was. Before I left home, I printed out a copy of my then-monster draft. For  years, as a short story writer in a monthly critique group, I’d printed out copies of my own 20-page submission, plus the 3 other 20-page submissions from my critique partners. That meant 80 pages of paper a month. It didn’t seem like a lot, but watching my printer chug along to spew out 350 pages…Well, that was an awful lot of paper.

I began to fret. Was my draft too long?

I began to comfort myself. If it was too long, my page-by-page review would reveal that. It is standard, tried-and-true writing advice: You can catch things on paper that you can’t catch on a screen.

I began to feel uncomfortable. I worked onscreen all the time. I sometimes call Track Changes my second husband. I felt confident catching errors onscreen for my clients, so saying that was not good enough seemed contradictory.

I began to reassure myself. After all, I’m not a copy editor; I’m a developmental editor. It’s not in my task list to point out punctuation boo-boos.  Also, I’m a terrible typist. Typing errors are my superpower, so I fully intended to run the MS through a proofreader before submitting.

I made myself okay about the stack of papers, though punching holes in them before putting in a binder was tedious. But when  you have a month-long residency ahead of you, it’s easy to put aside your inner Catholic guilt child and pack up your big stack of paper.

VCCA green chair
Green chair in the VCCA cottage

At VCCA, I sat in a comfy chair, or on the sofa, or at the desk, and spent a week meticulously reviewing each page of my writing. The binder was a bad idea. After about an hour, I ditched the binder and went to buy a clipboard. Because, when you go off to a month-long residency, you always forget something important. I was relieved that, this time, it was only a binder.

Paper, clipboard, red pen, Post-it flags. This was old school, and comfortable, and I really did love looking at the draft on paper. It *was* nice to be away from the screen, and though I was not at the proofing stage, I did catch errors and typos I’d sailed right over.

Had I stopped at the end of the week, I’d be a 100% printed pages writer. But reading on paper is Step 1. Step 2 is transferring the red marks, cross outs, notes to insert details, flags to check for repetition, reminders to research, etc., etc., etc., to the digital manuscript.

There is an old saw that women forget the pain of childbirth because, if they remembered each contraction and what if feels like when you push a big baby head through a small mommy opening, they’d never do it again. I had twins, so I had to do the big head/small opening thing twice in 10 minutes. One moment from my life that I can recall with crystalline clarity is sitting at the edge of my hospital bed, rocking back and forth, and telling myself, “Don’t forget this. Don’t do this again.”

I had a similar moment transferring my on-paper revision marks to the manuscript on my laptop, minus the rocking back and forth. Okay, maybe with a little rocking back and forth.

VCCA paper manuscript
The manuscript from my never-go-back choice.

My handwriting got sloppy.  I’d drawn arrows and written on the back, so I had to shuffle. It was a PITA to go from the circle for a missing period to putting the period on the screen. The process was tedious. It was slow. So slow. So very, very slooooow. And I could not stop the voice in my head saying, “If you’d done this on your laptop in the first place, you wouldn’t be shuffling these blankety-blank-blank pages around for 14 days.”

I even got a paper cut.

Every writer has his/her process, and most of the time that process goes through trial and error—or trial by fire—or a trial of character.  After I’d completed the on-paper review, I was fired up. I knew how to revise this monster. But day after day of shuffling papers, I wanted to cry. Or scream. Cry and scream and tear my hair out.

And the voice wouldn’t stop. “If you’d done this on your laptop in the first place….”

It may be true that you catch more errors on paper. I certainly enjoyed the sitting and reading through, even after I ditched the binder, but the pain of revising by reading notes and going into the manuscript to make the change, took much longer and was far more tedious.

Writers make choices every day. Mine was to listen when the voice changed from “If you’d  done this…” to “Don’t do this again.” I had to accept that what worked for everyone else might not be the best advice for me. I had to balance the joy with the tedium, and this time, the tedium far outweighed the joy.

I never had more children, either. Just saying.

Now I work onscreen, for creating and revising. I print for readings, and that is all. I have my own tricks on catching errors–reading aloud, changing the background color, investing in computer glasses–to make it work the best it can.

That was my never-go-back choice. Do you have a never-go-back writing choice? Do you revise on paper? Is Track Changes more painful than childbirth contractions? Or do you love the efficiency?

Let’s talk about it.

14 thoughts on “Never Go Back

  1. My handwriting has deteriorated to the point where I can’t do paper. A couple months ago I decided to “give my eyes a rest” and do critique comments on paper. Never again. And that was only 150 pages (three people at 50 pages each). I can’t imagine doing a 350-page novel.


  2. I JUST went through this with a book due August 1. You’re so right, its the putting them into the computer that’s the killer. I have one more read through, and was just pondering “should I print it out” and decided, based on this, no. Trying it on the computer…


  3. I only do one revision process on paper, and I do it to stop myself from nitpicking word choice and sentence structure and forgetting my purpose. I go through a printed copy of my WIP and analyze each scene for goals, conflicts, and “disasters” and each sequel for the emotion, processing and decision. I make color-coded lines on the pages, no words. Goal is highlighted in green. If it’s weak or unclear, the green is a question mark. Conflict is yellow. If it’s weak, the yellow line is an up arrow through the scene. I’ll spare you my rainbow; you get the idea. If I see a revision needed in any other way I just highlight it in orange or mark a big C through it for “cut” and keep going. Typos are my superpower also, but I don’t do more than turn them orange. I also mark each scene with a number for its intensity level to see if it’s building but has variety. And then I go through the same printout again analyzing Acts 1, 2 and 3. I’m a pantser. I suspect a plotter doesn’t have to do this. There are many revisions after this, all on the computer.


  4. I wonder how many twenty- or thirty-something writers prefer paper read-throughs. I suspect few. Good for you for going with what works. For me, I love the two or three paper readthroughs I do, but particularly the first. I catch so much I never catch on screen. But that’s me. And yeah, the thought of that expensive ink and all that paper (even in draft mode, even on recycled paper) makes my inner Scot cringe, but so does the price of a hotel room in Toronto!


  5. I do initial revisions on screen going through the ms several times. One of the final go-throughs is on paper. Usually by that time, the checks/notes/whatever that need to be transferred to the screen are minimal. This is my latest process and it works fairly well. Less frustration helps me be more patient with the work (and me).


  6. I’m sorry, but “Typing errors are my superpower,” is making me laugh every few minutes. Fortunately, Steve was asleep when I started, and nothing pleasant wakes him up. I still don’t know why I am laughing quite so much. But it’s better than not being able to sleep because of all the flash flood emergency alerts. Then they tell you it’s two hundred miles NNW of you. Love your blog, Ramona.


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