Sunday, September 13, 2009

weekly writing coach: edit better by hand

I rarely print documents and do most of my editing in the machine, just like you. But when it matters, when the piece doesn't flow, when I'm stumped or stuck, I print it out (with plenty of line-spacing to allow for handwritten corrections) and edit by hand.

One of my great writing professors and mentors, Tim Cohane, taught an entire semester of magazine writing in which we edited everything by hand (and, in fact, wrote the first three drafts of every article in longhand, but that's another post). Only after it was perfect could you put it into a machine, in his book. And while you may not want to use it every day, the by-hand method offers writers these advantages when you're self-editing:
  • It slows you down: Working by hand includes more pauses and time to think--and sometimes, that's what your written work needs. Want to slow yourself down more? Read it backwards (great for catching typos).
  • You can see all the versions at once: The Smithsonian Institution holds in its collections a handwritten draft of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics to the title song from The Sound of Music, in which the opening line apparently went through several versions, with all the optional words written in and crossed out (as in "The hills are alive/With the sound of sunshine/magic/morning/music"). At times, you need to see what's been discarded as well as what's on deck, without having to click on a balloon to do so.
  • You can focus on sections or parts: One of the best self-edits you can do involves focusing on one paragraph and the sentences within it, to see whether you've got the cadence, the sentence lengths, and the word choices just right. It's easier to focus on one unit if you can't scroll to the others, I find.
  • It's easier on your eyes: Rest your eyes from the backlighting, and you might just notice some words or phrases that need more attention.
Related posts: Weekly writing coach: length variations (in sentences and paragraphs)

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