Wilbers: If editing only on screen, you're missing the big picture

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 13, 2012 - 7:13 PM

Dear editors: My apologies for submitting this column late. I know you prefer to receive my column a week earlier than I'm sending this one. Please forgive my delay. I've been frantically busy -- editing.

Not this column (although I will edit it before I send it to you, I promise), but a 52,840-word manuscript. I have a book deadline. Tomorrow.

As you know better than anyone, no matter how carefully you edit and proofread, no matter how many times you work your way through 150 pages of text, you still miss things. A dozen people have read my manuscript, four with an eye to proofreading errors, and I still found two little typos in a single sentence as I went through my copy. I know there are other errors and plenty of sentences that could be better written, but deadlines are ... Well, you know what I mean. Sorry.

Part of the problem, of course, is editing and proofreading on screen rather than on paper. As you know, it's not the same. You see things on paper you don't see on screen, and vice versa. On screen you get all those little prompts and aids, red and green wavy lines and auto-correct spelling. On paper you see your text more clearly, with less tendency to skip over individual words. Somehow text counts more and seems more real when you print it out. (I print my drafts on the reverse side of used sheets to save paper.)

But it's more than that. As I made multiple passes through my manuscript, I realized my text read differently according to how it was delivered to me.

When I revised on screen, my conceptual frame was narrowed (it was limited literally by the size of my screen). As a result, I saw it differently. I tended to revise according to what worked well in a particular sentence or paragraph, with limited awareness of how that change fit into the flow or broader framework of the entire piece.

Similarly, I've noticed how cumbersome it is to find a favorite sentence or passage on my Kindle, even though the device allows me to search for individual words and phrases, and how much easier it is to find something on paper. (Let's see. It was about a third of the way through the book, on the upper left page, in a fairly short paragraph. There it is.)

So here's what I've concluded:

•Edit and proofread both on screen and on paper.

•When you change something on screen, reread the entire paragraph to make certain you haven't created a new problem or introduced a new error.

•When you edit on paper, mark your revisions by hand and enter them later -- the moment you begin keying things in, you alter (and narrow) your conceptual framework.

•To move farther from the writer's perception and closer to reader's experience, edit longer pieces on paper.

Now if you'll excuse me, I better write that column. Again, I apologize for the delay. I'll do better next time.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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