Editing on Paper or on Screen: Which is Better?

When it comes to editing on paper or on screen, everyone has chosen a side. The opinions on traditional editing or digital editing are just as strong as the debate on the Oxford comma. And despite the merit of the opposing side, no one is willing to budge from their end of the rope in this game of tug-of-war.

What if you could enhance your editing by taking on the other approach?

Don’t swear off the other side just yet. There are just as many benefits of editing on paper as there are editing on the digital screen. I take a deep dive on how each approach to editing provides value to the story as well as to your editing experience.

Why Editing On Paper is Better

Editing on Paper is Distraction-Free

When editing a story on paper, you only have the ink of the story to read. There are no pop-up ads, no clickbait articles, no hyperlinks in the text—it’s just you and the printed text. Less interruptions means you’re more likely to give your full attention to reading and editing the story—that is, if your mind doesn’t wander off on its own.

Editing on a digital screen can be quite distracting. Everything is at your fingertips—and it only takes a tap to shift away from editing to exploring the vast universe of the Internet. You have to have lots of self-control (or the ability to turn off your Wi-Fi connection) so that you can give your full attention to editing on the digital screen.

Editing on Paper Increases Story Comprehension

Studies comparing reading comprehension on paper vs on screen, particularly for narrative text, can be found by the dozens. If you need examples, just check out this study and this study and this study and this study. While some come out as inconclusive, many find that readers of stories printed on paper have better story recall than readers of stories on digital devices.

Why do studies keep reaching these results? My theory is that it’s about how our brains comprehend the concept of each device. 

Paper is a finite object that allows readers to flip through, even jump to passages within a physical location in our 3D world. If you get lost in the story, you can easily backtrack with printed pages. The experience of reading a story printed on paper is a concept that we can wrap our minds around, so we are more likely to comprehend the story arc that’s printed on it.

Digital text, on the other hand, is an abstract concept to our brain. While the digital device is an object that we can hold within our hands, the pages of the story are not. You scroll in the same place on the screen to get to anywhere you want to go in the story—in other words, every part of the story feels like it shares the same physical space. This can be frustrating for editors trying to get back to a specific place in the text, removing the editor more so from the story at hand.

Editing on Paper Demands a Different Reading Experience

The Internet has trained our minds to expect a different reading experience. Just look at how quickly we jump from webpage to blog post back to the search engine. We are fidgety if paragraphs are too thick, if words are too long or if the writing doesn’t get to the point soon enough. And with gamification, we expect rewards for “achieving” things in the text, such as reaching the end of the story or answering questions along the way.

Reading across the Internet is a non-linear route. We are restless to reach the end of the text like a race, rather than enjoying the journey of the writing. And even though the story you are editing is (most likely) offline, our brains associate a digital screen with this digital experience.

Reading a story on paper isn’t this way. In fact, we’re more likely to engage in deep reading when editing on paper. That’s because paper encourages linear reading, allowing us to immerse ourselves more in the story and see where changes need to occur. We as editors are more accepting of longer passages and bigger words—but only if they contribute to the value of the narrative.

Why Editing On Screen is Better

Editing on Screen is Less of a Mess

Printing pages and pages of one story requires so much paper—a stack that you have to lug around from place to place until you edit it. After you print the ink of the narrative onto the page, you then uncap your pen to only litter that paper with more ink. Then once you complete the editing process, where does that scribbled-up paper go? Into the trash, of course!

Paperless does have its perks. You consolidate your edits onto one portable device—in fact, the weight of editing one story is the same as the weight of editing 10! You can edit the story by typing on the document or by jotting notes in the margins with a digital pen. And tossing a story into the digital trash bin means that it is erased from the device, not taking up space at a landfill.

Editing on Screen Offers More Editing Tools

You have options with the digital experience of editing. In fact, editing digitally offers a variety of free content editing tools that allow you to edit on your own and to connect with other editors. From dictating tools and thesaurus apps to cross-collaboration platforms, editing becomes an enriching, immersive experience for editors seeking to provide the most valuable advice efficiently.

The only variety that editing on paper offers is deciding which color pen do you use for editing as well as which volume of thesaurus to dust off from your bookshelf. And while editors still have access to these editing tools on their devices, the disconnect between paper edits and digital tools significantly slows down the editing process.

Editing on Screen Encourages Multiple Read-Throughs

When I edit on the digital screen, I never read the work just once. I review the writing at least three times, finding myself reading some of the words out loud to verify that there are no spelling mistakes or to confirm the verbiage makes sense. Truth is, I doubt that I caught everything on the first read-through, so I go over the writing multiple times.

And guess what? More times than not, I catch something new with every review.

I don’t do this when editing on paper. I am more confident that I only need to read through it once, regardless of whether or not that fact is true. And there’s a strong possibility that I don’t provide all the edits that this story deserves.

A story often needs multiple reviews to catch all essential edits. The digital experience of editing encourages the behavior of circling through the text more than once. 

Editing on Paper or on Screen: Which is Better?

When it comes to editing on paper or on screen, I recommend weaving both ways into your editing practices. There are enough benefits of editing on paper and editing digitally that it would be unfair for me to favor one approach to editing over another. 

While we all have our preferences, it may be worth considering taking a two-step approach to your editing process. Consider first editing on paper first to fully comprehend the story on the paper and to follow its linear path without distractions. Then, review the story on a digital device where you can read through it multiple times and apply enhanced editing tools.

What do you think? Is editing on paper or on screen better? Share your opinions in the comments section below.

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