Home > Writing > On writing: editing with paper and red pen

On writing: editing with paper and red pen

Recently, I’ve spent almost all my time editing a short story (this one here) and have gone through numerous revisions. I think the story and writing have improved dramatically, so I’m happy with my progress. But as I was about to begin my umpteenth editing session, I realized I was getting sick of staring at my computer monitor for hours on end. Still wanting to make progress, I decided to try a little editing the old-school way. Yep, I printed the story, grabbed my red pen, sat down at my desk, and started marking away.

2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 19
(Photo by Nic’s events)

I think it was helpful to look at the story differently, i.e., on paper rather than glowing letters on a screen. And it was fun to run that red pen all over the pages as I found various types of errors and problems. But I must confess, though, that the overall editing session didn’t feel as good nor did it feel as complete as my normal computer-based editing. I felt constrained, as it seemed to limit the speed at which I could write down my thoughts, and if the scope of the changes became too large, the method became unwieldy.

So while I was happy to try my hand at editing via paper and pen, for me it just wasn’t as productive, though I suppose if you consider that it did let me keep revising my story when otherwise I’d probably have just stopped for the night, it did, in a small way, allow me to get more done. Not sure if I’ll resort to it again in the future, unless perhaps I find myself ready to stab my computer monitor because my eyes are burning from too many hours of endless edits (that have followed a full day of programming on the same computer).

Anyone edit by hand much? How do you like it? Any of you refuse to resort to the old way of doing things and stick to just their computer? Tried the red pen on a larger project, like a novel? How did it go?


  1. March 19, 2014 at 3:13 am

    One of my editing steps involves printing the novel out and reading a hard copy of it. But because of the limitations you noted, I usually wait until one of the last read throughs. Less corrections at that point. Hopefully…

    • March 20, 2014 at 12:48 pm

      I can’t imagine doing that these days, but I do agree that with a larger project, it would be useful as one of those last steps. More than once and I might just decide to put a match to the whole stack of papers 🙂

  2. March 19, 2014 at 5:59 am

    That’s my favorite way to edit, Dave. I’m on the computer all day at my day job, it’s nice to break away in the evening.

    • March 20, 2014 at 12:50 pm

      I suppose that if I did it more, perhaps I would get used to it. My eyes would certainly appreciate it, that’s for sure. I’m sure I’ll do it again, but probably only on longer works (see Carrie’s comment above).

  3. March 19, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Like Carrie, I tend to print out a book for the final read-through and edit with pen. I think there’s a difference in mental approach, maybe a tendency not to skim as much. Plus, you’re right: computer editing can fry your eyeballs after a while!

    • March 20, 2014 at 12:51 pm

      I hadn’t thought of this style of editing/revising as part of the last step for a book but instead as a continual process of editing. I think that’s what I felt would be overwhelming. As part of that last step, I think it is a good idea.

  4. March 19, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Yeah, I always print out the stories I write and edit. I do it early in the process, then again, much later in the editing process. One of the best things I find is to edit to a point where I think it’s completed – then leave it sit for a month without reading or thinking about it. After a month or so, I will print it out and read it. I’ll usually notice things I had missed.

    • March 20, 2014 at 12:55 pm

      I think the key for me is the idea of minimizing the number of times going through paper copies with a pen. When I wrote this post I’d been agonizing over a story numerous times and couldn’t imagine doing it with pen and paper over and over again. Early on and near the end seems like a good idea. And I like the wait a month suggestion so you can look at it with fresh eyes.

  5. March 19, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Dave: All of my editing is done on my MacBook.It’s faster with Scrivener tools and keeps the excessive amounts of paper printouts to a minimum.

    • March 20, 2014 at 12:57 pm

      Up until this particular experience, all my editing had been on my MacBook as well. I, too, use Scrivener and find that I’m happy with what I can do. As I read others comments, I see that there is/can be some utility to this way of editing. I’m pretty sure I’ll give it another try.

  6. March 19, 2014 at 10:31 am

    I agree that you can see things on paper you didn’t see on your monitor, though I still don’t do paper edits both for practical reasons (cost of ink being #1) and because computer editing lets you try a dozen different arrangements. With paper, you have to reprint every time you change your mind or end up with illegible scribbles everywhere.

    Perhaps it’s time to turn your story over to a beta reader instead of banging your head against it. Or am I just projecting?


  7. March 19, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    I enjoy an ample mix of both. I see things when I take the time to lay down on my bed with a pen that I don’t see when I’m staring at a monitor, but I also appreciate how much faster it is to type. Life is full of tradeoffs…

  8. March 20, 2014 at 6:37 am

    I think there is a change in our perspective when the letters are on paper, and not the computer. When I got the first proof back for my book, I found SO many mistakes or errors that I had never seen on the computer. Also, it read totally different, so I ended up changing a lot of words and sentence structure around.

    You know what else really does that? Reading out loud. That changes it a lot.

  9. March 20, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    I like to mix it up. For years in college I earned a bit of money as a freelance editor and had to work on printed copy all the time. And there’s something more intimate about reading and editing on paper with a red pen nearby. I agree with Katie that seeing your words in a different format helps you find errors that you might otherwise overlook. And I do read my work aloud. Reading aloud gives me a better sense of pace and is particularly effective with dialogue.

  10. March 24, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    I used to edit a lot by hand, but not anymore. Too addicted to the back button!

    • March 25, 2014 at 10:04 pm

      Amen to that! I happen to use that button a lot 🙂

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