Philosophy of Writing – 6 – Perspective, Media, & Tricks of the Eye

Posted on March 11, 2012 by


Medium is not a petty concept to writers. Words are autonomous from the paper they haunt, but our experience of the words — a collection of phenomena that make up a work of writing — isn’t. We have a tendency to interpret stimuli differently in different contexts. In book design, a good font has financial worth and is often copyrighted. Things both large and conscious may be affected by our contextual biases: people in the publishing blogosphere argue about emotional reactions to the smell of pages.

A smaller, quieter effect concerns me; writers, I think, would do well to understand it.

I propose an experiment. Find a passage of your fiction that was written on a computer, one that has never been printed out, and copy it onto paper by hand. Things — individual phenomena: sensations, impressions, errors, you know, things — will be cast in relief for you.

It makes no sense. Why should a particular sentence seem jarring on paper when it flowed on the screen? I’ve never been able to trace why that should be. Some words look better farther down the page. Paragraphs seem too long or too short if text is bolded or underlined. Typing up a chapter results in too many commas, or too few.

It struck me deeply when writing Maybe. At first, I was frightened. I doubted my objectivity in personal, eventually human terms (philosophy student — not difficult). After a soup of constant rewrites I found that the edits began to settle down; when I changed the medium that held the text I didn’t bring about a fresh round of colourful cursing and frantic changes.

So: the first thing I suggest you do after you finish your novel is not to put it in a drawer and let it sit, no no no. Print it. Then let it sit, but on your desk — until the curiosity is too much for you and you start doodling swirls and spirals on the margins — then edit your manuscript on paper. As it suits you, transfer pieces of your manuscript over and over, to a variety of physical and electronic media: to secret blog posts and computer paper and lined notebooks. Consider not just making line edits and copyedits and proofing edits a part of your routine, but also paper edits and computer edits.

If you prefer specific advice, perhaps you’ll benefit from the editing process I generally follow (summarised to focus on medium):

— At the end of every chapter, I print out the chapter. If the chapter is originally handwritten, I type it up.

— I edit the chapter in the new medium. I transfer the new draft back to the computer if it needs transferring.

— After I write the next chapter, I revisit the previous chapter in a word processor.

— I repeat the first two steps for the new chapter.

— I print both the previous chapter and the new chapter and read them together.

I’ve made change of perspective editing a new step between line editing and content editing. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to gain a removed, more objective viewpoint of their work.