Kill Your Darlings, and Some Trees

So you’ve written the first draft of your novel! Now what?

Most writers will tell you to put it in a drawer for a week or month, to spend some time apart from it before you return to the manuscript with fresh eyes for the first round of revision. That’s great advice, but I’m going to take it one step further and say you should literally put the manuscript in a drawer. For that you need a physical copy of it, which means I’m telling you to print the darned thing out. That’s right. All of it. On paper.

What? But that’s so wasteful! Those poor trees.

There are always studies that suggest reading on paper is different from reading on a screen. Makes sense to me. I think many of us have become accustomed to skimming websites and social media updates and blog posts (I bet some of you are doing it right now!), which means our brains are now trained to not look at text too closely on screens. There’s also something less permanent about something we see on the screen versus a hard copy before us, and so I think we treat words on the screen less critically. Science tells us that creative writing is a left brain activity, while critical thinking and editing is a right brain thing. It seems that it might be helpful to distinguish those activities more — such as by only writing your novel on your computer but editing it on paper. At least, this helps me. I’m the guy who prints everything I’m line editing or revising at work, from e-mails to manuals. Maybe that’s wasteful, but I consider it part of the cost of business, like my salary; my job is to catch and fix mistakes, and I notice more on paper than I do staring at a screen, especially subtle changes in font size and spacing.

The first draft of my first novel, FAIR COIN. Much more impressive than a file on my computer!

The first draft of my first novel, FAIR COIN. Much more impressive than a file on my computer!

Aside from all this scientific and anecdotal support for printing and editing on paper, personally I also simply like seeing that stack of paper. After months at the keyboard, a word count is still pretty abstract. Do you know what 80,000+ words looks like? Seeing my novel on actual pages feels like more of an accomplishment, and whether it gets published or not, it’s now a physical thing in the real world which I made. Those printed pages also make it look more like a finished book, which is exciting and also helps me put some distance between something I wrote and something I’m reading.

(Note that, as most agents now accept electronic submissions, and most publishers send copyedits electronically, chances are unless you print it yourself, you probably will not see your book on paper until you get a galley.)

If I’m editing on screen, I’m mostly tinkering, the same as I would do while drafting — deleting a word here, moving a sentence there, adding a description. But once I have it on paper, with pen in hand, I can look at the bigger picture. I have no problem putting slashes through entire pages or chapters, rewriting and commenting in the margins, often with helpful notes like “Make this better.” Then, when I’m transferring all that back into the file and implementing my edits, I revert to writing mode again.

But like more and more writers today, I don’t even own a printer. If I were writing more short stories, I would probably get one, but it doesn’t make sense for a novel a year (or less frequently than that, sigh). So what are your options? If you print it at work, you would not be the first writer who has done so. But maybe you can’t or don’t want to take advantage of office resources, so you take it to Staples or Kinko’s. It’s going to run you $40 or more to get it printed, and extra if you want any binding to keep the pages together.

I still think that’s worth it, but here’s a pro tip, specifically from professional middle grade and young adult author Jackson Pearce, who first shared it with me: If you aren’t in a hurry (and you aren’t, right, since you want to take a break from the book?) print your novel on-demand at Lulu. You can keep it private with a print run of only one, for you, spiral bound or perfect bound or whatever you want. After the experience of shuffling (and dropping) 400 loose pages around (which is worse if you’re editing on a subway), even in a binder, I was sold on printing my books this way. (Also, remember to include page numbers!) Not only does it make it all neat and tidy, but it looks even more like a book, and it’s very easy to store if, like me, you want to hold onto marked-up print copies of some of your drafts.

How do you tackle reading and revising your manuscript? 

10 Responses to Kill Your Darlings, and Some Trees

  1. Ali Lawati Jul 21 2016 at 5:10 am #

    Great advice!

  2. jeffo Jul 21 2016 at 6:24 am #

    I’m a big fan of printing my novel. I love the slashes, and the circles and arrows and margin notes with helpful scribbles like “Cut,” “Move to after p. 29,” and especially “WTF???” The problem for me is I don’t like to put my manuscripts in binders; the last one required three big binder clips, so I had three stacks of binder-clipped paper falling out all over my desk.

  3. Marc Vun Kannon Jul 21 2016 at 6:59 am #

    I read and revise as I go. Part of my writing process is to reread what i just wrote, to get back into the flow of that character’s thoughts and keep moving, and I often make little tweaks along the way, fixing sentences as well as adding new ones, or even whole scenes or paragraphs if I find a need a didn’t see yesterday.
    One good thing about doing the work on the computer is that I can boost the font and reveal whitespace, which makes things like extra spaces more noticeable. A lot of the smaller line edits can be easily handled on the computer too, without looking for them, with ‘replace all’ for things like turning two spaces into one. Also you can do a highlight of the more commonly used words to do a quick skim and replace the ones you can live without.

  4. Terrence Walsh Jul 21 2016 at 8:49 am #

    Bravo! Print those words!
    The other end of the spectrum from a novel might be poetry. When I’m in poet mode it’s not unusual to print a poem 5 to 10 times. I think of it as the wordsmith’s anvil. Print it, chop it. Print. Chop. Print, etc.
    This works. The proof is in rereading poems I wrote ten years ago. With some poems I’m thinking, “Wow, who wrote this, it’s good!” And with others I find myself reaching for a pen to make just a few little tweaks.
    The difference? The poems that cycled through the “anvil” many times are fundamentally finished. They’re good to go. (Separately, they may also be good, or great.) The poems that hit the anvil just two or three times are always the ones that beg more editing, even ten years later.
    So kill those trees. Assuage any guilt by recycling.

  5. Aly Jul 21 2016 at 9:57 am #

    Printing hack: if you live near a college or university, they will often have their own printing center, which will likely be quite a bit cheaper than Staples. Depending on the institution, they should take business even from those not affiliated with the school.

  6. Matt Jul 21 2016 at 10:26 am #

    You can buy a cheap laser printer from one of those office places and use that. Cheap inkjets are too slow and ink is too pricey. I print out a lot — I do at least two paper edits before I’m ready to show anything to anyone, because it’s far too easy to gloss over things on the screen. And when you put your paper edits back onto the screen, if gives you another chance to look at them and make sure they are exactly what want.

  7. Chris Bailey Jul 21 2016 at 11:17 am #

    I am about to print draft 2, as soon as I reach a magical yet arbitrary word count. Physically cutting and pasting is one of my favorite things, along with colored highlighting to see if there’s a nicely-proportioned rainbow on the page.

  8. Peter Taylor Jul 21 2016 at 6:39 pm #

    Yep, definitely printed wins for editing. But I also write scruffily by hand in pencil on unlined paper, moving and squirming as I sit on the sofa with pad on my lap – a full body and tactile experience that makes me feel more alive and allows me to put so much more emotion into the words than typing. Letters dance on the page or become exuberantly large or compressed, or diminish in size. Striking a line through words is far more satisfying than hitting delete, but I also like to keep and see all versions and ideas that I’ve had during the creation process, with added notes in margins and spontaneous thoughts (and doodles). Then I’ll type, fix a few things in editing – I wouldn’t be without my technology – then print out the work and write a date and time on the top, give it a rest, edit some more by hand and repeat.

  9. Alexa S. Aug 16 2016 at 10:51 am #

    Though I usually wind up feeling the slightest bit guilty about all the paper I end up using, I too prefer editing using a physical copy of whatever I’m working on. There’s just something that clicks in my head when I do it that way and can mark pages up with a pen!

  10. HEATHER WRIGHT Sep 5 2016 at 9:38 am #

    I’m a big fan of printing out my bigger writing projects. When I’m editing the paper versions, I see a lot more that needs to be fixed because I read it more slowly. I’m definitely an on-screen skimmer. 🙂

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