Thursday, February 01, 2018

Chopping Wood

I came up as a newspaperman, covering meetings, scribbling in a narrow notepad (I still carry one with me), and printing out stories to edit with a pencil before the final submission. The hard copy was often flooded with annotations, slashed words, arrows, and my cryptic block letters. This was how I learned to revise –– from a burly, bearded, redhead at the city desk of the Dunkirk Observer. He took one of my early stories and slashed, drew lines to indicate relocation, and simplified, then handed it back with a simple, “Get it?”

Got it.

And, after a few weeks, I realized how it should be done. That was 1991. I was working nights at the Observer during my junior year in college, spending days as an English major who rarely left the newsroom at my college paper.

The process was simple: write, print, stack the pages on a clipboard, sit down with my pencil, and “chop the wood,” as Clyde Phillips told me recently, describing revision. “Keep chopping that wood.”

For a while, I put down the ax.

Maybe I didn’t put it down so much as I replaced it. With a computer. Moving and deleting became so much faster, and time is everything in the news business. And moving text could be done with a click of the mouse. Why draw lines and arrows? After all, it takes me an hour to go through 20 manuscript pages with my trusted pencil.

But that’s the thing, it’s trusted for a reason. The process of revising on hard copy yields better results. For me.

Why? Not sure, exactly. Maybe it’s no more real than a paper vs. plastic preference. Maybe it’s psychological, a mental preference of a neurotic writer. But I don’t think so. My prose is better –– clearer, more refined, cleaner, and more sparse –– when I work on the hard copy.

My clipboard is the chopping block, and I’ll continue to whittle away.


Sybil Johnson said...

I have discovered the same thing. I much prefer revising on pencil and paper for the first couple drafts. After that I revise on the computer.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

The only problem with scribbling stuff down on paper is that when I look at it again I struggle to understand it. So writing and revising are usually always done on the keyboard – until proofreading time and then a hard copy is a must!

Barbara Fradkin said...

I absolutely have to print out and edit a hard copy with a pen. However, I find that revising on the computer and on hard copy focuses on two different aspects of the writing (roughly macro vs, micro, big picture vs. wrong words or phrases), and each has its place. I can edit small things as I go on the screen but when I want to look at the overall, I print it out and slash and arrow and scribble in margins, on the back, etc.