Editing with Physical Copy vs. Word Processors: A Battle of Swords & Lasers

Laser vs swordLasers: A laser is weightless and has no recoil. It’s just a bunch of excited photons all having a party as they beam straight toward your eyeball while your older brother has you pinned to the refrigerator. They’re super fun to use because they go pew pew pew and make pretty colors while severing limbs, incinerating three-legged kittens and blowing up planets. But after you’ve used ‘em for a while it can leave you feeling kinda empty, like you want some heft and recoil, real life feedback. I find that using word processors is about the same as wielding a proper sci-fi laser gun. Yeah, of course it’s awesome but relying solely on coherently phased monochromatic light may not be the best way to gear up for your editing assault.

For months I read over the entirety of my manuscript on a computer screen. Why wouldn’t I? It’s where I wrote the damn book. Naturally I checked every paragraph and sentence for style, voice, grammar and plot. I let other people read it on their computers too, and they gave me feedback and pointed out the flaws, grammatical and structural and everything in between. I read it over and over and over and edited all the while, so much so that at one point I flopped down on my desk at 4 in the morning and purposely pushed a drink off the edge, just to watch it splatter all over our bear rug so I wouldn’t have look at another goddamn word I’d written. I knew there was more work to be done, but I didn’t know how to move forward. Maybe delete the whole thing and start over, maybe jump off a mountain and dive headfirst into a boulder.

Instead I just put it away for a few months, which involved less clean up and helicopter rescue squads then the mountain jumping method. Then one day I got a present. My girlfriend took the word document of my book and made a physical copy on Blurb for $20. I was overjoyed. Even though the formatting was wonked up it was a surreal experience to stare at words in the form I’ve always dreamed of. Their final form, or almost their final form anyway.

Swords: A full-length broadsword is not for the weak of heart. If you want blood from the freshly decapitated intro of chapter 12 to spray in your mouth so you can taste its sweet life fading from literary infamy, then you’re probably ready to brave the depths of an ancient Viking tomb to retrieve this kind of weapon. Swords are dense, they make an awesome metal shhhhhnnnkk sound when they’re drawn from their sheaths and you feel like a total badass riding onto the battlefield with your blade fully brandished.

You see, when you hold an actual book it’s supposed to be completed, excellent and mind blowing. You have this subconscious expectation that everything will be in its right place with pacing that will have you frantically ripping out the pages to read on. Characters that make you laugh and cry and wish you had better friends. This makes a physical copy of your work ideal for editing, because let’s face it, your novel is never finished. It’s not perfect. Your novel needs some battle scars and you have your hand around the grip, ready to start hacking.

When I read through the physical copy of my book I had an overwhelming urge to start striking through text. Violently. Words, sentences, paragraphs and transitions all bled as I crossed them out and left notes in their entrails. Do Better was a pretty common one. Bad writing stands out when surrounded by mediocre writing and mediocre writing stands out when surrounded by good writing. In book form it became easy to detect this. If something didn’t feel right, if the words seemed out of place on the sacred pulp of the page then it was hacked up, either a little or a lot. I left happy faces and dancing robots when the prose was good and angry tornadoes and scribbles when it was bad. With time away from the work I was able to redirect weaker parts of the novel to emotionally gripping and mysterious summits, not only for the book, but the rest of the trilogy.

I’m officially a fan of the sword now. I like to feel its warmth against my face and hear the screams of unnecessary scenes and poor transitions as they drown in sharpie ink. But I know there are times when a blade must be sheathed and a fresh pack of batteries needs to be crammed into the magazine of a laser. Combos work best for most things, as evidenced by the ultimate pairing of sword and laser: the light saber.

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