Friday, November 8, 2013

Seeing the Big Picture: When Paper is Better Than Digital

I've read many posts discussing whether or not digital is better than paper, and whether computers will one day completely replace the traditional pen (or pencil) and paper.  I usually get bored with such posts, because I believe that both paper and digital have their benefits and drawbacks.  For some tasks, it's much faster and simpler to use a computer (or other device), while for others, it can still be more helpful to use paper.

I've been working on the revision of my novel sporadically over the last several months, but lately I was stuck.  I could see so many problems with the manuscript - scenes that needed to be shuffled around, characters that needed to be cut out, passages that needed to be rewritten - but the whole thing had become so large that it overwhelmed me.  I would open up the Word document, and stare at it blankly, aimlessly scrolling through pages, with no idea of how or where to start.  Before, I had been able to work chapter-by-chapter and scene-by-scene, but now the changes I needed to make were on a much larger scale and I was unable to see that larger scale on my computer screen.

After several days of this, I knew I had to completely change the way I was approaching things.  So I slowly went through the manuscript and typed up a detailed outline of my novel, one that identified and described every chapter, scene, and action.  This ended up being 17 pages long - still long enough to overwhelm me - so I printed it out, single-sided, and spread the 17 pages out in a circle on the floor.  I sat down in the centre of the circle, got out several dozen of my favourite pens and highlighters, and started at the top of page 1.

I used different colours of pens for the different plots and subplots in the novel, and for different chapters.  I crossed things out.  Highlighted things.  Circled entire scenes and wrote down the number of the chapter I would move them to.  Drew arrows indicating rising and falling levels of tension.  Wrote chapter summaries on the backs of the pages.  Jotted notes of things to change or add in the margins - sometimes writing diagonally and sideways.  When my mind went blank and I didn't know what to do, I doodled until something came to me.

And - most importantly - I could finally see the big picture of my novel.  I could see all 17 pages of my outline at once.  I didn't have to scroll up and down, I could glance from page 3 to page 9 to page 14 by simply turning my head, or lining up those pages in front of me.  Unless I had a computer screen as large as my floor, it would simply have been impossible for me to see all of those pages at 100% scale any other way.  Printing them out was my only option, and led to a complete shift in the way I was viewing my writing.

Plus, spreading all the papers out on my floor helped me to stop procrastinating.  Once they were on the floor, I had to keep working on them so I could clear off my floor again.  And using my favourite pens and highlighters and lots of bright colours made my task more fun than staring at a computer screen for hours.

While I will return to my computer to continue my revision, without the help of paper I don't know if would have been able to get beyond the point I was stuck at - and certainly not that easily.  I may very well have simply given up on the entire project in disgust.  Now, thanks to paper and my pens and highlighters, I can move forward.

When is paper better than digital for you?


  1. I like to use digital (my iphone in this case) for alarms. That is the one thing I don't seem to be able to do with paper. I have been trying to do a lot more on my phone, like managing my finances, but it never seems to work well. I'm moving back to paper for that as well.

    I no longer trust digital. Back in 2008, I had everything on my Palm. My husband wound up in the ICU and my charger was back at the office. I wasn't able to get it charged for 3 weeks. My notebooks were there and I still have them as a record. That pretty much cinched it for me.

    And as an added note (and I realize that you might not want to cover this), I've become fascinated with cash books. People used to carry a small notebook and write down all income/expenses. I just bought two of these from the 30s and they are a fascinating record. In one, the owner records both her candy purchases and her payments to her dentist!

    1. Yes, I think alarms would be rather difficult with paper! I don't really trust digital either, unless I have my files backed up (preferably in multiple places). One thing that's great about paper and notebooks, just as you have noticed, is that they're always "on." No need to worry about charging batteries, or changes in operating systems that render your old files obsolete.

      Love that idea of cash books. It would be fun to look at what people were buying back then. And I'm going to start tracking my expenses in the new year, so I could actually use one of those as well!

  2. LOVE your post - I have been where you were before your outline got printed and spread onto the floor - I am still at that location. But you have taken my hand and showed me the path through the forest. There is along journey ahead but the yearlings will frolic in the frost at journeys end. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Pamela! When I am stuck with something (whether writing, or anything else), what I have found often works is to take a step back and approach the problem from a totally different direction, which is what I did here. As you said, it's still not easy, but I am glad that my post may have helped you. Good luck!

  3. Great article, thanks for sharing the struggle many of us have so we don't feel alone! I am a geek at heart with way too many electronic connected devices at home, at work and on my person. However I find writing on paper helps me slow down and think through the issue more. I'm a believer in electronic backups so I've never been lost due to a failure but I do appreciate the limitations of both types of media. As crazy as it may sound I do scan written notes that have any importance into a PDF as a backup up.

    1. "Writing on paper helps me slow down and think through the issue more" - that's exactly it, and is a major reason why I start writing the drafts of most my blog posts by hand. I would also add that paper comes with a lot fewer distractions than my computer does! I can't obsessively check for blog or email updates while writing in my notebook, so I also stay a lot more focused.

      I've never considered scanning any of my written notes, probably because most of mine aren't really that important, but it might be good to have some kind of a backup in case of fire or flood or something like that.


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