Thursday, May 20, 2010

Words in Print

There is a special corner of heaven reserved for writers who have to do what I just had to do.

I had to combine two scenes.

As you may know, I'm writing by hand at the moment, and typing up afterwards. The big advantage of this is that you can edit a bit as you go - and I was so happy about that when I first noticed this problem.

My original, handwritten draft had this happen:
  • Main Character discovers Great Big Secret Meeting, in which nothing happens.
  • It is all Very Mysterious, and MC is baffled. Sympathetic Friend fills in some background, but not very much. MC continues to be baffled but figures it's nothing serious.
  • MC goes to a second Great Big Secret Meeting, with Sinister Results.
  • Sympathetic Friend, meet Info Dump. I hope you will be very happy together and dwell forever in a forest of Capital Letters Used For Emphasis In An Annoying Fashion.

On reflection, I decided I could lose half of this. The first meeting just made for a lot of redundant contemplation about what could be going on. Better to have stuff actually going on. That first meeting didn't achieve anything.

I realised this after I had typed it up. Annoyingly.

But there was stuff in the first version that I need to keep. MC's first impressions of the Big Secret Meeting, for instance. The background that his sympathetic friend fills in for him - easy enough to integrate with the main Info Dump, but I didn't want to miss anything out, in case it was important later. Also, I'm a slow writer, I need to see the word total climb.

It was driving me completely mad for days and I couldn't get a handle on it at all. I suspected part of my problem was keeping track of all those identical scrolling white pages on my laptop screen, while trying to put things in very specific places. So I printed out the relevant bits (about seventeen pages), settled myself down in a cafe during my lunch break, and tried again.

What I ended up doing was this - I divided the pages up into sections, each marked with a letter. Section A was 'Getting out of bed and all connected information,' Section B was 'Getting There and First Impressions,' etc. I didn't name the sections. I wasn't procrastinating, you see, I was actually editing. But that's just how they worked.

Then I re-read the whole lot, and figured out what could go where. The mini-Info Dump after the first meeting got divided between two different places, for instance, and the conversation before the first Secret Meeting was easily moved to just after the second one (now the only one). The whole process took very little time (one lunch hour minus one chapter of Roses From The Earth by Carol Ann Lee) and was quite fun.

What struck me, though, was how different an experience it was, reading the sections on paper instead of from a computer screen. I noticed typos, for one thing - ridiculous typos that I can't believe I missed. The rhythm of some sentences just didn't work, and others worked better. Some things that I thought were too melodramatic were fine, and some things I thought were fine were actually stilted and formal.

It helped that it wasn't a font I chose myself. I had printed it out on a printer that isn't mine, using a program I don't know well, and the text came out plainer and larger than I expected. I get very attached to certain fonts for certain stories. This story needs a slightly old-fashioned Roman font (in my head) and it came out in something that looked like a slightly more curvaceous Helvetica (I was underwhelmed).That made a huge difference, as the text didn't look familiar so my brain couldn't fill in the gaps. It looked like new material.

Every writer will tell you that printing out work can help you to see it in a different light. I also suggest nudging the text size up slightly and changing the font. It seemed to work for me anyway, although there might be some dead commas who'll disagree.


  1. When I revise after the longhand draft, I do it onscreen, and also print out pages and read them. You're right, it's a completely different view of the ms and you catch things you wouldn't otherwise catch. What I have not done is gone back to longhand. But I'd consider it if I was really stuck and needed a new way of looking at my story. Each format gives us a new angle for editing.

  2. Isn't it amazing how many ways there are to pick up on those little errors? I can read my mss ten times, and then on the 11th, pick up a glaring error that was missed.

  3. Yes there is a difference in print and computer screen. And next? Try the read out loud method for final draft... oh fun.

    Still catch a mistake.

  4. I totally agree. When I'm editing I change the font and put the document into Reader View or Book Format to trick my brain, and it's amazing how many typos and other silly mistakes reveal themselves.

    Longhand - what's longhand? Rings a bell ...

  5. Isn't it funny how changing the size/font of the text changes your opinion of the text? Scary!
    I've done that myself, though, because to save paper I print out the MS 4 pages to a page when I re-read. If I ever see it regular-page size I feel slightly sick (sort of like I'm looking at the pores in my face with a magnifying glass.)

  6. Some great tips here - I'm going to try Reader View myself when I'm editing this story for real (when it's finished).

    Christine, you had to go and mention the reading out loud, didn't you :) I know it's supposed to be really helpful, and I have found it helpful before, but I HATE doing it. I always wanted to be one of those people who are great at reading out loud, who have adults crowd around them as they read bedtime stories to their kids because they're *just so entertaining*, and who can make every character sound slightly different. Without resorting to silly voices - with just a subtle change of cadence and rhythm.

    I'm not :p

  7. It's amazing what playing around with fonts, or even the way you view something on the screen (page view vs print view), can do for your writing... does nudge you certain ways, when you need it.

  8. Oh, I so feel your pain - combining scenes is horrible! But you're right; changing the fonts and printing things out makes such a difference to how you perceive things!

    PS - Thank you so much for the Daily Mail headline generator! Hours of procrastination fun!

  9. Awesome tips Ellen!!! You are so wise, and you just helped me learn a new technique! I am constantly missing things that others are picking up and I think it's because of the way I'm looking at it all. Sometimes a different light, a different size font, all of it makes a difference!

    Off to edit! Thanks for the tips!


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