word craft


Paper vs Screen

Screen vs Paper
Pho­to: Dave Bre­des­on | Dreamstime.com

Is there a dif­fer­ence between read­ing  and work­ing on what you are writ­ing on a com­put­er screen or on paper?

Clear­ly, this is an indi­vid­ual choice, but speak­ing pure­ly for myself, I think there is a big dif­fer­ence. But I am not sure why. For more than twen­ty years I have com­posed my books on a com­put­er. It means less phys­i­cal labor (and writ­ing a nov­el is labor inten­sive). It is vast­ly eas­i­er to revise, change, edi­tor, delete, and add on my com­put­er. I do many more revi­sions than I used to do on a type­writer. I think that makes me pro­duce bet­ter writ­ing.  For some­one like me, with dys­graphia, it means that what is cor­rect­ed (mis­takes, here) remains cor­rect­ed. And, not a small thing with me, the spell check­er is a wonder.

All of that is a pos­i­tive about work­ing on a computer.


I get a bet­ter feel for my writ­ing, when I read on paper, pen in hand. I sense weak­ness­es faster as well as strengths. Beyond all else, I see pos­si­bil­i­ties in plot and char­ac­ters I don’t see on the screen.

Why is this true? My only guess—and it is a guess—is that the writ­ten page is more book-like, and I am respond­ing to my work as if it is a book, not a screen.

As a result of this imper­fect­ly under­stood but real dif­fer­ence, I go back and forth. When I feel I have reached a cer­tain on-screen point, I print and read from paper.

It is sim­ply part of my process.

Do any of you expe­ri­ence this?

10 thoughts on “Paper vs Screen”

  1. Dear Avi, Thanks for your insights. What do you think about lis­ten­ing to books online or taped ver­sus read­ing the page or screen. Is lis­ten­ing to a book the same as read­ing print? What do you think? rob

    • I’d say read­ing is very dif­fer­ent from lis­ten­ing, main­ly because I tend to lis­ten while dri­ving, so re-read­ing a para­graph, flip­ping back some pages to check some­thing ear­li­er, and either mark­ing up or tak­ing notes are all more dif­fi­cult (or well-nigh impos­si­ble, safe­ly) with the audi­ble book. So I think lis­ten­ing (in that fash­ion) pro­duces less com­pre­hen­sion and reten­tion than read­ing. On the oth­er hand, it’s bet­ter than noth­ing and so for less intense books, it allows a lot of ground to be cov­ered that may oth­er­wise sit, un-attend­ed, in my ever-grow­ing “To Read” list!

  2. Per­fect tim­ing, Avi! This long week­end, I’ll be seques­ter­ing myself in a cab­in at just under 7,000 feet and going through my entire man­u­script from start to fin­ish. Of course I’ll have my lap­top with me, but I will also have all 150 pages print­ed out and ready to go for read-alouds and pen-in-hand edits. Glad to hear this process works best for you as well.

  3. I sound like you when it comes to the alter­na­tive ways to write. In addi­tion to what you said, I feel like a total­ly dif­fer­ent part of my brain works when I write long- hand. It’s a more artis­tic part of me; the words flow dif­fer­ent­ly (and with more emo­tion) when I write out my ideas. Since it’s hard­er on my writ­ing hand, I reserve writ­ing with a pen and paper for moments when I want more per­son­al, more heart­felt dia­logue of scenes.

  4. I might have also said that part of my process is to read my work aloud, first to my wife, and then, if I can arrange it, to a class. Teach­es me a lot.

    I have heard of authors hav­ing their first drafts being read to them. I’m not sure I could lis­ten to that.

    And I recent­ly read some­thing by Stephen King in which he sug­gest­ed the BEST way to hear a lit­er­ary work is to lis­ten to it.

    Indeed, there ‘s Robert Frost: “The ear is the best reader.”

  5. Yes! For me it is very strong. Screen text is effer­ves­cent. It sim­ply does not record in my brain as well. It’s like I see light more than text. And almost every­one prefers paper text­books, not online. Same phe­nom­e­na. And I agree with oth­er writ­ers, the ancient prac­tice of speak­ing aloud is the best way for me to com­pre­hend, remem­ber and appre­ci­ate words. Nobody seems to like to say it but just because some­thing is new does not mean it is better.

  6. I read a book first and per­haps a year lat­er, lis­ten to the beau­ti­ful words and remem­ber them longer after — all of Louise Pen­ny’s books, James Lee Burke.….the ear­ly Mary Russell/Sherlock books. Ages lat­er I will remem­ber, not the outcome/who done it.…..but the cadence, the music, the intri­ca­cies of clues and hints. Read­ing for the sto­ry, lis­ten­ing for the language.

  7. Thanks for shar­ing — I love hear­ing how you work.
    Per­son­al­ly, I have to write on the com­put­er because my hand­writ­ing is so slow, yet my sto­ry comes so fast (aver­age 2k words an hour), For revis­ing, I love using track changes in the first read-through because then I can type out my ideas and notes. 

    It’s sur­pris­ing how much dif­fer­ence read­ing your MS on paper makes. I also like to read it on my Kin­dle, to get a bet­ter sense as a Reader.

  8. I always do bet­ter edit­ing on paper copy. I also write many notes ini­tial­ly by long­hand. Markups just work bet­ter for me on paper with pen in hand.

  9. I do bet­ter editing/marking prob­lems on paper, like Bart^ and oth­ers. I also pre­fer to read paper books. But the mar­vels of revis­ing on com­put­er (WORD was made for writ­ers) do not escape me. I’m almost old enough to remem­ber revis­ing pre-word proces­sors… Not quite. I imag­ine I would have quit try­ing long ago if that part had to be done long­hand or on a man­u­al typewriter.


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