Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Paper: the re-writer's power tool

Your computer might be subverting your writing.

It saves you time and makes writing easy, but it doesn't support the self-editing habits and disciplines required to produce a good novel.

The screen is a linear window. You can only see a small chunk of your work at a time, and you must scroll up and down. It's hard to lay two non-contiguous pages beside each other (though you can do so with two windows). It's hard to get a 'feel' for the work as a whole. It's hard to catch errors, repetitions, developments started but not finished, bad ideas, and long, boring chunks of writing. You can get trapped in a series of little boxes and lose the fact that this is a novel: a long narrative with a complex, developing, inter-woven structure (yes, it is).

Some of you may be able to re-write and self-edit brilliantly on screen. But I suspect that even you geniuses will find working on a paper manuscript enlightening. All writers can benefit from moving their inner world into the material world.

What's to be gained by working on paper? A higher-quality editing process, leading to a better-constructed, more tightly written, less self-indulgent story. Don't think so? Go ahead, print out your story, and have a read.

First things first. Kids, don't do this with a partial story. Finish it before you begin.

Step one: format and print

Then set it up properly by formatting it in the way you will submit it: double-spaced, preferably in Courier New (or Times New Roman), one-inch margins, with a running head and page numbers top right, the text left aligned, with no bold and all italics indicated by underlining. It's useful to work in the format you will be using with your agent or editor, so you might as well get used to it now.

Print it off. Your first reaction might be: wow, that's a lot of paper! It's good to meet your creation in physical form. This is what you have brought into being. This is what you must mold and shape. Printing it out makes your novel, in a strange way, more real. It becomes a thing, a job, something that will eventually be detached from you.

If you are looking at 1000 pieces of paper, you are facing your first problem: you've written too much. The screen can hide the sheer length of your story, but paper tells you the truth. That huge stack is telling you to start trimming.

If you've printed out 92 pages, and the last one says 'The End', then you aren't looking at a novel, but perhaps the little seed of something that will grow. Or not.

Now start reading.

Step two: read it

Reading your work on paper will bring to light many things you need to address. As you turn over the pages, you'll be experiencing your story much as your readers will. Things look differently on paper. Words have a different weight. The passages that you can scroll over on screen with a flick of a finger might now strike you as long. Very long. Too long. There seems to be a lot of physical distance between action A and action B, or not enough. Paper can reveal pacing problems the screen hides.

You might see that you've inadvertently created jarring juxtapositions. You describe a lovely crimson sunset and then a bloody fistfight with much the same imagery: "crimson", "a splash of", "flooded" and so on. They resonate together in their paper closeness in an uncomfortable way, a way you never noticed on the screen.

Or you might notice repetitions. You didn't pick them up on-screen, but on paper you realise that that you've used "she blushed modestly" five times in fifty pages. Itís easy to repeat yourself when you lose the sense of the physical nature of a novel. On paper, these stand out as the blemishes they are. All those sentences you started with "But": there they are, like wads of bubblegum: But But But But But. Or "Suddenly she realised", "Suddenly she turned to him", "She stopped suddenly" "Suddenly it stopped raining". Suddenly you decide not to use so many "suddenlys".

Inconsistencies jump out at you on paper. She's Lydia Hotchkess up to page 134, then Lydia Hotchkiss for the rest of the story. He turns into the driveway left one time, right another time. Where is that house, left or right? A character might appear as if from nowhere. Or disappear. (To cut him out altogether, or to write him back in? You can decide, now you've spotted it.) If the old lady was walking towards the library in town in chapter two, how did she get home fast enough to spot him sneaking through her back door in chapter three? It can be shocking how many of these slips you don't catch on screen. The screen is like a gentle stream: it's all the same, it flows, it's easy to scroll on and on and on, it lulls you into a state of not noticing, and that makes it hard for mistakes to shout at you.

Paper allows you to concentrate on the words. Each separate word. The look of them as they lie on the page. You might see that too many of your paragraphs are dauntingly long. Or you can see that each page is a shower of short paragraphs, single lines, stuttery, as if you can't sustain a narrative flow. The pages look jumpy. Your eye senses the jaggedness and doesn't like it. Now that you are seeing that your story looks wrong, you can start to fix it, clumping those short paragraphs together, or cutting those massive paragraphs into livelier little ones. Whatever the physical problems of your story's narative method, paper will reveal them.

There might be pages of dialogue where you get lost trying to remember who is saying what. Or now you can see the ugliness of having every piece of speech start "Henry said" and "Lydia said". You realise that you don't need to label every piece of dialogue, especially in a conversation between two people. On the other hand, maybe you have a long passage of dialogue that seemed clear on the screen but is confusing on paper. Now is your chance to help your readers out. Pick up a pen and make improvements.

Step three: write down your edits

Unimportant passages jump out at you more easily on paper. There's that section that describes your characters getting down from the carriage and walking to the house. It seemed fine and necessary on the screen, but paper is a crueller medium. You see now that all you need is to have them rein up, and the next scene is Henry in his library. You donít need the bit where he helps her down, hands the horse and buggy to his stable boy, stomps after her into the house, turns pointedly to the library and slams the door after him. It was, in fact, dull on the screen, but you don't see how dull and unimportant it is until it's on paper. And red pens are very useful for crossing out whole passages.

In the same way, reading your story on paper can show you the 'weight' of individual passages. Perhaps you thought that a certain scene was not only adequate, it was more than sufficient and you are darn proud of it. On paper it looks, well, a little skimpy. It doesn't take up enough physical space for such an important moment, and it doesn't take up enough emotional space. Having seen this, you can fix it.

Step four: review your structure

Paper can also reveal bigger structural or pacing problems. What felt like development on-screen can look suspiciously like plot-drift on paper. You can lose the sense of drive and thrust. On screen, it's effortless to spend a few minutes describing that party, her dress, the old lady's kitchen. Why not do a quick biographical sketch of old lady, how she grew up poor in this very house, how she dreamed of becoming an artist, perhaps in Paris, but her family lost all its money and now she's a teacher? Why not? There are no constraints on a PC. You can keep typing that info-dump for as long as you want. On paper, however, you become the weary reader and start to think: why is this here? What's the point of it? The screen can make it easy to forget that every scene – everything – has to be in the story for a reason.

You can drift far from your intended line of narrative when you are floating on a sea of effortless word-processing. The screen isn't going to tell you that you have wandered down a lane to nowhere. Reading your work back to yourself on-screen might not tell you. On paper, you'll be experiencing your story as a reader, not a writer, and suddenly that wander away from the story is there in all its embarrassing glory. Time to cut, re-write, get it back on line.

Paper allows you to put segments of the novel side by side. Your story will have developments, turning points. Working with your printed version, you can sharpen these, structure them to work better not only in themselves, but also with each other, and at the same time you can remove garbage (always good!).

Let's say your character is confronted with challenges and temptations throughout the story and you want to show why he makes the choices he does. Pull out all those 'he makes a choice' passages from your stack of paper. Physically put them side by side: on your kitchen table, on the floor, wherever you can line them up and see them in one glance. You have challenge one, choice one, challenge two, choice two, and so on. Do they build up in seriousness or tension, the stakes a little higher from one to the next? Are they consistent with each other? Or do some merely repeat, with a slight variation, the one before, that is, has the plot stopped moving forward? Is your character's personality consistent throughout? Is the length of time between one choice and the other too much, i.e. is there filler or boring stuff or garbage between choice one and choice two? Can something be cut? Does more need to be added?

It's when you put related or linked scenes together that you clearly see where the chain of motive weakens, where something isn't consistent. Thanks to paper, you've seen this flaw and can correct it.

Reading your story on paper gives you the physical knowledge of what the eventual book will be like to read. As a reader, you experience a book in a certain way. Readers pick up details in ways the writer never imagined. If you don't spot a gaffe, they will. If you don't sense a longeur, they'll be yawning through it. If you haven't made an obvious connection, they'll wonder why. On paper, it will be you spotting the gaffe, you being bored by the longeur, and luckily you, before publication, identifying the connections and adjusting the relevant scenes to build them in.

Step five: reformat and print again

Once you've gone through your printed-out manuscript in the standard submission format (double-spaced), print it out again, single-spaced. This gives you close to the page density of the final printed book, and other problems suddenly become visible. Two events or pieces of dialogue that were two or three pages apart might now be at the top and bottom of one page, and the closer juxtaposition might reveal a repetition or a clash or some other infelicity. Surprisingly, it reveals boring bits better than a double-spaced print-out. It gives you yet another chance to hone, shape, and improve.

In conclusion

Paper isn't the only way to spot and cure your story's deficiencies, but it's a powerful tool to jog you into changing your approach and your perception. It allows you, even forces you, to re-think of your story, because it takes you out of your comfort zone. Working on your paper version in another room from where you usually write, or even going to another building, can also get you into a new mind-set where you are less indulgent about your baby. A new setting makes the words feel new, feel less 'my special thing' and more 'a book', and that can reveal a lot.

Paper can jump-start inspiration. It can shorten the work of re-writing by bringing issues to your attention. And it gives you that wonderful feeling that your story is real, that your words are alive, that they are on their way to their home 'out there', beyond your little, enclosed screen. Even if your book is published strictly as an e-book, using paper as part of your rewriting will make it a better book. Yes, trees have died, but it will have been a worthy sacrifice to art.