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Paper, Screen, or Scissors? Editing on Hard Copy or Soft Copy

A discussion list summary article by Tim Slager.

The question posted in our discussion list: Should editors edit on hard copy or soft copy? The answer: Yes. Or, it depends. Essentially it is not a matter of should; it is a matter of personal preference and what works best in different situations.

The exchange on the STC Technical Editing SIG discussion list in response to this question went on for several days and included 20 posts, which is higher than average for our moderate-traffic list. Apparently, we tend to be passionate about how we do what we do.

Hard Copy

On one side are those who print a copy and mark it up. Several people mentioned that they notice more errors when they edit hard-copy documents. Hard copy also has these advantages:
  • Easier to flip back and forth to compare for consistency
  • Very portable
  • Easier to see punctuation marks and spelling errors
  • Easier on the eyes
  • Less risk of computer-related stress injury for the editor
  • Easier to mark suggested moves of text
  • Often easier to see corrections in contrasting ink

But the tide is turning, even for those who prefer hard copy. Some people will compromise by marking up hard copy, and then scanning it to make a PDF file. One poster likes to edit hard copy and make changes in soft copy. Another marks up the hard copy and then transcribes comments to soft copy, both for legibility and to tone down “intemperate remarks” (on those rare occasions when one makes it onto paper).

Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste: an “online version of the document is helpful…but I still prefer to deliver markup on hard copy.” One poster still prefers “my trusty red pen.” Another suggests: “Perhaps that is in part due to eyesight issues and in part due to lifelong habits and learning modes.” Some prefer “a quieter, slower paced approach,” and believe it leads to better quality.

Soft Copy

Not everyone wants a slower paced approach, however. When there is a lot of work to be done, speed counts. For some, hard copy may be the preferred approach, but “time and cost considerations” take precedence and “in my current job, I work most often with soft copies.” Several noted that soft copy is faster, and time is money. “Online editing is a cost-saving measure,” said one poster “I can return a document for author review in nearly half the time it takes the other editors.”

The “flipping back and forth” in hard copy can be distracting to some. You might notice structural problems that, in some cases, are better left alone.

The tools that are available with a computer offer a big advantage to online editing. Several people noted that searching for repeated problems is easy with soft copy. One commented, “I’m sure I provide better edits now that I have access to PDF files” for searching. Change tracking tools can be troublesome at times but allow writers to view markups in much the same way they can with hard copy.

Certainly, for many of us soft-copy editing is a big part of our job responsibilities. In fact, later posts in the thread turned mostly to an exchange of advice for how to work with Adobe Acrobat, Word, and other online editing tools as well as with document management and version control software.

One editor took a job on the condition that she could “continue working… completely online.” She goes on to say, “I definitely prefer soft-copy edits, and will do a hard-copy edit only when specifically requested by the author.”

Another noted, “I’ll edit on hard copy if I have to, but I much prefer soft copy at this point.” I sense some ambivalence here, though: was there a change in preference? Someone else perceived that “younger team members do prefer soft copy; it seems they are more comfortable with the technique and it is quicker for them.”

There’s More Than One Way to Do Things

The person who observed the preference of younger editors for soft copy, counters by noting that “many others my age or older might still prefer hard copy.” Different people and different circumstances call for different approaches.

One editor summarizes it like this: “Both types of editing can yield acceptable results. As to preferences, different editors will give you different answers. I might give you a different answer at different times, depending on what I’m doing and how I’m feeling.”

Another says, “I think that both are acceptable….I prefer to edit hard copies when proofreading but I vastly prefer soft copies for comprehensive editing.”

This either-or view seems to characterize the variety in the larger community of editors. No one implies that their approach is the only one.

There seems to be a general, if at times reluctant, sense that the move is toward more online editing. One post states that the choice of software that is used for soft copy editing is pivotal, and that such tools keep improving. It concludes with, “I doubt that there was much serious copy editing going on at PC screens 20 years ago, but ten years from now doing it on paper might also be a relative rarity.”

The first response to the question of which method was better begins with what sounds like a hard-line opinion: “Editing hard copy is best.” But this same post ends with “I edit by reading hard copy and making changes in soft copy. That seems to combine the best of the choices. Hope this opinionated answer helps.”

In the end, it seems to be a split opinion.

Page last modified on Sunday, November 23, 2008 12:05:24pm EST
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