Writing Without Paper

When I wrote my first and second novels (the under-the-couch novels, the up-on-the-top-shelf-of-the-closet novels) I would print out after every chapter. Then I’d line edit, enter the edits, and print again. If I changed a sentence on page 10, I’d print out page 10 again instead of having the handwritten edit on it, and if page 10 reflowed pages 11 and 12 and so on, I’d print out those too. I don’t want to know how many trees I sawed through with my printing obsession, knowing, especially, how long my couch novels were: 500 pages; 345 pages, respectively. It was bad. I was a bad person.

Why the printouts? I loved the feeling of holding my words in my hands. I loved seeing my sentences carved out in Times New Roman, how crisp they seemed, how real. The books felt more solid when seen on a page. And it felt like there was nothing more satisfying than holding the weight of all my work physically in my arms. With my first novel especially I was known to hole-punch all the pages and carry around the section I was working on in a binder. I’d bring this binder with me when I went to my day job, a long subway ride away, even if I knew I wouldn’t have time to even look at the pages there. I’d be scrambling around at work, feeling the insignificant nothingness the job of a thankless assistant can settle on you, and then I’d glance down at my bag. And I knew, in it, was my manuscript. And I felt like I had a secret. And it exhilarated me.

I remember, at a writers colony I went to, hearing one woman talk about how she worked on her manuscript, a memoir, which sounded especially difficult for her to write. Every night, she’d take her printed pages to bed with her. She slept with them beneath her pillow and would wake up clutching them in her arms. The book spent its nights touching her, seeping into her subconscious through her skin. We, the other writers eating dinner with the writer who made this confession, may have chuckled at her attachment to her manuscript… But how many of us went back alone to our studios that night and were tempted to do the same?

As for me, after couch novels #1 and #2, I stopped with the printouts. I don’t want to waste the paper. I’m trying to be environmentally conscious. I barely print anything anymore, until it’s done (and often not even then). When I edit, I do it with tracked changes in the electronic file. I save many versions, a new one for each day. But…

But, I have to tell you, as I write my manuscript now, there’s something missing.

I feel separated from my words.

I am dying to print out my manuscript, though I don’t have all of it yet. I am dying to hold it, to feel its weight, to put my fingers on the lines and follow them down the page. I’m telling myself I am not allowed to print until I write to the end of the book. But…

I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to hold out.

Why is it, how is it, that all my progress doesn’t feel like progress at all if I can’t reach out and touch it? Maybe, in the future, someone will invent writing software that creates virtual holograms of your manuscripts, so you can cuddle and stroke and sleep curled up with your work, even if the only space it takes up on the table is air.


11 responses to “Writing Without Paper”

  1. I hate to be an enabler, but I’m really good at it. Why not just print it on the back of something else (recycling from work, perhaps)? Then you get to touch it and there is zero environmental impact.


  2. Do you think this sounds crazy?…

    …what if I print it on something that taints it? Like an old manuscript that got rejected, or like day job stuff I don’t want touching it? Weird thought? Totally obsessive?


  3. Hello, I’ve been lurking around here and enjoying your thoughts on writing, life and occasionally politics. Up until last year, I was writing creatively – a screenplay, which hit a very painful dead end and forced me to take some time off and do other things for a while (I’m now a freelance writer and copywriter). Anyway, I understand how you feel about wasting paper yet needing to see your words on paper. I use recycled paper and I’ve become used to seeing other stuff on the back of pages as I hand-edit my work. One time I spotted a phone bill that shouldn’t have been in the recycled stack, but that’s another story…have a great day, m


  4. I print, lol. I print on recycled paper, and then recycle when I’m finished with it. Consider it a sacrifice to the creative process. And we’ll put out environmental efforts into stopping spam mail instead – now there’s paper waste! Go print yourself a chapter, it’ll feel good 😉


  5. That fear of tainting? I’d never thought of it before — but it does feel weird to see unrelated fiction — or, worse, copies of cases involving murders or boring civil problems that I’ve done looking at for work, but recycle for drafts — on the other side of my nice new stuff. I’ll try not to think “tainted” when I use that paper!!

    Now i’ve got to go and write some words so I have something to print out.

    xo, L


  6. I’ve been lurking a while and am gleefully distracted by your musings. And oh my, can I relate to your tree/paper problem. I’m tackling my first novel, after years of short story writing, and I was under the impression I’d just handle it as I’ve done with short fiction; printing hard copy to line edit, making the edits electronically, and printing again. Obsessing about a single comma, a capitalization, a space break. If there’s a page that has a flaw, it gets reprinted.

    The upshot of all this (I work in advertising and am a recovering journalist) is that I have been conditioned to get the thing as mature as possible and “proof” what I think may be the final product; I have never learned to line edit on the screen. I literally cannot see those kinds of red-pen mistakes until they’re on paper before me. A subset of this problem is blogging… I can’t see mistakes until I’ve hit “publish” and then, there they are, mocking me. Why is that?

    So with this novel, I’m going the “track changes” route (even though I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing with that, my ms looks like five high school English teachers got hold of it, gah!) and try to save the trees. It is confounding. You have my empathy.

    Please excuse any mistakes in this post.



  7. Oh my God, we are the same person. I did the same thing, and then forced myself step back and stop (so many trees killed and ink cartridges bled dry!). I have very few print-outs now, holding out a long long time, and when I finally do it is a Big Huge Deal. There is nothing like seeing and holding it all on paper.


  8. Hi, Mari. Thanks for commenting for the first time, much appreciated! I can just see myself accidentally printing my novel on important papers like bills or tax information or something I really need. Oh, that’s something I’d totally do! Good luck with your writing, with returning to your screenplay or writing the next one.

    Laura, I am about to take this advice. I don’t think I can wait much longer before printing! Recycled paper… how could it be bad, right?

    Bloglily, Thanks for not making me feel like my tainting issue is crazy. Not that I have legal cases to be printing on, eek! Thanks for your continued positivity and support.

    e. (not the one I’m married to!), Thanks, also, for lurking and commenting for the first time! I understand exactly what you mean about assuming you’d treat the writing of the novel like the process of writing short stories. It doesn’t really work that way, does it? I, too, have a hard time seeing typos and issues on-screen (though I’m getting better). Still, there’s nothing like a hard copy. I guess, with a novel, it’s just healthier, and smarter, to wait longer to print out, huh? Do you use Track Changes with the balloons on? I really love those balloons some days…

    Annika, thanks for supporting my non-craziness. I’m just making excuses, I think. I wonder if I should print my novel on the back of these Emmy-awarded TV scripts I happen to have copies of… Maybe that would be what’s called “good” tainting!

    e (the one I’m married to), love!

    Courtney, I love thinking of printing at long last as a Big Huge Deal! That’s how it feels, and I think that’s why I keep putting it off. I wrote this post days ago and still haven’t let myself print. I’m waiting, I think. prolonging the excitement 🙂


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