by | Jul 30, 2017 | On writing | 10 comments

By Francine Mathews

So it’s August in Colorado, which means it’s monsoon season–the time of year when the arid heat of summer gives way to daily waves of cumulus rising over the Front Range and bearing down in thunderheads above the plains. The temperature falls and the humidity goes up. The plants in my small garden sigh in relief and drop leaves that are crackling and scorched for a second round of hopeful green growth. And I start working again.

I find it hard to write when the sun is shining. My best possible work days are when there’s a blizzard raging and a good fire in the hearth. Second best is rain and fog. At the tail end of summer, thunderstorms will have to do. I’m not actually writing at the moment in any case–I’m about to embark on a revision of my latest novel, and the research for my next. Which brings me to an issue that plagues writers as well as readers: How do I absorb information best? And what’s the most effective way to revise?

I’m talking here about digital vs. print, of course.

One of the major revolutions in publishing I’ve witnessed in the past twenty-five years is the transition to digital manuscripts. When once my editors and I traded a ream of paper, a manuscript that grew shabbier and more precious with each mailing–redlined, corrected, crossed-out and stapled with sudden inspired insertions–we now trade digital files, from beginning to end of the editing process. I submit my manuscript electronically; it is edited that way; returned to me via email; and sent to the printers in digital format. There is no longer foul matter–which, in addition to being a humorous crime novel by Martha Grimes, is also a beloved publishing term for that shabby manuscript, once the actual book appears on a store shelf. 

Digital editing means there’s nothing for archives to inherit.

And nothing, in hard copy, for me to revise this August.

Which brings me to the point of this post: I am about to descend to the bowels of my house and the printer I keep in my basement office–nearly as obsolete, absent its scanning function, as the fax service it also provides–to print out my manuscript in draft. Because to truly retain a sense of my story arc, I need to read it on paper. A digital pass–something that might take me only a few hours this Sunday–won’t embed the story in my brain the way turning actual pages does. And that’s true for me with research, as well. When I’m learning about a subject in order to write about it, I have to read actual books, not digital ones. Otherwise, the information slips away like water draining through sand.

I do not retain what I read electronically.

My friend and fellow blogger Jamie Freveletti would figure out exactly why this seems true, find studies that prove it, and offer up statistics that verify my hunch. I love this about Jamie. But today (because I have to get to printing out that manuscript), I’m throwing down this assertion on gut feeling alone. And a bit of chastening experience as a reader-for-entertainment. I download a LOT of books for pleasure on my iPad, my preferred travel companion. In the aftermath of the last presidential election, I sought solace amid chaos by devouring the entire oeuvre of Patricia Wentworth, a Golden Age mystery writer whose works are comfortingly predictable. I probably downloaded over thirty of her books. I scan the titles in my eLibrary now, a few months later, and have no idea what any of those stories were about. 

Gone from my head, like a sandcastle at high tide.

So tell me, folks–am I alone in this? Or does your brain need paper, too?



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  1. S. Lee Manning

    Moi aussi. I do all my writing on the computer, but I need to hand write out notes and outlines – and like to read print outs of the novels as I go. As far as reading goes, print really does it for me.

  2. Karna Bodman

    To answer your question, Francine, my brain definitely needs paper — like you, when I am editing/revising a novel, I must print it out, grab a pencil and hunker down with that huge pile of paper in front of me. Now, while I know that downloading e-books appeals to lots of people, especially for travel, I did read an interesting article in PUBISHERS WEEKLY pointing out that e-book sales have tapered off while the sale of print books has now increased. Why? One of their "experts" ventured that it's because of "cyber overload." We spend much of the day staring at our computers and iPhones — and when we want to relax, we like to put our feet up and grab an "actual book." Works for me!

  3. Unknown

    As an avid reader I can say without a doubt I will never read books in electronic form.

  4. JELUE

    And…, the research is clear about handwriting vs typing (as I sit here clicking away), but here's a sample:

    And…, I also absorb via voice– assuming it's a well-tuned one. I've often wondered if President Lincoln wrote well because he read aloud to himself….

    Francine, I find it harder and harder to get research docs in my hands, and wish for the days of those collegiate, inter-library loans. Are you still able to do a good portion of research on paper? When not, do you print e-docs, as well?
    –Julie, Denver

  5. Nadine

    I agree…although I type when I create, there's something about editing with pen on paper in order to get a "reader's" experience. I will, however, download subject matter-research books in order to save shelf space for my favorite books.

  6. Francine

    I knew you'd be all over it. Thanks, Jamie!

  7. Francine

    Good question. I do alot of note-taking by hand from online sources, or print them when I can and highlight the relevant information. As for longer materials, I scour used book sites like and They are immensely useful for things one rarely considers–like a travel guide to Paris published in 1940 with contemporary maps of the city, right before the Germans marched in. Such things have ads for restaurants, hotels, cabarets, etc., that are also contemporary. And they go for a song online. I always assemble a research library when I'm embarking on the necessary reading for my next project. That's part of the fun. As for absorbing via voice–that's a cognitive wiring issue. I'm a visual learner. One of my sons is auditory. It's entirely how his brain is constructed. After a liftime of recognizing my own visual bias (I forget a name as soon as it's uttered, for example, but remember it indelibly if I see it printed on a person's tag), I know that it's a governing influence.

  8. Francine Mathews

    Having watched both sons transition to a world where college texts are increasingly digital, I've wondered what impact this has on their assimilation and retention of material. I noticed that when the elder one wrote his hundred-page philosophy thesis this past year, he was frequently consulting actual texts, not virtual ones. I'll have to ask for his thoughts.

  9. JELUE

    Thanks for the heads up about the print book sites. I hadn't thought about those! I am a SpEd teacher and it's a little startling to realize how many resources are being plowed into the development of materials that will take print out of student hands altogether, including e-print. I love having all if the tools available, but it would be nice if educators would ask the opinion of neurologists about brain development once in a while. –Julie