What a Valuable Waste

This is about woodworking. You’ll just have to wait for it.

When I edit a book or a magazine article, I always feel shame during the process. Despite all the electronic tools available to me, I have to print the entire book at several stages of the process and work on what we call the “hard copy.”

It is a wasteful process. For example, Matt Bickford’s new book, “Mouldings in Practice,” is more than 250 pages. I think I’ve printed it out at least five times in the last six months. The printouts will get run through the printer again, and then they will be recycled. But still, that is a lot of paper, energy and waste.

I make these printouts because it helps my editing. Changing the format – from electronic to paper – makes me see the words differently. I always find things that I just couldn’t see on the screen. It could be the gestalt of the elements on the page. (You hear that Clem? He said “gestalt.”) I find things that don’t line up. I find enormous errors that I’ve been blind to for months – last night Megan Fitzpatrick (also a dirty paper waster) found a doosie in Matt’s book that everyone has been looking at for three months.

Plus I find more typos and little stuff. For me, paper is magic. I’ve tried changing the format to a tablet or a different computer, and it doesn’t help as much as printing the sucker out and going at it with a pen.

What does this have to do with woodworking? Lots. As I’ve mentioned before, “The map is not the territory.” Your scaled drawing is not the same thing as a full-size drawing, a mock-up or the real piece of furniture. You will see things – problems and triumphs – at every stage you choose to go through. But nothing – nothing – compares to the final product.

Which is why there are still typos in books after 20 people edit them. Because the territory is the territory. The book is the book. The secretary is the secretary.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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23 Responses to What a Valuable Waste

  1. Dan D. says:

    So true Chris. I do quite a bit of technical editing as part of my job, and for anything longer than a page or two I have to mark it up on paper, then make the edits in the electronic world. Part of me wonders if it’s just because we (I’m including Megan here) are ‘old guys’ who learned how to write and edit in the age before the word processor, or if it’s something about how the brain is wired, or both. It leaves me with lots of interesting questions. Do the kiddies who grew up staring at a screen have the same problem, but in reverse? Do they have trouble with paper until they run it through the scanner, OCR and view it on screen? Or are they comfortable in either world? Does the screen format matter? You touched on tablets, but what about those honkin’ monitors that allow you to see two 8 1/2 x 11 pages side by side at full size? Does that help or not? I have never had that luxury.

    My guess is that because we learned how to write and edit in school exclusively on paper, our brains are wired (perhaps just ‘trained’) to leverage the physical interface between our fingers (and pen), eyes, and the paper page. Take away any of those elements, and it’s harder for us. But who knows. In any case I’m glad I’m not alone. Old Guys Rule.

    • Shawn Nichols says:

      I’m 33 so I’ve been on a computer since kindergarten. I’m not sure if I qualify for “kiddies” but I still benefit from printing stuff out. I do a fair amount of technical editing as well. I do 90% of the work on the screen (with two monitors and using comparative software features of Word or Adobe) but for the final-final version, it’s paper all the way. I also started cutting my tenons by hand and built a sawbench this spring to break down lumber. What does that tell you? Maybe the “old” ways are more ingrained than we think.

    • corgicoupe says:

      I also do [on-screen] editing of my wife’s reports [she’s a child psychologist] and I miss both spelling and grammatical errors more than I care to admit, but I do miss them. I think I was as better editor when I printed them out, and this post has encouraged me to rethink on-screen editing. I also see more errors in novels published in the last 20 years than I recall seeing in the older books on my shelves. Perhaps hard-copy editing is to be preferred.

  2. Erskine S. says:

    Chris, Dan D is spot on. It is about neurological process and distributed memory. We just have to find our preferred methods. Despite access to virtually all technology, I still rely primarily on writing with a fountain pen and drawing with shellac-based ink on A0 paper. I don’t retain electronic information but remember every word and line I scribe.

  3. Jonas Jensen says:

    I find it hard to read more than a couple of pages if its on the computer. I don’t know why, but that is just the way it is. That is also one of the reasons why I am not interested in buying electronic books or magazines. They just don’t work for me.

    But to get back to the waste part.. You wrote something in Woodworking Magazine in the article about the small shaker end table: That it was a worse sin, to not waste wood, and thus making an ugly tabletop. than wasting some wood, and making a beautifull tabletop. (or at least that was how interpreted it).
    So I suppose that in editing: The end justify the means when it comes to sacrifice some paper.
    Keep up the good work.

  4. Bob says:

    Paper use is a good thing. Keeps our loggers employed. Nothing wrong with that.
    Enjoy the blog, keep up the good work.

  5. Gordon says:

    I do the same thing. Just remember to cross out the pages once the cyber editing is completed and use the back side of the sheets for the next run.

  6. Ronald says:

    I never really thought about it either way. I don’t mind reading e-books and keep most of my woodworking and project plans in PDF. I guess I’m one of those guys that can take it or leave it. I do some volunteer work for a not-for-profit maintaining and updating their website. That requires monthly event updates and I don’t print those out before posting them but I do prefer to print out architectural plans to proof those as hard copies. Hmm… You’ve made me start thinking and I don’t like it when that happens.

    I think you should have printed out this post, Christopher. Clem is either a healer or he was supposed to have heard something. ;P

    Thanks for all you do for us!

    Enjoy your 4th!

  7. Bryant Rice says:

    Words behave very differently once committed to paper than they do wildly dancing about in digiland. Printing stuns them into silent submission, tranquil and obedient against the vigilant red pen.

  8. Ron Dennis says:

    For spec pieces, I’ve always found building a full-size prototype and living with it for a while to be very beneficial. You can get cull construction lumber for cheap at any box store. I sticker it in the top of my garage. If need to see the shadow lines more distinctly you can hit it with the spray gun and white paint (again acquired for cheap as mistints for the box stores).

  9. Paul Mayon says:

    Hi Chris,

    STOP THE GUILT! This is a well known phenomenon. There are many studies that have been done in this area like the one cited below. Remember, ream of a4 paper are still reasonably cheap (yes I too feel guilty though and recyle as much as I can) but mistakes are very expensive when it comes to bound copies of the good stuff.
    Imagine finding the mother of all howlers once you had gone to print and bound the hardcopies…

    Proof-reading texts on screen and paper


    Behaviour & Information Technology
    Volume 2, Issue 3, 1983, pages 227- 235
    Available online: 16 May 2007

    This study examined the speed and accuracy of proof-reading a text presented on a CRT, relative to performance with print on paper. Two groups of 16 people each proof-read four published texts, roughly 1500 words per text For all readers, half the texts were presented as print on paper and half were presented on a 12 in. CRT screen. The two groups differed in whether the errors found in the screened text were recorded on the screen or on paper. The results suggested that the method of recording errors on the screen was quickly learned, but that both speed and accuracy were impaired when the text was presented on the screen. The implications of this for refereeing electronic journals is discussed.

    • blowery says:

      “For all readers, half the texts were presented as print on paper and half were presented on a 12 in. CRT screen.”

      HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Oh academia. How I don’t miss you.

      • tsstahl says:

        12″ CRT? I wonder how many evaluators got slapped.

      • Paul Mayon says:

        Dear Blowery,

        How very negative of you in your comment. The inability to identify errors on screen versus paper is a well known phenomenon and the study cited was but one of many. I do apologise if the study (selected at random) offends your delicate sensibilities of how a study should be completed. It was just to illustrate the point.

        Kind regards,

  10. David Pickett says:

    It’s not just book editing. The draughtsmen at one of my former workplaces always ran a checking print of any drawing – you can look at small parts of an A0 drawing on a screen, but you can’t see the whole picture. Some of them were youngsters, with no drawing board experience to speak of, just computer packages. They said the same as you – things you don’t see on a screen leap off the paper at you. Similarly, I’d rather read a newspaper on the paper rather than the screen. For some reason, I see far more on the paper.

    You can’t beat the real thing….

  11. Making my way in life as a technical writer, there are certain things I always do when documenting software.

    I always show my formatting marks first thing when opening a new document. (I don’t ever think about life pre-formatting marks.)

    And I always use Pentel EnerGel pens when I edit the hard copy version that I always print out.

  12. Marshal says:

    I am 45 and grew up at the advent of computer using 5 1/4″ floppys in the computer lab within the livestock barn at NDSU… there always was an open computer there. Wonder why? I learned to print early and often as so many people would lose their files. I have tried to go to electronic editing but I just can not do it.

  13. Christopher Hawkins says:

    My work involves integrating information from one to dozens of graphs. Printing them out and affixing them to a wall is the only way I can keep them in my mental “RAM” in order to see a more complete picture of what the data is trying to teach me. I’m a tree killer and a tree planter so hopefully it balances out

  14. James says:

    I still do this when writing assignments for my University courses. It’s a habit I got into years ago, and it feeds into my work as a teacher, marking the students’ work.

    Perhaps we’ll be the last generation to do it this way, perhaps our grandchildren will think we’re weird. Perhaps the role that pen and paper plays in our daily lives is so deeply ingrained in our traditions, fossilised through our education, that it will take centuries to escape it, for better or for worse.

  15. Gary Cook says:

    Hey Chris, looking forward to this. Can we buy it in the UK?


  16. I’m in my 30s, and learned to write on a keyboard and screen in my teens. I can edit onscreen if I have to, but it’s easier on paper. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve printed out my current writing project, but I find a lot more typos when I edit on paper. I like editing on paper because it leaves a trail of work. If I cross out a word or phrase, it’s still there on the paper if I want to go back to it.

  17. Kim A Howarter says:

    Just keep reading and publishing the books no matter how much paper you recycle in the process!

    I write and review documents for ISO9001, the International Quality Standard and always end up printing the documents to proof them. I also like to leave them set for a day and reread them and usually find more corrections. I like books to read and will usually print out articles if they have any length to them, they are just easier to read. When I was the chairperson of a professional society I asked the newsletter editor how he got his articles to read so nice. He wrote college textbooks for a living and explained that after reading an article 12 to 15 times that they would get to sounding pretty good.

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