Red pen, or track changes?

Because it is, you know, Sunday morning, and I have a nice cup of tea in front of me, and the kids are playing quietly in the back of the house, and DrMrA is watching soccer, I think I’ll blog. The New York Times sitting next to me can wait.

I know I’ve not been writing a lot here- and this is because I’ve been writing my little fingers off for my real job in the last month or so. Some of the text has been student written drafts edited by me, some has been my drafts edited by others, some has been all mine. All of this has led me to think a little about the process of editing, and about juggling a manuscript back and forth between multiple individuals.

When I was in graduate school, my thesis adviser edited everything on the printed page, and it was good (for those of you youngsters remember that the internet was hardly invented at that time). You were expected to write the first draft of your manuscript, then would get whole deal returned to you bathed in red pen. I am sure that it took him/her hours to do this- because the level of detail that he considered a manuscript in was truly exquisite. You would spend hours trying to interpret the chicken scratch handwriting in the margins and over the printed text. Now and then you would have to ask for a translation of what he had written in there because his/her handwriting was so unintelligible (not to insult the handwriting- but who knows if he/she was juggling a kid in one arm while writing with the other). In the end though, you really had to read the text extremely carefully to figure out what he/she wanted in the text, and then you had to type it in.  For me, this was an important part of the process of learning to write.

The ‘track changes’ function was totally foreign to me in grad school, for all I know it didn’t exist then, so I can only assume that it became popular while I was out of the lab. For those of you that don’t know- track changes is a function in Word where you can edit a document and your edits appear a different color in the electronic document, then the person that you hand the manuscript off to can go through each change one by one and accept or reject them in the electronic document, or you can just accept or reject all the changes in one step.

Fast forward to my postdoc. Postdoc adviser did everything with track changes, and nothing on the printed page. I confess it took me a while to get used to looking at manuscripts like this, being wedded to looking at the print copy and all, but I can’t deny the efficiency of being able to pass things back and forth electronically.

Now I’m fairly reliant on being able to write and edit like this, but I’m not a total convert. I frequently write with colleagues located in different physical locations than me, and for that it is critical to be able to pass text back and forth quickly- so electronic editing methods are a must. However, I still like to read the last versions of a manuscript on the printed copy and write notes in the margin. Why? I don’t know- I purposely go somewhere quiet and without a computer when I do this, so suppose it allows me to block out every other distraction, especially those on my computer. But I wonder, which is a better way for students to learn the process of writing, the red pen or track changes? By using track changes on manuscripts that my students write, am I doing what is easiest or most convenient for me- and not what is necessarily best for them to learn the process of writing? Do they really have to read as carefully as they would if I put it all down in pen- are they just selecting ‘accept all’ and not processing what I wrote to any significant extent?

Or does it depend on the student?


21 thoughts on “Red pen, or track changes?

  1. I’m one of the new generation of grad students who does most things with track changes. My advisor is on the go a lot so most passing-back-and-forth of documents happens via email. I like reading & writing on paper, but the benefits of receiving edits from my boss within a week (generally) outweigh any lingering nostalgia. To be honest, it never occurred to me to just click “accept all” (although maybe I just haven’t been under enough time constraints yet…) because I know I need to learn to write better. Also, I wouldn’t feel comfortable submitting something with parts I hadn’t read and thought about.

  2. While I like the track changes function, especially if I’m editing for someone who isn’t local, I will never be a true convert. I still prefer to print those manuscripts out, even my own, to edit, even if it does waste paper. (I usually edit on paper then enter in the changes on the computer if I must). And I’ve actually found that I miss quite a bit on a computer screen – my favorite, the double “the the”. As much as I may have edited something on the computer, I still find many many grammatical errors once I read the thing on paper. Maybe I’m just not technically savvy enough…my eyes just don’t deal with the computer screen very well.

  3. I do some mix of the two, depending on the paper/situation. I am not a current grad student but one of my job duties is to write up our research and one supervisor prints the paper and chicken scratches. The other supervisor, due to distance, does track changes but then calls me to go over his changes. He’d be a paper person if the distance wasn’t an issue but I really like his workaround. He can quickly and easily talk me through his changes over the phone while we both scroll through it on the computer. Disclaimer: these are not especially long papers, usually in the 10-15 page range. Might not work with longer ones.

  4. I prefer editing my work on paper. I too feel that I don’t read as closely when I’m reading on the screen. When going through rounds of electronic editing, I go through and check the suggested edits before accepting them. Part of this is to see what changes have been made to improve the writing. Part is to ensure that the sentence still says the same thing with the new edits–because it doesn’t always come out that way.

  5. I bleed red all over early drafts. I print them out and write notes in the margins and on the backs of the pages, draw arrows to move sentences and paragraphs, etc. Once the major changes have been made, then I can track changes and edit the final draft on screen.

  6. I’m a total track changes convert. I’ve had to nag my new PhD supervisor to adapt it, but I’m hoping by the end of my degree she’ll be a true convert. I find reading out loud a good way to catch mistakes.

  7. I am new to commenting to your blog, but not new to reading it! I just wanted to say that you have been sooooo helpful and I would love it if you kept up this great work. You have also inspired me to start my own blog. Nothing on it yet, but I will be updating shortly. (I am just starting my postdoc)

    I just wanted to comment on this because I was just thinking about it recently. I find that getting corrections on paper helps me with learning to be a better writer while using the track changes function helps things get done faster. If I really want to read something thoroughly, I have to print it out. I find I don’t see mistakes as easily on the computer screen. When I wrote my NRSA, we used track changes, it just made things easier because we were fixing things up until the last minute! So I see the beauty of both.

  8. I have a total double-standard about this. I love track changes when I am editing someone else’s paper because it’s more convenient, I don’t have to squeeze my comments into the small margins, and I type a gazillion times faster than I can write.

    But when I give my papers/grants to my PI to read, I always deliberately give it to him in hard copy. This is because I want him to comment on the big stuff–content, clarity, logic of my argument, etc.–rather than have him critique every word choice, every placement of punctuation, etc. I find that having to handwrite comments makes one much more selective about what one chooses to comment on!

    I will say, though, that when I use track changes to comment on other people’s papers, I try to make suggestions about how the person could rephrase something rather than actually rewrite it for them. That way the person still has to process my comments and learn how to find his/her own way to phrase things.

  9. BOTH!! i like the printed page for the initial drafts when there’s considerable edits to make and consider, but i like track changes for the refinement stage. i’m totally with ScienceMother in reading out loud to catch mistakes 🙂

  10. Red pen! I want to be able to edit stuff wherever I am without necessarily having to have my laptop with me.

  11. Both! Pen (I prefer purple) on the hard copy because I read better with something tangible in my hands, but then I type all edits into the e-version using track changes and the comments feature so the writer can actually read what I wrote. An added benefit to this is that my second, abbreviated read-through while typing often helps me to clarify the difficult bits.

  12. I use both depending on where I am.

    however, this is why I want to get a tablet/notebook….could be used for both things!

  13. Pen for students/trainees new to writing. Track changes for colleagues and superiors.

    A combination of pen and track changes when I’m writing the first draft myself.

    Looking at it in different ways helps me spot different types of errors. Plus when you print it out you can get away from the puter and the emails and the internet and all those fucking interesting blogs that distract you from writing that fucking grant that your supposed to be writing right now….

  14. As a student, I prefer getting edits back on paper. I’m still coming to terms with track changes, and there’s no way I could ‘accept all’ before going through each one.

  15. Same as Mike – pen first (I don’t proof read well at all on screen), then Word. I seem to catch more errors this way than when using either method alone.

  16. I’ve developed the tradition of printing drafts to be edited and doing the editing on the train on the way home or the way into work. I recycle the paper. Early (or heavy) editing is easier on paper b/c you can use arrows to move stuff, etc. On the computer screen the entire section just becomes red (or blue or whatever) and your ‘graph is just “missing” without the visual cues to really understand the different train of thought that resulted in moving the content around.

    However, I’m slowly being converted over to tracking changes, especially for smaller and later editing stages.

    The single biggest thing I’ve done to increase my ability/desire to work totally on-screen is buying a monitor capable of “portrait” display (i.e. 1050 x 1600) and have the entire page on-screen at once. It. Is. FABULOUS. You won’t go back.

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