Cutting and pasting really does save time.

1 08 2010

One of the signs that Nick Carr points to in The Shallows that the computer is changing his brain is the changes in the way he edits his writing:

“At first I had found it impossible to edit anything on-screen. I’d print out a document, mark it up with a pencil, and type the revisions back into the digital version. Then I’d print it out again and take another pass with the pencil. Sometimes I’d go through the cycle a dozen times a day. But at some point–and abruptly–my editing routine changed. I found I could no longer write or revise anything on paper. I felt lost without the Delete key, the scrollbar, the cut and paste functions, the Undo command. I had to do all my editing on-screen. In using the word processor, I had become something of a word processor myself.”

He writes as if this were a bad thing.

I’ve managed to crank out five chapters this summer only because I’ve had the word processor to rely upon. I LOVE the word processor, because of the cut and paste function more than anything else. When you’re writing a non-linear work of history, it can be extraordinarily difficult to figure out which facts should go where. Indeed, as was the case with my last book, I think I’ve written my introduction five times with the earlier versions all migrating to different places in the body of the book because the previous introduction ended up being too specific. I’ll try on different pieces of evidence in many places and only through constant re-working get them where they fit really well in the end.

Cutting and pasting (my own words, of course, not random stuff from the web) is my main device for this constant reworking. I have no idea how anybody wrote history before the invention of the word processor. But then again, some people still use notecards for research so maybe there’s a few stragglers out there somewhere.


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