When I started writing mysteries, I did everything in digital documents and spreadsheets. Doing so makes everything portable. I can carry my laptop and look up any draft, outline, note, list, etc. Also, going all-digital avoids the storage problem. Before about 1985, we did everything on index cards, notebooks, and typed sheets, and all of it had to be kept in file cabinets.
But, as I worked through multiple drafts of my novels, keeping track of my notes, readers’ notes, feedback from my writers’ group, etc., I encountered a new problem. All these things have to be viewed through my laptop’s screen, a rectangle about eight inches by twelve inches.
When working in such a small aperture, one has no choice but to glance and switch. For instance, while editing a manuscript, one switches to another tab to glance at a spreadsheet that outlines the book and then switches back to the manuscript. One then switches to a file of readers’ notes, glances at it, and switches back to the document being edited. All this puts a lot of wear and tear on short-term memory.
Gradually, I started using paper. I wrote my notes on a legal pad so I could glance at them without having to switch anything on my screen. Then I printed out my spreadsheet so I could glance at it without having to switch. My viewing area expanded from that little rectangle on my laptop to my physical desktop.
The final frontier was printing a copy of the manuscript when it was time to do a read-through. Editing, annotating, deleting, and re-ordering happen much faster with a pen on paper. Word-processing software has made it possible to do all these things, but has not made it efficient. One has to think one’s way through menus and buttons. Again: wasted short-term memory.
Of course, I resisted this return to paper because for years I’d heard we should “save a few trees” by doing things digitally. Then it occurred to me: we can plant more trees. We cannot plant more of the things computers and phones are made of: petroleum and metals.