In today’s era of round-the-clock connectivity, it’s hard to avoid the screen. Movies, books, and music—essentially all forms of entertainment—are now formatted to fit our devices, for better or for worse. Call me old-fashioned, but for me the whole point of reading a book is to actually hold said book and catch a few hours away from my laptop(s). Countless hours over the years of my twenties have been spent in front of different screens—namely computer and television—and as a result I’ve had to start wearing glasses to combat a bad case of nearsightedness (I’d like to note that throughout my teens I had perfect vision), but a decade worth of desk work/YouTube/writing papers helped blur my ability to read the bottom lines of vision tests.

As a Technical Writer and Editor, I specialize in reading and reviewing enormous amounts of text and documentation, and have found that even with the myriad advances in word processing programs over the last several years—word count, spell check, track changes, etc.—I still prefer to print out whatever I can whenever I can, and read it line by line. When it comes to matters of clarity and thoroughness, nothing can beat seeing the actual printed document in front of you, without the distractions of file windows, email alerts, and music playlists hovering in the background of your work. In our “Going Digital for Your Customers” blog, a valid point was addressed on the importance of sustainability, and just to clarify, I’m not trying to convince you or anyone that every written document must be printed, but merely that there are advantageous reasons for reviewing printed materials, in some, but not all, cases. Protecting our environment and operating efficiently is also just as critical a component of our industry.

There’s nothing wrong with using the “Spelling and Grammar…” function in Microsoft Word—I always run through an initial spell check before printing anything, just to be on the safe side. But, when feasible, I still like to tackle most of my editing and rewriting longhand with paper and pen. Having the printed pages in front of you reduces the document to being a singular physical object disconnected from all the other activity on the computer screen. Reading the words-phrases-sentences in this way, as you would a book, creates a more intimate reading experience. A number of published studies prove that when you read a text printed on paper, your understanding of the content is deeper and more impactful than if you read that same text on your computer.

Downloading and reviewing digital texts, articles, and notes on a computer can be fast and convenient, especially when it involves the workplace and exchanging important (and hefty volumes) of sensitive information. There’s no argument that iPads are not fantastic travel companions for long train rides and cross country flights. Not to mention the environmental benefits and the amount of paper that’s saved by starting a digital library on your tablet device of choice. However, in the world of writing, editing, and publishing, for the sake of comprehension and understanding, paper beats computer screens.

A 2013 Norwegian study of high school students reaffirms that reading texts in print strengthens comprehension: a total of 72 students were split into two groups—both were given texts, one fictional, one nonfictional. One of the groups read PDF files on computer screens while the other group read their texts on paper. After their readings, both groups were tasked with answering a list of questions to test how well they understood the text. Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger, who conducted the study, suggested that the absence of substantial physical material for the computer readers might have contributed to the test results. Mangen claimed that print readers had the advantage of feeling a material that has texture and weight, and can be thumbed through by readers. The ability to touch, feel, and hold provides the brain with a mental map of the text, which can be extremely helpful in understanding a longer text—the ability to lead back and forth to review any portion of the document. Lengthy texts often require faster navigation, and the luxury of not having to wait for a file to load, or for a color wheel to stop spinning as you scroll back and forth or click in the pages menu, can help the reader’s brain connect mental dots to better understand and perceive what he or she is reading. Mangen also concluded that the reading experience is slower when done through a pane of glowing glass: on the screen, whether large or small, often a reader can only see a page or two at a time. The size of a document is experienced only by testing the document’s “scroll” effect, dragging the cursor up and down and waiting for different pages to appear and disappear.

Mangen believes that this study and others prove that human brains do not function like computers and believes that it would be extreme for schools and educators to completely phase out textbooks and written assignments in favor of tablets and laptops. From a learning standpoint, the fact is that there are more available distractions that present themselves when using computers as an educational tool: a new browser tab is always just a simple click away, and the temptation to explore the web may prove to be a huge roadblock in maintaining a student’s concentration. Focusing and learning new subjects at a young age can be difficult enough without the boundless outlet of the World Wide Web waiting at anxious fingertips.

I’m not sure there’s an obvious right answer on this when it comes to the education debate. A major issue with trying to implement an education-wide shift to computers is that not all schools have the money and budget to afford newer, modern computers. There are definitely times when I read strictly on the screen and other times when I prefer to print and read line by line, with a red pen and a short stack of pages on my desk. One overlooked (and perhaps forgotten) positive in the argument for reading and editing using strictly computers: no chance of paper cuts! For some reason Mangen never mentions this in her findings.

By Collin Myers

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