Seeing things on the page is essential and important

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

My god, I hate printers so much. True story: The other day, I was printing something and got an error message saying there was a paper jam. I was in a hurry, so I grabbed my printer, pulling it out from the wall just enough that I could stick my hand behind it, and with one hand, yanked at the paper that was jutting out from its gears. The paper came out—that is, the part that was actually sticking out came off in my hand, but the rest of the paper remained tightly wound in the teeth of the machine. I no longer had anything I could grasp in order to pull the paper out. I stared at the machine for a while, absolutely stumped as to my next move. With a software sort of issue, there’s at least the often-reliable unplug-it-and-wait technique. This was much more basic and purely mechanical, and there was absolutely nothing I could do.

In my case, the printer was a fairly expensive one, so I wasn’t happy with the quick-and-very-dirty option of throwing it away and replacing it. Plus, the idea that I would trash a $600 printer BECAUSE A PIECE OF PAPER WAS STUCK IN IT made me insane. So I set out to find a printer repair shop, and after many phone calls and fruitless Google searches, I found someone who actually listed “printer repair” among his services. Hallelujah! I still had no idea whether the repair would be greater than the value of the machine, but I felt duty-bound to at least try.

And then, for a brief moment, I wondered if I even needed a printer. I wrote and did much of my editing on the computer, after all. But—and this is what this story is all about—I print my stories out all the time as I’m drafting them. Why? Because there is a huge difference in reading a story on a screen versus on the page. I catch many more awkward constructions and repeated words and even typos on the printed page versus on a screen. I used to think it was because you can see more than one page at a time in a hard copy, but I think there’s something else going on which I don’t have the neurobiology background to explain. You simply read differently on a page than on a screen. I don’t think I’ve ever published a story that I hadn’t printed out several times, at different stages, and read with a red pencil in hand so I could mark it up. Since self-editing is the key to improving your work, I’ll do anything that prompts me to revise. Yes, I read and edit on the screen all the time. I read my work out loud. But at regular intervals I print out and read my piece and I always find plenty to change. It’s an indispensable step, in my opinion.

So as annoying as these antiquated machines seem to be, they remain essential. With that in mind, I hoisted my big, awkward HP into the car and drove across town to the printer repair guy (perhaps one of a dying breed, like a cobbler or a blacksmith) and held my breath while he poked and prodded the machine’s gizzards. He pronounced it fixable, and told me to come back in a day. The price was not nothing, but at $125 it was a lot cheaper than replacing (and a lot more environmentally defensible). The lessons I learned were, first of all, never pull a piece of jammed paper out of the back of the printer with one hand, and two, as exasperating as they may be, printers are essential, and probably always will be.