mcluhan.jpgI haven’t heard the name Marchall McLuhan (pictured at the left) in quite a while, but author Jan Swafford brings him up in a Slate article where he discusses McLuhan’s concepts of “hot” and “cold” media. Here’s a snippet:

… But I say again: We perceive words on-screen differently than in print. In the process of writing and teaching writing, I engage in regular experiments testing this theory.

Here’s how it works, with me and with most writers I know (because I’ve asked). I’ve used computers for more than 25 years. I draft prose on-screen, work it over until I can’t find much wrong with it, then double-space it and print it out. At that point I discover what’s really there, which is ordinarily hazy, bloated, and boring. It looked pretty good on-screen, but it’s crap. My first drafts on paper, after what amount to several drafts on computer, look like a battlefield. Here, for example, is a photo of the initial first page printout of this article.

Has Jan been reading our contributor Dan Bloom? Sounds like the two would agree.


  1. Wow, this guy is reaching, eh? He seems to rely totally on the ‘hot’ vs ‘cool’ medium categories McLuhan devised. And, this he believes relies on two factors: how ‘high-definition’ it is (as per McLuhan’s own definitions) and whether the screen is ‘constantly redrawing itself’ or ‘flickering so we have to create the illusion of movement.’

    Leaving aside the author’s lamentable failure to understand screen technology of various sorts, both of these are at issue considering the new iPhone’s high density display, and e-ink (which is neither high definition nor flickering nor redrawing itself).

    Does, then, the e-ink screen replace paper, and then is the argument fatally flawed? If e-ink achieves the resolution of paper, and if e-ink doesn’t flicker nor redraw itself, and if e-ink with special pens or styli — or even just with a touch screen overlay — allows for the kind of penciled annotations and corrections writers always used to do with their typed MSS, then it would seem that indeed, ‘ebooks will replace real books.’

    I wonder, as usual, what Mr Swafford’s intellectual ancestor was saying about how ‘Printed books will never replace real manuscripts.’

    — asotir

  2. Swafford has made an unfounded leap between “writing” and “reading”.

    Most authors know, or should know, that you can’t really judge your work on a screen. For Swafford’s purposes of “writing and teaching writing”, I agree with him. The author needs to print the work onto paper, and to read it, preferably out loud (per Anne Mini), from that paper, in order to properly review the piece.

    But that’s for manuscripts in progress, not for the final product. One’s readers aren’t looking for errors and clunky writing (one certainly hopes!). They can read from whatever medium they find comfortable.

    Just because writers will continue to print works-in-progress on paper doesn’t say anything about the longevity of printed books.

  3. I started writing 29 years ago in the days before the PC. I wrote my first three novels by hand then typed them with an IBM Selectric.

    A few years later, I bought an Apple IIc and wrote my fourth novel on screen. My rewriting was half and half between paper and the screen.

    By the next novel, I did almost all my writing and rewriting on screen and only printed out in the final stages of rewriting because it was easier to spot the difference between a period and comma on paper.

    When spellcheckers improved enough to spot comma/period errors, I only printed a novel out to send it to an editor. I would proof the copy but rarely found anything that needed changing.

    I have sold a number of novels, and they have won awards. I have edited a vast number of others’ works in digital format with no need to print it out.

    If my experience is any indicator, a writer doesn’t need to work on paper to improve their work unless it is a comfort zone issue for them.

  4. Why you are totally wrong…

    Because “NEVER” is a long long time. We might be dead and gone 300 years or more… but eventually paper books, heck paper itself will be relics of the past as are magnetic tapes and celluloid films these days.


  5. I agree that this piece makes an odd leap from writing to reading. Still, I know several experienced writers who work for daily newspapers or periodicals, and they do not follow the write digital/review analog model suggested. Their work is entirely digital. Besides, who really believes that “words on the screen” (or in print) is the best presentation of information? I believe the printed word was the best solution humanity had for centuries, but that will fundamentally change. The only reason we see electronic editions that mirror the print is due to tradition, especially the legal framework that has supported book publishing. That construct has already begun to change. As we move forward, dynamic, interactive, and multi-media content will displace narratives; those are elements a printed book cannot deliver. The majority of content produced will be better served by a completely different type of production, and printed books will survive as a means to archive and tell stories.

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