A few days ago Matt posted a chart of copyediting marks that we’re encountering while we review the copyedited version of REWORK.

Originally I had the same reaction as many others: “Wow, so old school. Isn’t there software for that? What about Word/Pages track changes functionality?”

But as I’ve been going over the marked up version of the paper manuscript, I’ve really come to appreciate the handwritten red pen edits. I find them more informative and ultimately more readable than the made-by-machine track changes edits.

For example, here’s a scan of one of the marked up pages of REWORK:

I like that the original text isn’t obscured or changed inline. It’s marked up. The edits are, for the most part, overlaid on top of the original text. Any changes are distinctly different than the original text. This isn’t the case with traditional machine-made track changes edits. Those changes look the same as the original. They’re on the same layer. I find that distracting.

For example, to suggest a capitalized “A”, you’d triple-underline the letter by hand. But on a computer you’d actually replace the lowercase “a” with an uppercase “A”, but the remnant “a” would remain. Over the course of many sentences and many changes, the machine-made track changes edits blend in too much with the original text. It becomes hard to quickly spot changes. And it becomes hard to actually read the original to the changes.

I find the top example (by hand) clearer and easier to read than the second example (by machine).

Lesson learned: Don’t be so quick to dismiss the old in favor of the new just because the new seems like it should be better. There’s a lot of subtlety that can be communicated in a pen stroke that can’t be fit into a rigid digital rule.