Why do we still print documents?

Recently I was presenting to a very senior banker. Efficiency, collaboration, unstructured work optimization and so on. He asked me a simple question… “Doctor, I agree with whatever you are showing. But I personally still ask my secretary to print the documents and I read them the traditional way. Many other colleagues also do the same thing. Are we doing something wrong?”

A very pertinent and genuine question which many people may have in their minds. In this article I address this question and provide a practical approach.

The short answer is this: People still print and read documents because nobody has shown them how to read documents effectively on screen. Having this knowledge will not eliminate printing. But at least you have two options to choose from – based upon your own discretion and the context.

why do we still print documents

Why do we need to print?

Let us leave aside the statutory and legal requirements.

One simple reason. Comfort. Many people have been taking decisions, reading complex and important documents on paper for decades. Word processing has simplified the creation of documents. But those who are primarily readers have simply not understood that the same tool also helps in reading better and faster.

In addition, the physical paper and the manually written comments still sound much more authentic and legally safer than all the sophisticated comments, tags, follows, likes, discussions, tracked changes and all the stylish collaboration / social features.

Let us define what is really important

The more senior you are the less time you have. The value of your time increases with seniority and responsibility. You have to read and imbibe long, complex and high risk- high stake documents and finally approve it (or reject it). The onus is on you. The signature is yours. The responsibility is yours.

Therefore, it is imperative that the available time is spent in the most effective way.

Pros and Cons of reading printed documents?

Convenience is the most important benefit. No technology is required.
Just lights (and spectacles)!

It is easy to go back and forth. But becomes cumbersome when the document becomes bigger and longer.

It is easy to add collaterals from various sources – documents, with engineering drawings with floor plans and photographs – for example.

Comments, changes are clearly visible. Handwriting can tell you who wrote it. In fact some people can even decipher the mood of the person from the handwriting!

There is a visible audit trail of all changes and corrections. But there is no date and time stamp.

Searching for a particular phrase or word is almost impossible in a long document. It practically means reading the whole thing – which you will probably delegate to someone and ask them to highlight the words of interest.

Manual highlighting is easy. But in a large document you don’t know where is the next highlight. Manual searching is required.

Lot of human resources are wasted in writing on the paper, someone transcribing it on the Word document and merging changes from multiple reviewers. This can also be an error prone process in complex documents.

How to read a document effectively on-screen?

Of course the process is different for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Acrobat and so on. But let us focus on Word for now.

Styles must be used

First of all, while creating the document, if styles (heading 1, heading 2, etc.) have not been used, then the whole thing falls flat. Nothing works properly. Navigation is difficult. It is just too cumbersome. So please, please – use Styles for all documents you make.
Read this article for details Be stylish – Use Word Styles

Navigation using Document Map / Navigation Pane

Once styles are used, navigation becomes easy. Choose View – Navigation Pane (called Document Map in older versions). Now a separate window opens on the side – which shows the entire topic list. From here you can:

  1. Click on the topic to go to that place instantly. No need to scroll or search.
  2. Rearrange the document with a simple drag drop
  3. Know the location of search word across the document at a glance
  4. For complex documents, right click inside the Navigation pane and choose Show Level 1
    This way, you can see the top level topics only. You can then drill down as required.
  5. Convert the document to a PowerPoint presentation using just one click.

Using highlights efficiently

Read this article for details – How to read a document containing highlights?

In short, highlighting can be done easily by double clicking on the highlight button.

When you read the document second time onwards, you just want to go to the highlighted portions. This is easily done using the Find feature to move from one highlight to the next highlight.

If you find (and select) all highlighted areas, you can copy those to a new document – which essentially becomes a quick summary of the document.

Find is extremely powerful

Find in Office 2010 onwards has improved dramatically. If you find a word, it does not just find the first instance. It shows all instances and the sentences in the search results so that you can identify the exact area you were looking for without using Find Next repeatedly.

It also provides a visual indication of which topics / sub-topics do the found words fall in. This way, you can get a quick distribution of the search word across the document. I will write a separate article on this.

Here is a quick look at how Find helps you find things faster…

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Comments and Track Changes

These are well known features and do not need further explanation. These make auditing changes very easy and effective.

Using Touch Devices for easier reading and reviewing

Word has an enhanced reading mode which works beautifully on Windows tablets. Like a book reader you can zoom in and out. Changing the background color to black allows you to read a document without disturbing the passenger on the next seat. It also reduces eye strain.

Did you know that you can directly write on top of a document using a stylus? No need to write on paper or type or dictate changes to your assistant. Comments can also be written instead of typing.


Simultaneous editing

If you store the document on SharePoint (OneDrive for Business), multiple persons can review and edit the same document. This is probably the most important feature which has been available since around 4 years now – but many people still don’t know about it.

There are many more benefits of storing documents on SharePoint. But let us not digress for now.

Reading only comments or changes

This is easily done using the Review tab – Next / Previous buttons. It is also possible to filter on a particular person’s comments – which is useful. Ideally you start with the comments by the most senior person and then move on to others.

Quickly skimming through tables and / or graphics (or charts)

Often documents contain lot of tables. Tabular data is easier to grasp and imbibe. The explanatory text can be skipped if the tabular data is looking alright. Using Find, you can ask Word to jump to only tables and then move from next to previous table quickly.


For now, these many benefits are compelling enough to at least attempt and read your next document on screen.


If you are a very senior person, just ask everyone around you to submit documents which use styles. Direct them to the blog I have shown above, in case they don’t know what styles are. Once you start documents with styles, you can start using on screen reading as an alternative.

Which method to use when?

Once you know the benefits of on-screen reading – and you are confident of using it without any external assistance, you will answer this question yourself.

You are the best judge. The only thing I can say is that if you read on screen and avoid printing, apart from increasing your efficiency, you are also contributing to a making the planet greener.

Enjoy. Let me know your feedback and experiences with this approach.


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