Writers’ Drafts: Who Needs Them?

Like all creativity, writing is a wandering and iterative process, where the creator doesn’t know where it’s going. A writer makes hundreds of creative decisions along the way–sometimes, a hundred in just one day. Which word to use; choosing a comma, period, or semicolon; moving a paragraph a few pages forward, or maybe up at the beginning. Then, the bigger changes. Realizing that your protagonist just isn’t carrying the story forward. Noticing that the words are telling you: Over here! Here’s where the story is. Here’s where you explore, where you need to go.

In the old days (before word processors) writers had to write by hand, edit by hand, type by hand, and then edit the typescript by hand and retype everything. Each full version of the manuscript was called a “draft.” Now that concept is obsolete, says writer Sarah Manguso.* When everything is on your computer as a file, you never have to print it out. You can edit a word here, a paragraph there. Delete an entire “page.” Rewrite the first two pages and leave everything else the same, to be explored a few days later. Here are some excerpts from her wonderful essay:

A novelist friend works on books one draft at a time, and she saves each draft. Another novelist friend works on the computer and keeps just one digital version. They are both successful and prolific.

I used to compose my work on paper, revise on the computer and save the initial drafts. Now that I compose on the computer, there’s only ever one extant version, and no drafts at all….Now that writing can take place digitally, [it] effectively removes the idea of the draft from the work process. There’s no need to finish a draft before you can go back to the first sentence and start revising it again. There are no drafts….After some duration of continuous work, the piece is done.

I think the concept of the draft is an anachronism from the time before laptops and word processing software.

What do you think? How do you write? If you generate drafts, what do they look like (printed? a computer file?) and how do you edit them toward the next draft?

*Sarah Manguso, August 6, “Paper Trail,” New York Times Sunday Book Review, p. 9.

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