A confession (and, simultaneously, an undignified boast): I was always that kid in school who did a perfect or near-perfect first and only draft of a writing assignment. After years of voracious reading, I knew how sentences should be constructed because I had seen so many of them, and I was a good speller. From handwritten work through my typewriter years, I did one neat, well-crafted version and handed it in.
I despised the occasional assignment which required a messy, marked-up first draft and then the revised, neat, finished paper. I would always write what I needed to and then reverse engineer a rough draft to satisfy my teacher’s pedanticism. Such, then, was the state of my abilities (and my ego).
After getting a word processor, though, and discovering the endless joys of painlessly changing a word to improve a sentence, and of moving entire paragraphs around, I have become an inveterate revisionist reviser editor of my own work.
And that is how the best work is produced. The writer must go back through his story and make certain that every word, every concept is as it should be. Sometimes this will be a simple process; other times, it will mean rewriting the story essentially from scratch.
I have written before about the revisions to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The first draft of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to the Congress requesting a declaration of war against Japan (ah, the constitutional niceties observed in that more innocent era of global warfare and genocide) contained the phrase, “December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history.” The last two words were crossed out and above them Roosevelt wrote “infamy.” Thus it is that we remember the phrase.
Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, rewrote, by hand, fresh copies of War and Peace seven times as he revised his tome. She was his easy-to-use word processor, and she either loved the man or he had a gun to her head.
A facsimile version of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has just been published. One can see all the changes Dickens made to his story – written and revised in longhand. Just off to the right side of the story, click to see more pages from the manuscript. As the caption to the second photo suggests, it must have been unpleasant to be the person setting the type, but that was simply par for the course in the days before the typewriter, let alone before the ink-jet or laser printer.
It can be useful to study the revisions of great writers. We can see that they, too, were afflicted with the chore of trying to get the words just right, and we can see something of their thought process as they worked on that. Roy Peter Clark shares a few more writers’ revisions and notes that unless a writer is working with the track changes function of the word processing software turned on, we don’t see these revisions anymore.
I can’t think many authors do track their revisions; a file begins to look like the modern-day version of Dickens’ handwritten manuscript and just as difficult to read. So we are, perhaps, losing something of value even as we have gained much from the personal computer.