Retyping/State of the Manuscript

October 16, 2010

Today I finished what I hope is the final (eleventh) draft of a chapter for my book-in-progress.  I’ve been working on it, in one way or another, since August.  I thought I was finished some time ago.  But, no.  There was much more work to do.  I learned what I needed to do.  But doing it took a lot of time and effort.

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on this draft.  I’ve always told students that we have to print out our work, and work on hard copy, in each successive draft, if we want to do our  best work.  Otherwise, writing is more like typing.  And it’s hard to figure out what we need to do while we’re staring at a screen.  That might be fine for generating work (for the earliest stages of our work, though I know many like to handwrite at this stage).  But it doesn’t work, I don’t think, during the final stages, while we’re deepening the work, ordering it, fine tuning it.

There’s a little book by Eviatar Zerubavel, The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books that I’ve found enormously useful.  Zerubavel recommends that we retype each draft of our works-in-progress rather than enter our changes into the draft on our computer.

You know how that goes.  You have a draft of your work on your desk.  You’ve made written changes on the hard copy.  You go into the document in your computer.  You search for the sentence where you’ve made handwritten changes.   You type the handwritten changes in.  You look at the next change.  You search for the sentence.  You plug in that change.

That’s not writing.  That’s word processing.  And if there’s anything I’ve learned about computers, it’s that if you sit at a screen too long, you get stupid and you can’t figure out what you’re doing.  There’s nothing that disconnects me from my work than entering changes this way.

Retyping a new draft every time we make changes seems like an enormous amount of work.  It is, especially for those of us who aren’t fast typists.  But Zerubavel claims – and I agree with him – that it’s the best way to work.

I’ll tell you what happened as I worked this week.  I had my draft-in-progress in hard copy on my desk.  I read it slowly, entered changes into it day by day.  I reread each paragraph with the changes.  I thought I was finished.  Thought that this was the final version of this paragraph.  Soon, I’d be finished and I’d retype the whole draft.

I used Zerubavel’s method and took that draft and retyped it instead of plugging in the changes.  And, as I typed, I found I was revising still more.  I “felt” what had to be done; I was working, now, very intuitively; I knew what the work needed to sound like; I knew that many of the sentences, though they provided necessary material, weren’t in the right voice – they were too elevated, too wordy, not how my father might phrase something or think about something.   I was “going over the whole manuscript with a wet brush,” as Virginia Woolf somewhere described it.

The draft is 28 pages long, 8234 words long.  Retyping (revising while retyping) took me six days.  I worked on about five pages a day (any more, and my hands can’t take it) during my two-hour work sessions.  The earlier draft was 36 pages and 9620 words long.  I sweated down the language.  But I didn’t delete anything important, only redundancies.

Before I worked, I’d figured out the order of my “chunks” – there were twelve in all (each kernel of meaning took a little over two pages).  But as I retyped, I learned that I needed to adjust that order.  Retyping from beginning to end forced me to slow down, to re-experience my work from beginning to end; forced me to think about links between chunks; forced me to think where a chunk should end and another should begin.

If I’d only entered my changes in the “find a change/search in the document on the computer about where to enter it/enter the change in the computer/find the next change” method, I never would have achieved what I hope this chapter has – an integrity of meaning and of voice.  Of course, there may be some more work.  But, to me, it’s finished for now.

A word or two about printing out our work.

I once knew a writer who only printed her work once a year.  Once a year!  It took her ten years to finish a very small book.  I tried to convince her that working this way got in her way.  She refused to listen.  And she wasn’t thinking about trees.  She was the kind of writer who gets lost in her head, gets lost in her thinking about the work, rather than looking at her work on the page and seeing what needs to be done.  Working like she works gets us nowhere.  We have to see our work as words on a printed page to understand what we’re doing.

Some of my students tell me they think printing out our work is a waste of paper.  But it’s paper that can be recycled.   If we were violinists, we’d be investing in very expensive instruments to practice our art.  We’re writers, and we need to invest in the tools of the trade.  A computer.  A printer.  Paper.  These are expensive, certainly.  But, for a writer, necessary and worth saving for.

I print out my work every day.  Every single day.  And I’ll tell you why.

When I was working with an editor who gave me a very nice advance, about halfway through my writing the book, she asked me whether, if anything happened to me, she could come into my study, go to my desk, and find my manuscript-in-progress immediately.  She told me that she wanted to be able to construct my book from what was there if she had to.

At the end of every work day, the current “state of the manuscript” should be printed and put in a basket on my desk with explicit instructions about what I intended to do next, and what else I had to do to complete the book.

I was horrified.  My manuscript was mine, not hers.  If something happened to me, so be it.  But she didn’t think about it that way.  She had invested in me; I owed her a manuscript.  She taught me to take myself seriously as a writer; to organize my work; to keep a “state of the art” manuscript on my desk or easily accessible.

More than a year ago, the partner of a good friend of mine died.  He was – is — a very famous writer.  (His work lives on.)  He left a manuscript-in-progress that he’d been working on for years.  His partner knew where the manuscript-in-progress was, and how he worked, and with help from one of his former students, and from an editor he worked with, the manuscript was completed, and will be published posthumously.  It won’t be the book he would have written.  But it will be his final book.

So, on my desk right now is the current state-of-my-manuscript.  There’s a tally sheet listing the pieces I’ve finished, the name of the document of each of these pieces so someone could find it in my computer.  There’s a note that says how many more chapters I intend.  A note stating where the earlier drafts of these chapters are located, and the condition they’re in.

I hope nothing will happen to me.  Now.  But I intend to write for the rest of my life, and one day there will be a manuscript on my desk that I haven’t yet completed when I die.  I intend that someone will be able to come into my study and figure out what might need to be done to get that last book in print, or, at least, a few of the pieces of that book in print.

We owe this kind of care to our writing selves.



3 Responses to “Retyping/State of the Manuscript”

  1. Margaux Fragoso Says:

    No matter how terrible a typist you are, this method really, really works! You sink back into the grooves of the book this way–it seems like more work in the moment, but it saves a lot of extra work later. In a work of fiction especially, it’s crucial, as you don’t know the characters when you start and sometimes they can seem like different people than who you started out with as the book progresses. Also, you can insert little hints that something will happen later and then when it does occur in the narrative, it seems a lot more organic to the reader.

  2. ajuele Says:

    Firstly, on retyping my work. I found myself a few weeks ago, stuck in an airport in Maine for the better part of seven hours due to weather delays. I had a rough draft of a three page memoir with me, so I decided I would work on it a bit. I edited my handwritten draft, found a computer, typed out the draft with the edits and printed it. I could have easily e-mailed myself the document to open later and add changes, but I decided to retype it for each edit. I did it three times. Each time, I thought I was finished, but when I would go back and retype, something else would “click”. Working with the piece as a whole instead of just looking for what needed to be changed let me see the entire picture, and I was even able to see that writing the piece chronologically didn’t have the same effect than if I went back and forth through time with the narrative. By the end of the day, I was pleased with both the substance and the flow of the piece, and it would have never happened if I didn’t retype each time. I’m a heavy editor of my work already, but always with a beat-up typed copy with thousands of scribbled notes on it. Now, I’m newly converted to retyping each draft.

    Secondly, on the state-of-the-manuscript. I’m not currently writing anything as immense as a manuscript, but I do keep a myself fairly organized when it comes to my writing. Every piece is dated, noted as to what larger work it is part of, and nearly everything that I have handwritten is typed and saved, and then backed up, even though the handwritten pieces never get thrown out. I’ve been doing it for years. Until now, I’ve thought of it as both a way of keeping organized, and the best way to go back and write a larger body of work, but for myself. I never thought of keeping track for the sake of the writing, so that it could continue even if something were to happen to me. One never wants to think in those terms, but I found great comfort in knowing that in my office I have those dated binders and journals, kept meticulously Humbert Humbert-esque, with flash drives and notes to guide the way for someone else, so that even without me, my work can live on.

    • writingalife Says:

      I love the image of you as a writer making good use of “down” time in an airport instead of staring at those screens that they seem to put everywhere. And the binders…I can see them too. Whatever you’re working on is a manuscript — long, short, in between. The writer Ben Marcus uses the term “Small Writings” for shorter pieces. I love that. Small Writings are, after all, writings.

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