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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Processing Words

I write on the computer, mostly. Before that, I wrote directly on typewriters. In those days, before about 1985, we would literally cut and paste text, using scissors and glue. Now we can move large or small amounts of words around very quickly. Revision is so easy, on this mechanical level (changing the words in a text and producing a clean copy), that writing should be getting better and better. There is no excuse for not writing much better using word-processor, which allows for much quicker revisions.

Yet writing does not improve. The mechanical ease of revision does little to help the writer who doesn't know how to write in the first place.


Turner and Thomas de-emphasize revision. Their reason, as I interpret it, is to avoid the fallacy that perfect style arises from tinkering with inadequate sentences until they are good enough. Why not write good prose in the first place? Then revision would be editing, tweaking, fine-tuning.

In my case, the answer to this question is "because I am lazy": I somehow think I have to take notes in a very bad style and then laboriously convert them into finished prose. After all, revision is so easy on the word-processor that there seems little point in putting half-way decent sentences down on the screen during the initial stages of a project. This is laziness that creates more work, because I am always having to slog through messy documents.


brownstudy said...

The book "Thinking on Paper" suggests a writing process for students that begins with them "wool-gathering" on the topic by writing complete sentences, without trying to "write" (that is, create orderly thoughts or arguments). The authors then suggest printing out that file, marking it up to tag the thoughts with concepts, and then retyping the whole thing, grouping thoughts as one goes and adding new thoughts as they occur.

Rinse and repeat, with retyping the whole thing from the top as a key step. (My summary is very oversimplified.)

I have a novelist friend who chooses to start a new file and retype his drafts from the beginning, rather than revise the previous draft within the same file. His philosophy is that one needs to write the story as a reader reads it, one word at a time. I've done this with some of my old short stories and was astonished at how quickly I found extraneous details and slow pacing.

Jonathan said...

Yes, good suggestions. The fallacy that you have to stay with your draft revising it when sometimes you have to just start over writing better from scratch. That's why I don't care for books on writing that tell you how to revise your writing.

Thomas said...

I think there is a profound need for reflection about the first part of this post. We have much better technologies for writing but not an especially improved product. Perhaps even a worse one. Is this because you no longer have to be especially disciplined or serious about writing in order to become a writer?