The Never-Ending, One and Only Draft

Came across a moderately interesting review —Track Changes — of the book of the same name, on how the change from typewriters to computers has changed the way novelists write. Some writers still use typewriters, and a few write by hand. And of course, there’s mention of early criticisms that word processing would, in some way, degrade literature. I imagine that one topic is covered pretty thoroughly in the book.

What really stood out for me was just one line: “Philip Roth and Zadie Smith have both said the computer has done away with drafts: they edit as they go, saving over earlier versions.” That, quite frankly, was awesome, because I do exactly the same thing and have been working that way for a long time.

In discussions about novel development (or development of any book, but mostly usually novels) drafts are always a hot topic. How many drafts are optimum? How many drafts should I write? How many drafts do you go through? I never get into those discussions. What am I going to say, “I write only one draft?” Horrors! That has to mean I don’t care about grammar, construction, story development, or any other aspect of writing.

If I say that I just keep writing over the first draft, more horror. What if I cut out something I later realize I want to keep, and it’s gone? There are two ways to deal with that possibility. 1. If I’m really in doubt about cutting out some material and then regretting that it’s gone, I stick it in a text file called “Fragments.” Scrivener makes it very easy to do that. Or, what I’ve switched to doing instead, I can add it to “Fragments” in the floating Notes feature. The advantage of using Notes is that I can keep it onscreen, rather than having to jump between the “Fragments” text file and the chapter text file. There was a time when I just stuck the deleted text at the bottom of the chapter, but that messes up my word count if I’m keeping track of it.

2. The other way to make sure my golden words aren’t lost forever is to take a snapshot of the chapter as it is at that moment. Snapshots are another clever feature of Scrivener, but the truth is that I’ve used it only once, just out of curiosity. Snapshots are, though most people probably don’t think of them that way, another way to back up your material. Since I save to Dropbox, and have an external drive just for backups, plus thumb drives, when I remember to use them, that would be a bit of a redundancy on top of redundancies.

When it comes right down to it, though, over time I’ve developed the attitude that there are multiple ways to write a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. In a sense, writing a novel in a word processor is like playing with Silly Putty. Your ideas are plastic, always changing, always capable of being reshaped. To make the best use of the power of writing digitally, your mind also has to be plastic, willing to let the past evolve into the new.

If nothing else, you don’t have to deal with the clutter of all those old drafts that you’re probably never going to look at again.

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6 thoughts on “The Never-Ending, One and Only Draft

  1. I do the same thing, except that I’m a fanatic about taking snapshots (and Scrivener can be set up to take them automatically), as backups. If I take the trouble to add a label, it helps even more (‘before changing main character’s name’ would be useful).

    After I’ve been through a scene, polishing and revising, I usually delete all but the last couple of snapshots. And take a final one.

    But more than once the backup snapshot has saved me after I did something stupid.

    My scenes can be 2000 words; I can’t afford to lose chunks of them – I’d never know what I’d lost.

    The ability to compare two snapshots is priceless. Select two of them in the Inspector pane, and click Compare, and you will see exactly what you changed. Again, this feature has saved my bacon over and over.

    Scrivener is awesome – it does all this practically without blinking. FAST.

    1. I love Scrivener, even if I use only a fraction of its features. I may have a reason to use Snapshots someday, but since I’m usually building out a novel rather than dumping stuff, there isn’t much to lose. (Until it happens, and that will teach me.)

      1. If you save, it automatically takes a snapshot of anything that’s changed since the last save. A simple CMD-S makes sure I don’t lose anything.

        I just go delete the previous snapshots if I care about the storage space sometime.

        I save periodically, and do a backup periodically to my external HD, and Dropbox has the files, so I’m safely backed up most of the time.

        It would be even better if the external drive did not have a faint but audible whine; then I could leave it spun up all the time. I can’t take even that much noise.

        1. My external drive is an old one that my son gave me. If I leave it on, it overheats. It’s also failed to work properly a couple of times, so it’s due for replacement. I only use it at the end of the day. For backups during the day, I have Scrivener’s external backup set to go to Dropbox.

  2. I never do anything other than write over the first draft, exactly as you do. I also save anything I have grave doubts about losing at the end of the doc in a Fragments section. Having said that, however, I do actually have a couple of separate drafts of the Brisbane novel, but that’s because (I think) it’s the longest work I’ve ever done (108K).

    1. You have me beat. I think the longest novel I’ve written is about 95k. When it gets that long, it’s probably a good idea to have some back versions since there’s more opportunity for really screwing up.

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