Revising Leah

September 7, 2008

How Do You Write?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 9:28 am
Tags: , , ,

I like to think of myself as a member of the last generation to use typewriters. To be sure, when I was growing up (when I was Leah’s age and younger), personal computers existed, as did word processing programs, but computers weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today, when it seems like everyone except luddites and the very, very poor has one. In fact, even when I was in college, I used an electronic typewriter, not a computer, to create the final drafts of my papers. The first time I used a word processor for a school assignment was when I needed to write a 12-page paper during my last semester as an undergraduate.

When I was a teenager, I did all of my writing by hand in spiral notebooks. From the time I was in seventh grade until I graduated from high school, I produced about ten novels and novellas, dozens of short stories, and at least a couple hundred poems — and I wrote all of this out by hand. Writing was very much a linear process for me. Before I could undertake a big project like a novel, I had to know exactly how I wanted the story to begin, and I had to have a detailed outline of the story. I rarely suffered writer’s block because when I came upon a point in the story where I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed, I just pushed my way through it without worrying whether what I wrote was good or not. And the last thing that I wrote was always the last page of the novel.

Today, though, I can’t imagine working that way again. Writing a novel-length manuscript by hand just doesn’t seem natural to me anymore. Maybe I just lack the patience to work that way. Maybe I’ve just embraced the non-linear form of writing that word processors allow. I think that word processors (and the Internet, generally) have changed the way we think about language and storytelling. It certainly has in my case.

Because for me, the most important difference between working on a word processor and working by hand or on a typewriter is that the word processor frees me from the restrictions of linear writing. If I want, I can start with the last paragraph of a story and work backwards. I can skip around, writing chapters or passages out of order. I can rearrange passages in seconds, and if I don’t like the new arrangement, I can put everything back the way it was. I can insert a sentence into a paragraph that I’ve already written. I can add a few more lines of dialogue to a conversation between characters that I drafted a week ago. In other words, I can do things electronically that I could never do when all I had was a notebook and a pen. As far as I’m concerned, this a much better way to write because it places at my disposal so many new tools and tactics. I do all of my writing on the word processor now. Sometimes I’ll try to write something lengthy by hand, but I just can’t do it. It feels too slow and too confining. (By the way, even the posts in this blog take advantage of this non-linear writing style. This blog post, when it’s finished, will hopefully have a sense of cohesion and flow to it, but these paragraphs that you see have all been written out of order. In fact, this paragraph was written after the next paragraph you are about to read.)

I think the reason why the 1996 version of Leah turned out so badly was that even though I used a word processor to produce the draft that I sent to the publisher, I didn’t take full advantage of the technology available to me. All I did, really, was transcribe the longhand first draft of Leah onto the computer, making a few changes as I worked, and then I spent a very short time doing some additional revising. In other words, the 1996 edition of the novel isn’t too different from the first draft that I wrote a year or two earlier because I was still locked into a linear mindset when it came to composing a piece of writing.

If it weren’t for word processors, I don’t think I would have published The Spring last year, I don’t think that I would be able to revise Leah, and I don’t think I would be doing any creative writing at all anymore. It amazes me how authors of the past could have produced well-written, novel-length works without the technology available to us today. When they revised a chapter, did they just rewrite (or re-type) the entire text of that chapter over and over again? That sounds to me like an extraordinary waste of time since not everything in a chapter necessarily needs to be revised. I don’t think I’d have the patience to do that if that were the only option available to me. Considering the amount of mistakes that I make in my writing, and how much revising I need to do, it would probably take me years to complete this project instead of months. I doubt that I would even bother to try.

So how about you? Do you still do some of your writing by hand, in a linear style, or does all of your writing take advantage of word processors? Can you imagine writing any differently than how you write now?


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