From “Revising your writing yet again? Blame the Modernists" in the June 30 Boston Globe:
In the last 30 years, however, technology has shifted again, and our ideas about writing and revising are changing along with it. Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.
“The ideal environment for revision is one where you can preserve several different versions of a text,” Sullivan says. With only one in-progress draft on a computer, we lose the cues that led the Modernists to step back from their work and to revise it. “It’s that moment of typing things up that led to the really surprising and inventive changes,” Sullivan says. “The authors came back to their text, but it seemed estranged.”
I’m very much looking forward to Hannah Sullivan’s The Work of Revision, just out from my own publisher-to-be, Harvard University Press. The book puts the typewriter at the center of literary modernism, arguing that the revisionary writing practices the machine encouraged helped define modernism as a movement.
I find myself hesitating, though, over her remarks about word processing in the Boston Globe. In particular, the notion that computers prohibit storing different versions of a text plays to a fallacy that discounts the increasingly commonplace use of in-document revision tracking (my own eponymous “track changes”), as well as more sophisticated forms of version control. Likewise, next generation tools like Scrivener are now gaining enough uptake in the mainstream that they are eroding the monolithic nature of the single-screen document.
Generalizations about computers as writing technologies are so hard because ultimately computers are machines for mimicking other machines, be they the typewriter or crayons and sticky notes or anything else. Max Barry’s practice of checking his work in and out of a version control system, while not typical by any means, nonetheless illustrates the way in which decisions about how to adapts and adopt digital writing tools refuse to be technologically determined.