Tag Archives: editing

Do modern writing tools enable us to edit too much?

quill pen and ink on colonial American desk

CC image Williamsburg Quill courtesy of Steve Kennedy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

We have a lot of tools that make our writing lives easier than they ever were before. Instead of relying on writing by hand, we may use computers and voice recorders and digital shortcuts. Instead of worrying about the precious value, high price, and accessibility of paper, we can publish and produce enormous volumes of writing without printing a word. We can archive, edit, and remix text to our heart’s content, at the touch of a finger.

Is this a good thing, though?

Earlier this year, I finished a historical novel about the sister-in-law of Friedrich Schiller, the famous German poet, playwright, and philosopher. He was a Titan in his day and is acknowledged as one of the fathers of German literature. His sister-in-law, Caroline von Wolzogen, was a published writer as well and a recognized literary talent in her time, although she is not as well-known today. The novel is told from her perspective: writing as a woman during a time when that was unusual (the end of the 18th and the early 19th centuries), and what it was like to be overshadowed by an acclaimed literary genius in her own family.

Schiller died relatively young, and he had a prodigious output—nearly a dozen plays, several volumes of history, novels, and numerous philosophical papers. There were no typewriters in his day, no voice-recognition dictation machines, much less computers or even ballpoint pens to make the task of writing easier. He wrote out all of his work by hand. Wolzogen saw his original manuscripts and marveled at how few changes he made to his writing—he was sure of his work whenever he used the pen.

This made me think about the way we edit today, the number of versions we can put any of our manuscripts, essays, poems or articles through, and whether that option is to our benefit or not. Revision the way we can do it now would have been a tedious undertaking for Schiller, under the best of circumstances. The work from concept to publication would take even longer than usual; with a work of any greater length, this might have meant not publishing it at all. Certainly, Schiller would have had trouble sustaining his output if he’d had to revise his plays (by hand) the way we can use the computer to revise today.

The Passive Voice blog hosted an excerpt about this very topic. In the comments, I found one of the most useful and informative approaches to editing that I’ve recently seen. One of the visitors quoted another writer on the ease with which she got work finished, and then also published, depending on the number of revisions inflicted on the draft.

Two revisions were her maximum number, she determined after going over her own experiences. Works that she kept on revising tended to never get done, or they got over-done, or they never made it to the publisher.

I know we like to look at the computer, the typewriter, in fact any tool to aid in the speeding up of the writing process (in terms of words per minute or words per day) as an asset. I do wonder though if we’re allowing the ease of change to run away with our writerly judgement. Schiller and Wolzogen used their brains to work at their writing without always occupying their fingers with writing. The actual writing was a serious investment in time, muscle cramp of the fingers, and expensive items like paper and ink. Can you imagine having to revise everything by hand? What about a clean draft?

We on the other hand can write any old drivel, and it’s not a big deal, because it’s only pixels. We can also change any old drivel at any point, which is also easy, because it’s only pixels… even if we print the pages out, our cost overhead is less than with the paper in Schiller’s day. Revising is easier, though perhaps more brainless. Do we get the better product out of it?