Thursday, April 19, 2012

Revision: How Did Dickens Do It?

I've heard it said that good writing is really revising, and in my case that's definitely true. My day job dictates that I'm able to write well on the fly but my fiction, especially, isn't the best it can be until it's been through dozens of revisions. I'm always polishing, but then I also spend a lot of time cutting, re-arranging and rewriting scenes.

With my "WIP from Hell," for example, I'm experimenting with taking whole chunks of scenes and transplanting them to other places. I owe huge thanks to the word processing gods for the ability to cut, paste, undo and save multiple versions of the same document.

But every now and then I realize what a big luxury those tools are.

The other day I heard a radio piece that talked about how Charles Dickens wrote all of his books longhand. The story left me with the impression that Dickens churned out his masterpieces virtually in single drafts. I was relieved, after a bit of research, to find that he probably did as much revising as any author. An original manuscript of Great Expectations proves it. (Image attribution: the photo up above comes from this article.)

But still. Can you imagine having to make all of your revisions in ink, then copy them again in a new manuscript, then rinse, lather, repeat until you were finally happy with your work? What about the not-so-old days when writers wrote on typewriters? I have a vague memory of my mom using some kind of inky paper that let her create a second version of whatever she was typing, but it was a far cry from my ability to just hit "save as" and try something totally new, then go back to my original if I don't like how my experiment turned out.

I wonder if writers wrote better back when they knew they had fewer chances to get it just right - or, at least, that making tons of revisions would be such a huge pain in the butt. Maybe I'm spoiled and lazy because I use cut and paste so wantonly. If so, then I guess I'm unashamed. I'm just grateful I'm living in the future and I have that luxury.

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