Dispatches | May 05, 2011


Photo by Pavel Tcholakov

A recent post on GalleyCat caught my eye: “Should You Keep an Error Log?” The issue is raised in regards primarily to nonfiction writers who might be able to protect themselves legally if they keep a consistent record of changes that they’ve made to their memoirs or their reporting, etc. Obviously, there are particular professional concerns in that context, but the idea of tracking changes more generally is an interesting one. Working with academic writing students, I’ve found using Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature very handy — it’s great for editorial feedback, especially when you’re working with discrete draft submissions. Having a touch of the old “archive fever” (so to speak), I’m very interested in trying to keep track of my own previous drafts of things. I like the kind of time travel that affords. But I haven’t been able to make the “track changes” feature very useful in my own creative work.

Part of the problem is that I don’t really work in drafts — as I suspect fairly few of us do in a post-manuscript, post-typewriter age. I’m constantly tweaking and reordering, cutting, pasting, and replacing. For a while I made a deliberate choice to write out first drafts of things longhand on disposable notepads (an attempt to break down the fetishization of the notebook or blank book), which did give me some insight in to the merits of a strict first-draft, second-draft, third-draft compositional method, which amount to a kind of discipline. But these days, while I still do some longhand drafting, I’m more likely to be facing the blank screen. And so I find myself rewriting the same sentence four times before moving on to the next one, and rewriting it again after several paragraphs have been added, and then moving it to a completely new location at some point after that. If I try to look at the tracked changes of such a process, I basically see five stories’ worth of red ink in a mostly incomprehensible mess.

I’ve investigated Google Docs as a word processing platform, and although most of its features are too lackluster to convert me from Word (for serious writing projects — it’s great for collaborative notetaking and such), I do like its Wikipedia-style, “see how this document looked at any point on the drafting timeline” version history. My compromise solution, though I haven’t found it very satisfactory — is to simply save a new, date-stamped version of any piece I’m working whenever some significant period of time has lapsed. It’s rather arbitrary and incomplete, but it gives me some record of the text’s evolution without creating bloated files or comically overblown metadata.

But I’m curious if anyone does use Word’s “track changes” or Google’s “version history” or other such automated archival/versioning tools. Do we still write in discrete drafts? Should we be, or should we be encouraging our students to do so (at least as an experiment)? Do you keep a morgue of your old drafts or do you cremate the old corpses? It is valuable to keep the compositional past around and accessible, or is there risk in hanging on to dead weight?


Cory Doctorow, one of the pioneers of digital Creative Commons publishing, was partly behind the creation of a Linux application called flashbake (which unfortunately isn’t very user friendly, unless you’re a user who’s happy working via the command line) which also controls and tracks file versions. But in addition to recording the changes in your file (such as changing words in text file), it can also record what the weather was at that moment, what music was playing on iTunes when you writing that section, and what you were posting on Twitter at the time, among other things. I find that kind of tracking both fascinating and terrifying. It appeals to my information-hoarder nature, but that’s an obsession I don’t necessarily want to feed…

Patrick Lane is The Missouri Review’s web editor.