Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

23.17 The Manuscript – R0

No decent piece of writing is done in one draft. Truly professional writers might complete a good paper by the Fourth Draft but that is the exception – these are experienced capable writers. Even exceptional writers often go down the revisions rabbit hole for many drafts. Most of the rest of us punters struggle to get anything decent on the hard drive. Or worse, they don’t struggle enough.

One wonders how many drafts writers took when they wrote by hand? One? They thought hard before they put pen to paper and then edited on the paper before turning it over to a typist. And if they made more than one revision of the typist’s output they almost certainly got ‘the glare’, which reinforced that one revision was enough. If the author typed his manuscript himself he could indulge in as many revisions as he pleased but I suspect the time and effort and tedium that would have taken forced some discipline.

It is said that Winston Churchill wrote the pages of his many volumes of history in a single draft, which may be partly, but not wholly true. He didn’t write anything – he dictated. His stenographer/secretary then transcribed his spoken word and he proofread the first draft. She would re-type the paper with the revisions and that was it – off to the publisher for typesetting. There’s evidence that Churchill then had a look at the typeset draft but only made minor changes for emphasis or clarity. This may be another Churchillian myth, much like the myth of his rapier wit, catalogued and rehearsed while the rest slept.

I remember as a young professional in the offices of Atomic Energy of Canada producing handwritten drafts of memos and passing them to the secretary, then proofreading the typed copy. I learned pretty quickly I only got one chance to make revisions, except when the memo came back from a higher-up with ‘suggested’ changes.

Word processing machines changed all that. Edits could be made to the original digital file without having to retype the entire document. But this led to the inevitable trap of multiple revisions before the document ever saw the light of day. The rabbit hole of perfection. 

Typing pools of word-processing girls (they were inevitably ‘girls’) were a short-lived phenomenon. The age of personal computers was upon us and these machines had word-processing software. Now every ‘professional’ writer or administrator had to produce his first draft himself, and all of his revisions; he could produce and revise his text as many times as he liked. I doubt this technological advance increased productivity however. Many a professional mourned the loss of their secretaries and the lost time they now spent hunting and pecking on a keyboard. He also wished he had learned to type properly in Grade Nine and had honed his proficiency in university. I got 51 in Grade Nine typing which should tell you something. 

I try to take John McPhee’s advice and produce my work in no more than four drafts. These blog posts are done in two drafts but that is probably a distortion as I‘m sure I make hundreds and hundreds of revisions as I type. The bane of a poor typist is that the fingers produce more red than black letters in the MSWord file on the screen, causing me to constantly go back and correct the typing errors, and that makes me reread the paragraph(s) or text from time to time, prompting me to make more changes than merely correcting the typing errors. Even that is a lie. I may produce two drafts on my MSWord file on my computer but when I upload the file to my WordPress Blog site I do at least two more ‘revisions’, and dozens and dozens of fixes – a wording change here, a semi-colon there.

When I start a new book project, I name the file with an appropriate title and mark it R0 – Revision Zero. I suppose the original file could be called Draft 1 and the revision would be Draft 2. Or it could be First Draft and then Revision 1 but that annoys me. So I call the first draft R0 and the 2nd draft R1. (I know, quirky.)

It’s a similar dilemma, I suppose, as the competing nomenclature for naming floors, British vs American (leaving Canadians once again confused in the middle). The British, no doubt for ancient forgotten reasons, call the ground floor, reasonably enough, ‘ground’ and then next floor up ‘the first floor’. The Americans, much more sensibly to me, call the ground floor ‘the first floor’ and the next floor up the second floor. (If you don’t believe me, consult an elevator in any random building. Okay, so maybe in Canada you’ll find many versions of G, 2, 3 or 1, 2, 3; or perhaps M, 2, 3; sensible. But then you find a building with the illogical British G, 1, 2 designations). So why do I adopt the British methodology in my drafts’ nomenclature: First Draft R0 and second draft (1st revision ) R1?.

Obviously I don’t have enough important things to worry about.

Irrespective of my nomenclature, revisions are at the core of good writing. Almost nothing creative comes out in one swell foop. Even Michelangelo didn’t just take chisel to marble and create David in one go. Or maybe he did lose many marbles before he got the last one right. Regardless, he had only one chance to make a perfect impression and he surely must have spent a lot of time planning and measuring and assessing before cutting. Or consider the champion golfer planning his putt from many angles before taking a tap of the ball. Masterpiece paintings are the result of many earlier sketches, prep work, and layering, and fixing. Luckily with oils and acrylics you can do a lot of fixing with yet another layer of paint. Much harder with tempera and water colours.

It is almost certainly a myth that Mozart produced his masterpieces in one draft. Beethoven’s original scores show many changes and revisions, and you wonder how many pages he just balled up and pitched in the rubbish bin.

Hemingway, the master of economical writing is shown famously sitting at his typewriter, a bin full of crumpled paper beside his desk.

I’ve learned to sketch out, usually by hand on paper, a basic outline of the book I’m about to produce. Then I put notes into my ‘Notes’ app on my Mac and generate a preliminary table of contents, and also a timeline, already beginning the process of getting the sequencing and logic of the story right. I use ‘Notes’ at this point because as a software tool it’s a lot easier to add, subtract, insert new ideas.

Next comes the MSWord file (a preformatted template thanks to and I transfer the chapter structure from Notes to the Word file and separate each with page breaks. Then generate a Table of Contents which I can monitor in the sidebar. All of my projects have a Table of Contents and every chapter has a title. This helps me focus on what I want to say in that chapter, (though at the beginning I hardly know), and keeps me from wandering. I think this also signals to the reader what the chapter is about and stirs interest, (though I’m not sure many readers actually pay attention to chapter titles, which is why many novels don’t have chapter titles at all).

I then add a few lines of text to each chapter, a few bullet items to remind me later what I wanted to say, and maybe some clever lines I’ve already thought of and don’t want to forget. 

With that done I’m ready to go back to the beginning and begin to write. I continue in this way until the entire story has been written and that is the end of R0.

Now comes the serious work of revising the whole manuscript: R1.

This begs the question, do I save R0, and then ‘save as’ a new document, R1, to begin the revisions? Why not just make revisions in the original R0? Good question. And as it turns out, the universe of authors is split on which protocol they follow.

And for that gripping tale you will have to wait until the next post. 

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

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