When I first started writing for publication, manuscripts had to be typed on good quality paper and mailed with a self-addressed stamped envelope for reply. I used to draft in longhand, marking up my manuscripts with cross-outs, and sometimes literally cutting and pasting. When a story was ready for submission, I typed it. A typo or two could be corrected with pasty white ink eradicator, but any more than that and you had to retype the page. Sometimes I typed off the bottom of the page, or my typing ribbon faded out halfway through, and those mistakes also required retyping. If I saw something I’d like to change in the manuscript, I didn’t want to change it if it meant retyping more than a page. Adding a whole paragraph to page two of a twenty-five-page manuscript? Well, I had to REALLY want to add that paragraph to make all that retyping worth it.
My word processor made things easier. I could correct my work right on the screen, and print out the story with a touch of a button. But I still drafted in longhand and marked up hard copies, because that’s what my brain was used to.
By the time computers came around, with their word-processing software, I was not only editing but also composing on the screen. Cutting and pasting was a breeze. I could try anything; all I had to do was copy a file, preserving the original, and I could do or undo whatever I wanted. I could make five copies of a manuscript and try five different endings. I could change a character’s name throughout a 300-page manuscript with a few keystrokes. And I didn’t have to worry about printouts anymore, about running out of ink or paper.
All of this has made me a more willing reviser, less attached to any given version of a story, more willing to write rougher first drafts, eager to try different possibilities.
And yet the tinkering process can be endless. There comes a point when a story needs to be finished. There comes a point when we must choose one road or another. When I was writing my third novel, I wasn’t sure whether one character’s nemesis should be his father or his brother. I carried two versions of the story forward for quite a while, jumping back and forth between them.
Eventually, I had to choose. Eventually, I had to stop writing scenes over, going to one version and then back to the other. Options give us opportunity, but too many options can be paralyzing.
Just because we can do something over again doesn’t always mean we should.