Friday, 26 November 2010

Revision and editing

I came across the manuscript of the first page of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it's awesome. This is not just because of the changes he made, all of which add to the powerful effect of the novel's opening - any competent writer knows from his own experience how different the final draft is from the first. You think of a better way of getting the information across, or a neater way of putting it; you add dialogue, or as Orwell did in his first page, take it out. (For the two versions, go here.)

No, it made me realize just how fortunate writers are today to have the magic of Word at their fingertips. I'd hate anyone to watch me writing on a bad day, or a tricky part of the book. I type in a rough version that's all wrong; add bits, change it, move it around, generally tweak it till it's better. Later I have further goes at it. At some time I read it aloud, and run it through Autocrit to pick up word echoes. If I'm considering larger changes, I copy the passage into a new Word document and let myself loose without inhibitions, knowing it's only a copy. I almost invariably keep this new version and splice it back into the text. Whatever I do, Word keeps the typescript neat and legible.

All George Orwell had to compose his masterpiece was a manual typewriter and a fountain pen. How on earth did he manage?


  1. I'm fascinated by the changes: how much tighter the finished version is. It made me wonder how you can teach people to write: to hear the words in your head and to know which ones sound right. We didn't need to know it was a bright day, but those crisp consonants convey the atmosphere so well.

    And yes, if I had to use a fountain pen to write, would I even bother? I really don't know. I can remember cutting and pasting bits of documents together when I worked in the Civil Service, all ready for the typing pool to retype yet again. I'm glad those days have gone.

  2. I wonder how many years he spent practicing? It's nice to see that even a master like Orwell started out with crap drafts the same as the rest of us!

  3. I wonder if it's worth turning off anonymous posting? I find the constant spam is very irritating.

  4. Yes, and when Orwell was writing, there wasn't the wealth of writing advice there is today - writers had to work it all out for themselves.

    On the other hand, if they did produce a clean typescript, they were a lot more likely to get it read...

    (FH, do you see the attempted spam on here? I thought it only appeared in my emails, having been caught by Blogger's filters.)

  5. Oh wow! Thanks for this link. What an eye opener - the difference between the first sample and the secong - the all important first line down to perfection from (form me) was already a brilliant first sentence made even more brilliant in the final draft.

    I can only surmise that he was a true rare and beautiful talent and was perhaps also blessed with having a really great editor (do we know?).

    Take care

  6. Kitty, I did quickly try to find out more about Orwell's writing method - particularly whether he did his own typing - but failed to find anything.

    I'd give the credit to Orwell rather than an editor, as he wrote such vast quantities of articles etc. as well as the novels. When I was young I read most of it in a collection.

  7. (I get to see the spam in my emails when I'm subscribed to a thread, even though it doesn't appear on the blog itself.)

  8. I've often thought of this as well. We have the best tools at our disposal now, and the greater ease of our modern life has allowed women's voices to be heard as more and more are writing and getting published. Back when George Orwell wrote, it was largely a man's profession. Where would a woman have found the time without modern appliances, word processors, and all the other time savers we have now.

  9. Thanks, FH, I didn't know that; I've changed it to Registered Users and Open ID, and will see how that goes.

    Good point, Karen - this is not a bad time and place to be a woman, hurrah. Could be a lot worse.

  10. I don't even want to think about having to write by hand. I'm afraid if I did have to, I wouldn't. Seeing this does make me appreciate the laptop I'm typing on.

  11. I don't know, JE, there is a sensuous pleasure in a really good fountain pen on quality paper; but the problem comes when you want to change something...

    I'm amazed one gets no sense, in older books, of the writer thinking, I really can't be arsed to type it out again, that will have to do.

  12. Yes, word processing is a wonderful thing. But it has had one very negative effect. You mention it yourself, in talking of writers of an earlier age: ‘On the other hand, if they did produce a clean typescript, they were a lot more likely to get it read . . .’

    Today, thanks to word processing, any fool can produce a clean typescript (or its digital equivalent). Even bad spelling can be fixed, up to a point. It’s pretty safe to assume that, in the days before word processors, the look of a manuscript really did affect its chances of getting read. And this would have made sense: as a general rule – no more than that, admittedly – the worst-looking efforts probably were the worst-written.

    The word processor has done the unpublishable classes (a term I’ve coined from Graham Greene’s ‘untorturable classes’ in Our Man in Havana) no favours. Crushed by the sheer weight of today’s slush pile, and having no easy means of reducing it to manageable proportions, publishers and agents have now pretty well given up on it.

    Word processing, to be fair, has made only a small contribution to the plight of the unpublishable classes – it’s really down to the takeover of the old independent houses by multinational media conglomerates, together with the collapse of the net book agreement – but it don’t make things no better.

  13. Ah yes; I wrote about this in my favourite post, Quills, Typewriter and Word (see sidebar).

    But one door opens as another closes - the Amazon Kindle Store is where the unpublished go to prove that agents and publishers got it wrong.

  14. I was writing first drafts in longhand until 2004, but I don't think I'd go back to it now (except all the back-of-an-envelope or middle-of-a-Post-It drafting that I do because I don't want to wait until the PC's warmed up). I've got so used to being able to change my mind and seeing the results instantly.

    I do wonder, though, does literature lose out in the long run by us not being able to see talented writers' writing processes the way we can when we see old drafts of Orwell, let alone Carver...

  15. Hants, I think anyone who's had a serious attempt at writing knows first hand what the process is; reassuring though it is to see the greats worried away at their prose in just the same way as we plebs, if to better effect.

    It's a bit like knowing about a writer's personal life - interesting, but the books he wrote stand alone.