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Can I Write Over Your Shoulder?

Writing, unlike other art forms, is generally an unobservable act. You can watch someone pound away on a keyboard without being remotely privy to what's happening on the page. But if you were to watch somebody paint, or shoot a film, or write and record music, you'd witness something taking shape in real time. The outward gestures of visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians naturally create this kind of display. A novice can follow their actions, learning from and imitating them. People who want to learn these crafts often begin by observing others in the act, perhaps even working alongside experienced artists until they are confident enough to act independently.

Writers have the luxury and the hindrance of being able to hide behind their screens without sharing their struggles or triumphs with anyone until they have something presentable. People often workshop and share works in progress with peers, but the process of getting to those stages gets erased. No one wants to be watched while they're writing, maybe because drawing words from the depth of your mind feels so personally expressive, like it's a direct representation of who you really are, all unchecked platitudes reflecting poorly on your intelligence.

The Wasteland in revision.The issue here isn't that it's not physically possible to watch someone write. It just seems awkward and stifling for a writer to have a live audience. But there could be another way. Imagine getting ahold of the original Word document of a story you love. You could press undo until the entire thing is blank, and then watch it appear again, studying all the writer's various attempts and false starts, insertions and deletions. You could watch the writer hesitate over a clunky phrase, deciding if it's salvageable. One word might be changed fifteen times. The changes might be fast and reckless, with entire extraneous paragraphs, scenes, and characters flourishing and disappearing abruptly. Think about all the backstory that might have been omitted. Maybe you'd get twenty pages in before the story you are familiar with actually begins. Or maybe the whole thing was an improvisational burst with minimal edits. Or maybe it was written completely out of sequence and then carefully ordered into place. But in the end, no matter how many detours and deletions, you'd see the finished story rise out of the clutter.

If by some miracle this could happen, I think it could humanize great writing. We often get a sense that brilliant work just comes out that way. And that's sort of the trick—to make it seem as if a specific combination of words just had to exist as written, as if a great story or poem is an authorless, naturally occurring phenomenon. We don't see the endless revisions and facepalms that were necessary to get there. But aside from just feeling better about ourselves, maybe there's something to be learned from watching a talented writer's process, just as an aspiring painter benefits from watching a teacher paint, highlighting different techniques and their uses.

Does anyone out there have the gumption to share a time-lapse of their writing? I sure don't, but if I did you'd probably see heaps of overlong sentences and paragraphs that slowly get whittled down to something more cohesive, or quick bursts that I'm too stubborn to change. Is that similar to others? I really have no idea. Writing is something that everyone kind of figures out for themselves, trying to reverse-engineer a desirable outcome using only the finished products of other writers as reference. But maybe seeing the way others approach writing would allow us to better understand the good and bad parts of our own processes.

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Reader Comments (3)

Hmm, I think this is interesting. I suppose I could 'time-lapse' a story, but you said 'talented.' Can't help you there.

March 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy Blackford

You should have watched me edit my 1593-word piece to 800 so I could submit it to the fiction contest this morning. Read. Edit, Delete. Reread. Delete. I loved it!

March 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWendi

The revision history in Google docs actually records the document change by change — I use it with my students to discuss their revision process. It's not a great platform for book-length projects, but it has been useful when I've wanted to go back and see how a story or essay developed.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Himmer

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