A Writer's Life

I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.

Tracking your drafts: Why version control is one of the most overlooked but critical aspects of writing

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We’ve all been there: We’re editing our manuscript and decide a scene is just not working. So we delete it, move on, rewrite, revise—and then suddenly realize we need that original scene after all. The only problem? It’s long gone, or saved somewhere in a draft six or eight versions ago.

Welcome to the challenge of version control, one of the most overlooked—but critical—aspects of writing, especially for fiction and creative nonfiction writers who are working with manuscripts of 50,000 words and up.

What is version control? It’s about having a system in place to keep track of your drafts, your notes, and your deleted scenes and material, and about organizing your revisions in a way that helps you know instantly which version is the most current. It’s also about preserving previous drafts just in case there’s some nugget in there that you might need later or something goes wrong with your current draft.

See, writing is rewriting. Chances are you’re heard that before, most likely in the context of improving your work and making edits and changes to strengthen your story, improve readability, etc. Nobody writes one draft and publishes it just like that (nobody worth reading, anyway).

But “writing is rewriting” also means that you are constantly creating new versions of your manuscript. And as the story morphs and evolves, you’ll want and need to have access to your previous work and to all your notes. Believe me: If I had a dime for every editor who has horribly realized halfway through editing that he’s proofreading the wrong version, or every writer who lamented a deleted and lost-forever scene or paragraph—well, I’d be wealthy enough to write fiction novels full time forever.

You never know when you’ll need your previous work. Sometimes I’ll be halfway through a story and not sure where to go next, so I’ll go back to my original brainstorming notes and amazingly, there’s some hidden gem I forgot about. Or I’ll cut a scene that isn’t working in one chapter, then find the perfect place for it later in the manuscript. And I’ll want to access it quickly so I don’t lose my momentum.

So here’s my advice and method for version control.

First, I keep everything related to my project. It’s all on my computer, which is also backed up onto an external hard drive once a week. Even though I do my initial brainstorming on paper, I always transcribe those notes onto my computer.

I have a desktop folder for each project; and within that folder are other folders—one for drafts, one for notes, and one for deleted material. I date everything and include my initials; that way, I don’t have to keep track of which draft I’m in; I just go to the most current version of my manuscript. And by dating my material, I also know the last time I accessed it. I include my own initials because I want to know which versions are mine. This is really important once you hit the stage of handing your manuscript over to an editor or other writer for feedback; by saving those versions with their initials, you’ll know instantly who provided that feedback and when, with their comments and track changes.(Sidebar: for Pete’s sake, don’t work with an editor if they don’t use track changes; YOU are the author, and you need to be able to see and control any edits or revisions!)

I also use this practice with my writing clients; when I’m proofreading, line editing, or doing a beta read, for instance, I’ll save my version with my initials and a date: RAM 8-23-14. That way, they’ll know that’s the version with my edits and when those edits took place.

Any time I delete something substantial, I keep it. I don’t mean every word or phrase, because I’m one of those diamond polishers who is constantly revising sentences and paragraphs before I move on. I’m talking about things that took time to create and that might have potential use later on – a particularly apt metaphor, a descriptive paragraph, a scene, a conversation, a revealing observation. I’m ruthless about cutting, but religious about preserving.

Finally, the only time I print is when I have a completed draft and I want to read through the entire manuscript from start to finish – and that only happens a few times during the entire editorial process. Yes, it can be a great practice to print a document for proofreading or revising; it can help you “see” things in a way that don’t always materialize on the page – but I try to avoid printing anything that I don’t have to.

Everyone has to develop his or her own method for version control—but the important thing is that you have a method in place. I am always astonished—alarmed, even—by the number of writers who keep only one draft, and constantly re-save over that single version. Or they’ll print old versions out, but only save to one file on the computer – but that seems a little daunting when you’re dealing with a 200+-page manuscript (not to mention environmentally unfriendly). And for people who are working on trilogies or series, it’s even more critically important to have a method for saving and organizing all of your versions and notes.

Hey, you never know when those notes might come into play outside the drafting process—many a published author has used brainstorming notes and early drafts to defend themselves in plagiarism cases. Some famous authors have even found ways to use their original and discarded scribblings; Stephenie Myer published a half-formed draft of Twilight from Edward’s perspective on her website, and JK Rowling doles out tidbits on her website about characters and details from the magical world that never made it into the actual Harry Potter books. Their fans loved it.

Someday, you just might want to do the same.

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This entry was posted on 08/24/2014 by .
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