A nice piece in the Boston Globe today about the culture of revising in literature. The article makes the point that revisions weren’t a big part of writing until the early 20th century, in part because literature was seen as a more impulsive, romantic art form. It was the modernists, the argument goes, who wanted to actually craft writing so that it made a point, an argument, or anything more than an impression.
The other half of this, though, is what Hannah Sullivan, who has written a book called The Work of Revision, calls “literary technology.” Paper was expensive, printing more so, and thus first drafts for Shakespeare often had to be final drafts as well. When typesetting was mechanized, and particularly when the typewriter made rewriting easy and necessary, the sanctity of the original faded, and authors, publishers, and (yes) editors came to see texts as living documents. That, of course, has only accelerated as pixels have replaced ink-on-platen characters.
This article is great on so many levels–of course, I see a parallel to construction, in that a lot of the nineteenth century construction drawing sets I’ve looked at show that the revision process there, too, was not what we’re used to today. Commercial buildings in particular tended to go through a pretty brief sketching phase, and then turned into completely developed drawings pretty quickly. Manufacturers and builders filled in most of the blanks from there. Today, we go through at least four or five rounds of drawing sets before anything goes out to bid, and a nearly infinite number of design options early in the process. Blame cheap paper or SketchUp, but like writing, architectural practice today is as much revision as anything else…which in the best of all worlds gives us the opportunity to continually refine and edit.