In The Era Of Digital Composition, What Should A Writer Keep?

I’ve kept a few old paper drafts as curios, but I don’t keep paper anymore. I used to compose my work on paper, revise on the computer and save the initial drafts. Now that I compose on the computer, there’s only ever one extant version, and no drafts at all. My own “archive” fits in three shoe boxes.

The Japanese term kaizen translates literally to improvement, but it’s a term that has come to mean gradual, continuous improvement of a piece of collaborative work. It’s most commonly associated with manufacturing operations, but I think it has general application to almost everything, including writing. In companies that implement kaizen, workers look continuously for small improvements that can be implemented immediately. The philosophy was developed to adjust the work process from its traditional practices, back when making a new iteration of something was laborious and had to be done all at once.

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But now that writing can take place digitally, kaizen effectively removes the idea of the draft from the work process. In kaizen, there’s no need to finish a draft before you can go back to the first sentence and start revising it again. There are no drafts. There is only kaizen. After some duration of continuous work, the piece is done. And that finished piece is the only artifact of all that work.

The prevailing wisdom is that writers ought to write a quick and sloppy first draft and then go back and spin it into gold. This has never worked for me. If I produce a mess, I never want to see it again. I like an empty desk. I like to work on one thing at once. I think the concept of the draft is an anachronism from the time before laptops and word processing software. Or maybe it’s a useful object or valuable totem for less uptight writers.


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All artifacts begin as useful objects, then spend an unforeseeable amount of time as clutter before becoming valuable again, as artifacts. So — what is a writer to keep? Is it more a function of how many times you’ve moved and the size of the current apartment, or does that rubric assume that writers’ archives, like Japanese carp, grow to the sizes of their environments? Now that archives are largely digital, are writers keeping more — more drafts, more abandoned projects?

Some writers keep every draft; others keep just one. But there are many points on the line between those two extremes. And in fact I haven’t been completely forthcoming; I hold on to more than I’d like to admit. On my hard drive I keep a Work in Progress folder, which includes anything I think might grow into a distinct piece of writing. I also keep an Under the House folder, off-site storage for sentimental items I can’t quite part with but don’t exactly want to look at — the final repository for a file before it gets thrown away. I keep a Cuts file to accompany each published piece — either a line or two, or sometimes many pages — and after a piece is published I might move some of the Cuts file back to the Work in Progress folder or, more likely, throw it all away.

I love to hear about the ways that others manage these seeds and clippings that rot gently into a kind of fertilizer for future gardens. I think fetishistically about the ways I might refine my own process into its most efficient form, a form that produces only the artifacts I can stand to look at, stand to reread; a process that leaves a tolerable number of lines and sentences sitting untouched, unfinished but maybe salvageable, under my metaphorical house.

Sarah Manguso is the author of several books, most recently, “300 Arguments.”

A version of this article appears in print on August 6, 2017, on Page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Paper Trail. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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