Scott Armstrong & I just tried this writing exercise:

Required materials include two different drafts of the same manuscript (here, let’s call one “early” and one “final”), several sheets of flip-chart paper, scissors, tape, and a handful of coloring markers. Make sure there are line numbers in the margins of both manuscripts, and print them single-sided.

Rotate the flip-chart paper to landscape orientation. Tape the final draft on the left side, one page per flip-chart sheet.

And now comes the fun (and time-consuming) part.

With the scissors, cut the early draft into individual sentences. Then begin reading through the final draft. Wherever material from the early version appears in the final one, tape the relevant strips from the early draft onto the right side of the chart paper. You might need to cut whole sentences into clauses or fragments. Matches don’t have to be verbatim. Use the markers to draw lines between words, phrases, or concepts connecting the two versions, and to otherwise annotate and clarify how the various elements on a given sheet relate to each other.

The result might look something like this:


A few things to look for and ponder – preferably with your coauthor(s) at a big conference table where you can stand back and see the sheets as a set:

  • do differences in respective line numbers appear to exhibit a pattern (e.g., high numbers in the early draft now correspond to low numbers in the final draft), or does the right side of each sheet look like it was attacked by a random number generator? either way, what does that convey about how one draft is organized relative to the other? how does the reconstituted early draft reveal structure(s) in the final?
  • how much of the early draft do you have left over? what do those remaining scraps contain? why isn’t that content in the final draft? (and you might be surprised at how much of the early draft is still in the final, especially if they read very differently…)
  • what role does each section of the document perform? why is the final draft arranged the way it is? (or, looking again, should you take the scissors to it, too?)

The added benefit of taking a pair of scissors to a draft you’ve labored over is the reminder – the tactile reminder – that the manuscript is an object, and is best regarded with objectivity. You can cut it up because it’s just a thing – it’s not an extension of your person, or of you as a person. It is a representation of your good idea; if it’s not representing your idea well, then the document needs to change until it does what it’s supposed to do.

(My first experience of an exercise like this was in a workshop on personal essays. We’d spent 72 hours pouring our hearts into 1500 words about our grandmothers, friends, a memory beloved or sensitive. We thought we were done. Then we were handed scissors and told to hack the whole thing into its constituent parts and experiment with different ways to tape it back together. Some people are more comfortable with that initial confrontation with objectivity than others.)

If you try it, give me a shout. I’d be interested to hear about how it went – what worked, what didn’t, what surprised you.


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