Multiple Simultaneous Drafts: Google.docs and Writing

When I started the master’s program at San Francisco State, a friend introduced me — against my will — to Google docs. Now listen, he insisted, this will make it easier to write and print out your work. I now use Google docs for almost all of my writing, including creative writing.

The first advantage is that it automatically saves my documents every two minutes, so I no longer need to interrupt my writing. Since the documents are saved not on my computer but on the Google database, I don’t need to worry about my computer crashing either. In fact, I can work on my documents on any computer and print them out wherever there is access to the internet. Also Google keeps copies of my previous drafts, so if I want to backtrack, I can. This facility has allowed me to move back and forth among various versions, which has led to another revolution in my writing process.

Now, instead of working on one draft at a time, which I continuously revise, I work on multiple, simultaneous drafts. (Right now I am working from three drafts.) For example, when writing a paper on a novel, I might start typing in key quotes I want to analyze, then rearrange them until they follow a certain logic, a structure for the paper, but I might question that organization and open a new page, where I will organize the quotes chronologically. Then, I may open another blank document and start writing, bringing in quotes when needed. I may get stuck and go back to the version with quotes and start to respond to the quotes and work them into texts. If I don’t like where that is taking me, but I want to save the material I have generated, I open another document and start again, picking up material from the other drafts as needed, and so on.

To apply this new approach to writing, a teacher could model a multiple, simultaneous draft system, a three-dimensional structure worked in different versions through various phases ultimately to produce a single, coherent text. Some of these drafts could focus on the generative process: impressions, reactions, questions and doubts. Here a students would not need to worry about spelling or grammar, but would produce writing in a free and uncritical way. Students could select key phrases or sentences that worked well and gather them together on another page. Other drafts could include list quotes, facts, anecdotes, study results, and resources that the student feels are significant.

On a new page, a student could practice reorganizing the material from their free writing and their research in different ways, experimenting with structure, then they could try writing around these facts and observations, connecting them, and working them into larger chunks of writing. If students get stuck, they can try opening a new page and starting fresh, borrowing from what they have already written. In such a system, writing becomes much more than a linear process as students move through a piece of writing step by step. Instead they can move around freely, working first on what they are most motivated to write and then filling in the spaces.

A three-dimensional structure would not force students to move linearly through a text. They could jump to the parts they want to write first or go to a portion of the paper when they have a flash of insight. (This is one of the first sections of the paper I worked on). On the other hand, writers could leave spots blank that they don’t know how to approach at that moment or add notes to themselves in brackets telling them to add a citation here or hunt for more evidence or {give another example}.

In other words, with a word processing format that allows for multiple simultaneous drafts, students can move around the structure more organically, building at need, without the stress of having to produce a perfect text as they go along, step by step. Teachers could also show how it is useful to have a dictionary and thesaurus page open, even Wikipedia, for easy reference if they need to check the meaning of a word or make sure of a date.

Extract from “Technobabble: The Digital Life of Ronosaurus.”

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