Evolution of a Written Work

Rough drafts can no longer be examined, they’re deleted forever in the digital world. While that might be a tad overstated, it does bring up a good point. I just wish I could lay claim to it.But Martha Stone of the MGH Treadwell Library is from whom I heard it.

Just after the new year, I took advantage of a unique opportunity. Since I work for Partners Healthcare, I’m afforded a chance to bend the ear librarians in their employ. I don’t know if I want to get into a medical library, especially since the sight of blood can make me a wee bit queasy, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to get the lowdown on one. So Martha graciously agreed to talk to me about both her duties and the library in general. She was a veritable fountain of knowledge and I took copious notes. One of which I wanted to share with you.

I may not know if medical libraries are in my future but what I do know that is that digital libraries are. Hell, given the direction in which the LIS field is moving I don’t think I could avoid it even if I had wanted to. But this movement is leaving something behind: rough drafts. Martha mentioned Mr. Treadwell’s personal papers and how he had many an opinion he put to paper. Not all of them made it to publication and sometimes those that did varied greatly from the original incarnation. In this digital age, crossing out with a pen is being replaced by deleting with a key. That’s a shame because there’s so much we can learn about a person through the evolution of a written work.

Was the author’s main point always the focus or did other ideas bloom and then wither before the final idea flowered? Did he exclude minor points?  Why? Was she prone to write glib comments in the margins? All these and more are lost because typing out a new change and then clicking save on your favorite word processor erases that prior draft forever. Before you say it, yes, I realize that deleting on a PC doesn’t always send things to the great beyond but for the vast majority of us, that is, indeed, the case. Besides, in order to perform any forensic analysis on a PC you must have the PC. Most of the time we only have a soft copy of the work.

While this may be more of an archivist-centered loss, it is a noteworthy change to the rest of us. Most common folks and most libraries are only concerned with the finished product. We leave the gathering of unfinished business to museums and archives and only if the person made such an impact on society or a specific culture that the demand is there. Just the same, though, I’m left to wonder if the fast fading physical rough draft won’t have an impact on authors of the future. How many times has an author rifled through an old rough draft and been struck by inspiration? I’d venture to say it happens from time to time. So what does the future hold if such drafts are no longer available to even their author? Will the evolution of a written work undergo a change? Will it be for the better? For the worse? Only time will tell.


2 thoughts on “Evolution of a Written Work

  1. An interesting idea. But isn’t versioning a kind of rough draft? Also the agile workflow details a process where content is constantly being re-written. While I don’t doubt your conclusions, I wonder if, like most things, rough drafts are changing form.


  2. Absolutely. The only trouble is how many people use it? In one of the application I manage, we have versioning turned on by default and another turned off. It works great for the former and people are always surprised to learn it’s offered in the latter. I think you’re right, it is becoming the new rough draft format but its still an extra step authors need to remember to do, unless they have an app to do it for them.


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