Chapter breaks and other joints
Going away to write? Make the most of it

Copy-typing, copying out and the cursive embodying of words.

I am now galloping over Mrs Dalloway, re-typing it entirely from the start, a good method, I believe, as thus one works with a wet brush over the whole, and joins parts separately composed and gone dry.

That's Virginia Woolf, in her diary, and I should imagine not a few readers of this post are thinking, "Imagine re-typing a whole manuscript! Such drudgery! Thank goodness the technology's moved on since then!" But Woolf obviously thought it was worth it - and several other authors did too. "She would re-type the whole, cutting as she went," says Jane Aiken Hodge's biography of Georgette Heyer (who published two books in a year, more than once, and knew a thing or two about working efficiently). Mary Stewart, too, reckoned to type out four drafts.

What's more, several how-to-write books suggest getting inside another writer's voice, sensibility, voice and tone by writing out some poems or some pages of their words - maybe even longhand. Yes, really: copy them out, the way art students used to copy great paintings, brushstroke by brushstroke, as a way to study all the decisions and gestures that the great artist made.

It sounds inefficient, but then in creative work the best way to work is often the apparently inefficient. To copy something out it has to go through your brain a bit (which shows, in reverse, when typesetters set the common word or phrase they're expecting, instead of Shakespeare or Joyce's actual, odd, coinage, and thereby give the scholarly editors of the future a whole lot of fun and career opportunities). By actually writing the words, you'll experience the connotations and denotations, the sound and rhythm, of that writer's work more than you ever will with reading it silently, and more slowly, too: more even, perhaps, than you will by reading it aloud, though that too is something I'd recommend strongly.

Many of us prefer, too, to edit our own work as hard copy: the intuitive marking-and-scribbling of a pen is part of it (quicker than faffing with a keyboard, plus you can see your thought-process). But more important is how the typing-up of the marked-up copy is a natural way to review your decisions: again, it feels less efficient, but actually it's more efficient. (Track changes has the latter advantage, but lacks the physicality of the pen.) And in the days when I wrote whole novels in longhand, the copy-typing-up process was very important: I got a fast, reading-like overview of the whole thing but, even better, the words I'd already written in Draft One, and the new ones I was working in to create Draft Two, had the same status in that overview.

More recently, I've been re-building a novel with a complete new plot. To have a really good, strong narrative drive and shape, with everyone's arcs of change arc-ing properly, in planning, writing and revising I've treated it as a new project, not a new version carved and glued out of the old one. However, every now and again the new novel tells me it needs things from the old text: flashbacks or a scrap of description which are still exactly right for the new version. I have the old version up on the other screen, and I can pull those bits across.

But copy-and-paste is still a danger: it's quick, and it seems to fit into the place that's asked for it, but does it? Does it really? If you couldn't copy-and-paste, are you sure that the words you came up with this time would be just the same? You can't be, and yet new words might not be as good, even if they fitted better. And, frankly, I'm dying to get This Bloody Novel right. So I have forced myself to copy-type anything I want to use.

And it's worked: even when I thought I'd want that chunk unchanged, I find myself tweaking it and editing it as I go, or even realising I don't want it after all. And I know I'm right to go to this trouble because with one important chunk, I forgot my new rule and dragged it across from the old draft. It's a good piece of writing, though I say it myself, and I tried to tweak it, I tried to edit it, I tested each phrase and it seemed to be fine. And yet ... it just didn't sit right.So I forced myself (and it really was forcing: it felt such a stupid bit of work to make myself do) to cut it, and I copy-typed it in all over again.

And yes, things did change. There was something in the physical act of my fingers operating in exactly the same way as they'd been operating in putting new words onto the screen, which reduced the existing words to the same status, to be words-in-process, not words that existed: not darlings, just fodder. Copy-typing, as Woolf says, makes the dry, already-set words back into wet, malleable paint like everything else your writing-brush is working over.


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I have a separate notebook precisely for the exercise of copying paragraphs from favourite authors. I approach it as a form of 'homework', as if I am an apprentice to a master storyteller (I am!). The best novels and authors are my personal mentors. How lucky am I !! :) Another great post.


Oh dear, it makes so much sense, but we do love our laboursaving devices. Yet it's certainly liberating when I realise a piece of writing needs so many corrections and alterations it's better to put it to one side and start again scratch. Will endeavour to do this more often!

Emma Darwin

Edith, good for you - and you've reminded me that I used to keep a commonplace book, different from my normal, scribble-in-anything-I-don't-want-to-forget notebook - but I've got out of the habit. I should go back to it.

Aha! Another excuse for a bit of stationery buying...

Emma Darwin

It is liberating, isn't it. My best image for it comes from when I was having my kitchen re-done, years ago. It was a Victorian house, and I wanted a sanded-floorboards floor. But the builder explained that because it had always been the kitchen, the boards had been cut and lifted so often that there was scarcely a whole board in the room. "I could spend all day doing it, and it would cost you a ton, and it would NEVER look good, and we'd need three or four new ones which will be a completely different colour and texture, and I wouldn't have any pride in it," he said. "But I can take £200 down to Wickes and get you a room's worth of new floorboards, and it'll be quicker, and cheaper, and look much better."

And he was dead right, and it looked smashing. Every time I wonder whether to work with existing text, I remember that story...


Thank you for this, as I sit bewildered about how to redraft this curious first novel of mine! Having the recent opportunity to assist in a letterpress print shop changed my relationship to text entirely. The attentiveness, the slowing down, is not only essential from time to time, but pleasurable also. At this rate, I may finish this thing in a total of fifteen years. Sigh.

Ann Turnbull

I started writing decades ago, and I'm also technophobic! I still write by hand in pencil and then type up (not the whole thing, but a few pages at a time, which I then edit, and re-type). I never edit on the computer - always print out anything I need to read. Track Changes is useful because it means you can get it right on the actual shared document - but it's fiddly, and I only use it after working on a print-out. I like having a paper work-in-progress covered in notes and changes and visual evidence of what went before. It's not a fast way to work, but I'm happy with it!

Katy Gilmore

I loved this post - loved seeing VW's words again and loved reading your rules about avoiding copy and paste. It is so easy now to just lift bits. Everything you say makes such good sense - and the floorboard story a perfect metaphor. Thanks!

Emma Darwin

You're welcome!

And how lovely to have got to know letterpress. Writing A Secret Alchemy made me a little bit of a Proper Printing Fetishist by proxy, but I've never really had the chance to actually do it myself. As you say, the slowly craftsmanliness of it is part of the pleasure.

Emma Darwin

Yes, why change what works for you? And yes - typing up can be such a useful process.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Katy! Good to know it's resonated with you.


Hi Emma
I'm a serial rewriter from scratch so this blog spoke to me. Thank you for suggesting retyping as a way to insert passages that I think are right but need to relive to be sure. It's a great technique.

Deborah Makarios

Does one need an excuse?

Anita Diggs

Rewriting is always a great way to find all the problems in a manuscript, though at times it is tedious. You have to tackle a rewrite one piece at a time. Do not move on until you resolve one situation. If you try to rush it, which many, many writers do, there's just this push of “I've got to get it on the market, I've got to get it to an agent.” You should instead be thinking through exactly what is being said to you and why.

Emma Darwin

Hi Jane - you're welcome! And yes, sometimes re-writing is the only way to really re-discover what you've got, so you know what to do with it.

Emma Darwin

Yes, I think that's right. On the other hand, I have had students who re-wrote so often they never actually submitted it at all!

Emma Darwin


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