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.