How To Write
I keep a file I call “Random Thoughts” alongside any writing project I’m working on, especially if it’s a long one. In “Random Thoughts” is where I write about issues I’m sorting out: whose point of view is best for this story or scene? what might this character do next? is this action in keeping with who this character seems to be? I also make notes in “Random Thoughts” about decisions I’ve made and about how I plan to proceed when I return to a project, if I’m anticipating a lengthy interruption while I do some editing work or school visits.
With recent projects — a collection of linked stories and a short novel based on one of the characters from that collection — it seems I need to refer back to “Random Thoughts” more often than I used to. I find myself checking back and forth between stories or chapters more often, too, to make sure I’m being consistent about things like plot points and timelines. After numerous drafts and changes to a manuscript, I just can’t remember: Was Rona in the hospital waiting room in the summer, soon after the fire, or closer to Hallowe’en? Is the reason Ty has no parents the same here as it was sixty pages ago?
Browsing Facebook or Twitter recently, I happened across a study, one little part of which suggests that our ability to understand and to retain what we read is better if we’re reading a book or an article on paper than it is if we’re reading it on a screen. As it happens, I rarely print my works-in-progress anymore; I work almost exclusively on screen. And I began to wonder: Could this (and not incipient dementia, as I sometimes fear) be the reason I’m not remembering what I write as well as (I think) I used to?
When did I stop doing revisions on a printed copy of a manuscript and then transfer my changes to computer? And when did the trouble I have retaining details of what I’m working on begin? Is there a connection?
This week I expect to finish the first draft of the novel I’m working on. I may just have to lay in a good supply of ink and paper and test out this theory as I undertake revisions. Working this way will mean being less environmentally responsible, and scribbles that will be harder to read than changes made on screen would be. But if the work I do actually sticks in my brain, it may be worth it. I may just have to go back to my old way of working — maybe even all the way back to writing longhand in the first place before heading to the computer. (But that’s a whole other study.)
How do you write and revise your work? Have you found any connection between how you work and how well you remember the work you’ve done? Or (gasp) the quality of the work you do?
Kathy Stinson is the author of the classic Red Is Best and the award-winning The Man with the Violin. Her wide range of titles includes picture books, non-fiction, young adult fiction, historical fiction, horror, biography, series books, and short stories. She has met with her readers in every province and territory of Canada, in the United States, Britain, Liberia, and Korea. She lives in a small town in Ontario.