Writer’s Diary #11: The Synapses of Writing

As part of moving this blog to WordPress, I’m going through old posts. This one, from 22 November 2013, stuck with me:

Last night at a party, I chatted writing and rewriting with a friend visiting from Vancouver. She freelances as a copy editor. I told her about On Writing Well, and she echoed many of Zinsser’s suggestions—be short, use as few words as possible, and revise. She suggested an approach new to me: Look for hidden verbs by getting rid of ‘To Be.’ This morning revising a section on small-scale mining, I find the technique works well.

So, what is writing, at least for me, if it isn’t an exercise in applying various tricks and techniques like this? Revising to remove the verb ‘to be,’ removing the first person, eliminating the passive voice, cutting words, revising again, cutting, shortening—these are all tools.

Writing a first draft is one thing. But turning that first draft into something that sings and stringing it together with other texts into a longer piece is another. Part of the trick is the idea and theory. But, much of the trick, at least in the way I approach matters, is an exercise in the not-so-systematic application of a whole series of ticks and tricks.

Some I know and can explain, some are intuitive, some are embodied, and some are technical. My writing style, if I have one, seems to me to emerge in part from the application of these different techniques to writing. For example, a few days ago, I wrote about using online grammar tools—the serial application of tools: cut, edit out, rephrase, rewrite, add things, expand, read aloud, print out and mark up with a pencil. Over time, as the

Parul Sehgal describes George Saunders’ notes on writing in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:

I’m making the book sound revoltingly technical. It isn’t. Saunders lives in the synapses—he looks at all the minute and meaningful decisions that produce a sentence, a paragraph, a convincing character. He offers one of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of the writer that I’ve ever read — that state of heightened alertness, lightning-quick decisions.

These tools and techniques, which I appreciate and use, are my grist for those tiny, meaningful decisions that I deploy in the synapses of writing.…

Writer’s Diary #9: On Freewriting a First Draft

Writing Diary #9 – On a Morning Draft

For the first time in a long time, I woke up this morning and started writing at 5:30. It felt good. With a cup of coffee in hand, I sat at the kitchen table as the sun came up and the birds sang. I began working on the first draft of some notes that had come to me the day before and the day before that while I was occupied with other tasks.

I had wanted to write these ideas down the day before yesterday, but I let them linger as I went to bed. My concept for the introduction to the book is that writing is an apprenticeship. Just as my first book was an apprenticeship in gold mining, this book is an auto-apprenticeship in writing.

So I sat down at the keyboard and wrote freely, without forethought, without editing. I followed the method Peter Elbow outlines in Writing Without Teachers. At times, I do this longhand, but this morning I used an electronic typewriter, a rather embarrassing and expensive FreeWriter Smart Typewriter by Astrohaus.

After about five minutes, I had a very rough draft—raw material to work with.

Writers often think and talk about writing as a cerebral activity. But I’ve come to see it as a movement between the cerebral and the use of different tools. It’s as much a cerebral process as it is a manual one. Here, tools matter. Gabriel García Márquez, in his memoir Living to Tell the Tale, describes writing as a kind of carpentry, which requires a lot of technique and craft to hide the joinery. It’s a fitting metaphor. Carpenters use tools, and so do I.

I created a draft through freewriting; applied automatic copy and style editing; revised iteratively and intuitively; edited automatically; revised once more iteratively and intuitively.

Specifically, ChatGPT was a copy editor, DeepL Writer’s beta writing app changes some words, then ProWritingAid fixed grammar and style, and then I had a piece of text to revise using George Saunders, Swim in a Pond in the Rain idea of making iterative and intuitive edits on the page. That is, each pass, I made a myriad of small changes, based on gut feelings. After doing this three or four times, I had this draft, which I left it for a few days, before one more pass. I took screenshots, to illustrate the process. Crucially, automatic editors are helpful, but automatic writer are not. There is a distinction, I’ll write about sometime.

Draft #1: Freewrite

I free wrote the following, on a Freewrite Smart Typewriter by Astrohaus, an ridiculously expensive electronic typewriter, which, like a typewriter, has little distractions.

Note the typos.

Draft 1

Draft #2: Use Chat GPT as a copy editor

I pay for ChatGPT 4, and used the following prompt ti copy edit that first drafts. Here, ChatGPT 4 has replaced my own labour of fixing typos.

Imagine yourself as an AI copy editor, proof reader, and substantive editor. and I will provide you with a text between double quotes, and without making substantive changes, can you spell check, grammar check, punctuate, and split into paragraphs at logical places, and include other revisions in the body of the text in square brackets. Please do this using markdown, in a code block: “…”

Since, I am always concerned about ChatGPT inventing text I didn’t write, I compare it text carefully to the original, in BBEdit using the compare text function. The text is the same, but copy edited.

Draft 2

Draft #3: Use DeepL’s Write

There, I turn to DeepL Write’s AI editor, that will suggest stylistic revisions. They’re good.

Draft 3

Draft #4 – ProWriting Aid

Next, I turn to ProWritingAid, and accept all its style and grammar suggestions.

Draft 4

Draft #5 – Revise with a reader over your shoulder

Drawing on George Saunders book, I undertook a process of reading and as I read, revising as I went intuitively and iteratively.

Draft 5

Draft 6 – Automatic Copy Editing

Then back to ChatGPT, DeepL, ProWriting Aid, then revising through iterative intuition.

Draft 6

Draft 7 – Revise intuitively and iteratively

More intuitive revision.

Draft 7

Draft 8 – Automatic Copy Editing

More copy editing.

Draft 8

Draft 9 – Final Pass

Finally, a few days later, I revised, fixed the images, corrected the URLs, and gave it all a few more passes, without any automatic copy editing.