James Somers wrote a Chrome extension called Draftback that allows you to play back a Google Doc so you can see every keystroke and edit that went into the writing. Chadwick Matlin spoke to Somers about Draftback for FiveThirtyEight:

Somers started all this because he thinks the way we teach writing is broken. “We know how to make a violinist better. We know how to make a pitcher better. We do not know how to make a writer better,” Somers told me. In other disciplines, the teaching happens as the student performs. A music instructor may adjust a student’s finger placement, or a pitching coach may tweak a lefty’s mechanics. But there’s no good way to look over a writer’s shoulder as she’s writing; if anything, that’ll prevent good writing.

As a result, finished work has become a writer’s currency. It’s what she hands in to her editors, what she publishes as a book, what she’s assessed on. The process of writing — the masochistic act of choosing what to put down on the page — is merely what she complains about to friends. It’s a hidden act, and self-conscious writers (as if there were any other kind) prefer it that way.

Somers wants to use Draftback to peek over somebody’s shoulder — ideally somebody really good. His personal goal is to get A.O. Scott, the film critic for The New York Times, to write a review or essay in Draftback. “He’s a beautiful prose stylist (diction, cadence, etc.), his writing is accessible and unpretentious but world-class, and he seems to always put his finger on the essence of whatever it is he’s talking about.” Somers is curious about whether all that comes naturally to Scott.

It's an interesting experiment into demystifying the craft of writing, but I tried watching a playback of Somers' writing of his post and I gave up after a few minutes. It's playback at too granular a level.

Much of good writing does occur at the editing or revision stage, call it post-production, and perhaps watching the fits and starts in Somers' piece is testament to that. Some writers sketch out the skeleton of a piece first, almost an outline, and then flesh in the actual prose. Others just dive in and start writing and find the structure later, or they have an intuitive sense of structure that just emerges sentence by sentence, like a sculpture being revealed from a block of stone.

Rather than seeing a piece played back one note at a time, I'd prefer to see a piece at a few discrete stages, perhaps the most valuable being the first rough draft, then the draft the author sends to an editor, and finally the draft marked up with the editor's proofs, especially if the editor were someone like the legendary Eleanor Gould. 1

The valuable lesson to be learned, in the end, may be the same one to be learned from watching anyone who is good at anything. Craft takes dedicated practice and lots of hard work. Sometimes viewing just the final product can hide all of that, and unearthing all the discarded drafts on the cutting room floor can be instructive.

  1. I've written before about my adoration for Gould; a collection of some of her most renowned proofs would be a national treasure. Let's hope The New Yorker has kept some and releases them in book form someday.