The Simple Software That Could—but Probably Won't—Change the Face of Writing

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It took T. S. Eliot about a year to compose his masterpiece epic poem, "The Waste Land," and by the time he was done he had left a substantial paper trail. He wrote his triumph of modernism in a distinctly modern way, as a kind of bricolage, by stitching together some fifty short fragments ten to fifteen lines apiece. These draftlets he would then assemble, type up, and send in carbon copy to a few friends and prospective publishers.

We should be grateful. "The Waste Land" is long and hard to understand, deeply allusive and annoyingly (if brilliantly) fragmented. So any record of its production -- in the form of drafts, letters, typescripts, annotations, and the like - could help us unravel its many convolutions.

Imagine what happened, then, when in 1971, forty-seven years after the poem's publication and six years after the Nobel prize-winning poet's death, his widow released a volume entitled The Waste Land: Facsimile and Manuscripts of the Original Drafts.

Eliot scholars went nuts. They scoured his prepublication manuscripts trying to figure out which of its five parts were written first, how they were arranged into a coherent whole, even what Eliot was reading while he wrote them. To help with the chronology they conducted an almost forensics-level analysis of his typewriters. They discovered -- among many other ridiculous things -- that one model he used produced letters 0.02mm wider than the other, a minute detail which went a long way toward dating his many drafts.

Perhaps their most important finding was also the most obvious. Some of Eliot's typescripts had marks all over them, marks which were known to be the notes of Ezra Pound, Eliot's champion in the U.S. and a well-known literary critic. He had made massive changes to the original manuscript. Example: that famous opener, "April is the cruellest month," used to be buried under a section some hundred lines long before Pound cut the whole thing. All told his edits shrunk the poem in half. As a result it became more cryptic, rhymed less, and in some ways mutated into a bleaker, more biting critique of the modern world.

Which is to say that Pound completely transformed "The Waste Land." And the scary thing is that we might have never known -- we might have lost our whole rich picture of the poem's creation -- had Eliot not been such a bureaucrat, typing up and shuffling around so many snapshots of his work in progress.

Fast-forward to the present day. Some people worry that with the advent of the word processor, early drafts of important work no longer survive. When a writer hits "Save" he creates a snapshot, sure, but a snapshot which overwrites his earlier work. So unless he's particularly conscientious, the only draft he'll end up with is the draft, the one he publishes.

Things started looking up 663 days ago, when the well-known entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham, on his popular social news site Hacker News, submitted a story with an atypically dramatic title: "The most surprising thing I've seen in 2009, courtesy of Etherpad."

He linked to etherpad.com. The bulk of the page was taken up by a basic text editor, and on top of that a slider, the kind you might use to move through a song in iTunes or adjust the treble on your hi-fi. As you moved the slider the text changed.

Graham explained what you were looking at:

I've been wanting to play back the writing of an essay for years. Since Etherpad saves every keystroke, I convinced the founders to add a way to play them back. "Startups in 13 Sentences" was the first essay I wrote on Etherpad. Now I'm going to write all of them on it.

Playback is just one little feature of Etherpad, but think of the implications of this alone. Among other things it will make cheating impossible in classes where students write papers, because now you can finally "show your work" in writing the way you do in math.

Forget about saving drafts -- Etherpad promised (or threatened) to save every keystroke: every note and idea, every version of a phrase, every snag and breakthrough. It would all be recorded, and labeled, and automatically backed up as you typed.

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James Somers is a writer and programmer based in New York. He works at Rap Genius. His personal site is jsomers.net.

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