…writing is fundamentally about the final draft. It’s not like writing code, say, where recording one’s every change is standard practice. (Ask any coder worth her salt whether she uses a “version control system.” If she says “no,” well, she’s not worth her salt.)
That’s because code is so fragile, and simple changes can propagate in complex and unpredictable ways. So it would be stupid not to keep old versions — i.e., versions that worked — close at hand.
Writing is different. A writer explores, and as he explores, he purposely forgets the way he came.
I’m reminded of how the word “essay” derives from the French “essayer,” a verb meaning “to try.” It was coined in the late 16th century by Michel de Montaigne, in many ways the father of the form. Montaigne wrote as a kind of maieutic exercise, a way of drawing his thoughts into the light of day, of discovering what he wanted to say as he said it.
No need, then, to drop so many breadcrumbs along the way. Especially when such a trail could do more harm than good. Readers could use it to find places where you massaged the facts; they’d be able to see you struggle with simple structural problems; they’d watch, horrified, as you replaced an audacious idea, or character, or construction, with a commonplace.
This is not to mention the legal ramifications (teasing out someone’s “intention” just got a whole lot easier…) nor the mere fact that working under this kind of surveillance could drive you crazy with self-consciousness.
I should know: I wrote the article you’re now reading using Etherpad’s software. You can watch how I fumbled along, start to finish, by clicking the big “play” button on this page.