When I posted my review of the writing app with no delete key, Rough Draft, the novelist Celeste Ng commented that it reminded her of this great essay, by Chadwick Matlin, on an almost diametrically opposed “writing app,” Draftback.
Rough Draft prevents you from revising.
Draftback, in contrast, records everything you write, and can show you every step you took getting to a finished draft.
In November, Somers, a developer for Genius, released an app called Draftback. It’s a fascinating experiment that treats writing like data. After years of trying to build a program, Somers realized that Google Docs was already saving every keystroke we enter. So he hacked Google Docs to play documents back to their authors, materializing on the screen with every stutter-step inherent to the writing process. In its latest form, Draftback is a Google Chrome extension that can reach deep into the archives of any Google Doc you have editing rights to, make sense of all that writing and rewriting you innocuously poured into it, and beam it right back to you, backspaces and all.
Somers suspects this program could unlock a better way to teaching writing.
It’s a program that acknowledges how we write — in a word processor, staring into the maw of a blank screen — and then turns the computer into a camera. What can we learn if we rewind and press play?
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.
If you are interested, you can watch, thanks to Draftback, Matlin write the entire essay which he eventually posted to FiveThirtyEight: he posted the video recording every word, every press of the delete key.