Web/Tech Writing

Fine tuning the last revision of a book

A month from now I’ll be back in Venice working on the final revision of a new book before delivery. I’ve been doing this with everything I’ve written for more than a decade. I enjoy the seclusion and the focus Venice brings, and maybe it’s a superstitious thing too. Nothing beats hitting that send button from Dorsoduro somehow.

Since people are always curious about the mechanics of writing — and my methods for the final revision process have changed over the years — let me set down how I handle this essential job these days. Oh and answer a few questions too…

Why do you no longer use paper printouts?

I like reading on paper but it’s got its problems. A full-length book printed out is a lot to carry when you travel even if you print on both sides of the page (which makes it hard to follow revision marks). I like the feeling of paper — the ability to walk away from the desk and read instead of thinking about writing. That separation of the two is, for me, a key part of the revision process and why I don’t feel it’s best done in the final stages at a desk in front of the same screen you used to write the thing. But I don’t like dealing with hundreds of pages covered in little marks. And my handwriting is simply terrible.

Why don’t you do the final revise in Ulysses?

I get that one a lot. It’s not because Ulysses isn’t up to the job. Far from it. If I self-published I’d probably do everything there. But I don’t. When I finish the final version I send it off to my editors and agents. They expect a Word file because Word is what the publishing industry uses. When the editing takes place it will happen through a Word file with comments and track changes. I can’t avoid Word so I have to embrace it. Also when you move from the creative environment of Ulysses into the editing environment of Word you do notice new things. That’s important. Editing is about perspective, and the more viewpoints you can gain the better.

When it comes to editing in a collaborative environment Word is very good at it too. At least it is if you stick to the Windows version not the Mac one. Last October I was in Sicily when a massive Word document full of track changes and comments came in for me to look at. I couldn’t even open the thing in Word on the Mac. So I decided there and then I’d have to get a Windows laptop as backup for such occasion in the future.

Windows? I thought you were a Mac man…

Actually I’m an agnostic. I care about the tools and what they can do for me, not who makes them. Ulysses runs on the Mac alone and is reason enough for me to own an iMac and MacBook. I can’t imagine developing and managing all the many projects I have on anything else. But as I said above… Word on the Mac is less than satisfactory for my purposes. Yours may differ and I’m merely explaining my approach to work here, not suggesting yours. We all find our own way in writing. But Windows it had to be and what I ended up with is the machine you see at the top of this article: a Lenovo 920 convertible laptop.

Three reasons why I bought this:

  • It’s light, it’s powerful and this one comes with a 4K screen which means it’s incredibly easy on the eye. Once the Mac has spoiled you with retina screens there really is no going back.
  • That convertible idea  means you can flip it round so it becomes a tablet which I can hold and read very much like paper, in a chair, on a bed, anywhere I feel like.
  • It has a pen. Not a stylus. A proper pen that acts like one.

This last is very important with Word on Windows. It is, finally, tuned to the idea of a smart pen. Microsoft has been trying to support pens in Windows for years and usually made a complete botch of it. But when I looked at it again on this machine and the latest version of Word it’s a revelation. You can now edit using natural gestures. 

In practice my final revise looks like this (I’m showing you the last draft of The Savage Shore, the next Costa book here).


I’ve flipped the laptop over into tablet mode. I’ve turned it upright so it’s the equivalent of an A4 page. I’ve taken out the active pen that comes with the thing. I can scroll up and down using a finger than mark the screen using the pen. When I need to make a small correction I use the onscreen keyboard that pops up at the bottom. For anything more substantial I just leave a comment to come back to later.

What does this mean in practice? I can sit back, run a red line through a word or paragraph and it gets deleted there and then. I leave track changes on, naturally, so I can go back on any mistakes. Also Word now keeps a history of previous versions so you can recover work much more easily than before.

I work more efficiently and more quickly than I ever could with a pen and paper. I don’t lose anything. I can be bold at cutting out stuff and always have the reassurance that if I go too far I can go back and correct it. This ticks pretty much all the boxes I want of an editing system.

Next month will be the third time I’ve used this on a project. The more I work with it, the more I like it. You get the odd glitch with the pen where a word isn’t deleted. But it’s nothing really. I can pull this out on a plane or train and work very efficiently. It feels very much like modern, intelligent, digital paper, with none of the physical drawbacks of the real thing. As always with writing and technology it’s the first I’m interested in, not the second. I want these tools to make my life easier and allow me the time and freedom to concentrate on the hardest part of this job — making the story happen.

Part of this job is about finding a writing and revision process that suits you then sticking with it. Do that and the process gets out of the way and lets you get on with the real work. So when it comes to starting a new project it’ll be back to the Mac and Ulysses, which is a creative, thinking environment I could never reproduce in Word. Then come  final revision time the Lenovo will come out again for that part of the task.