Software that can publish every draft of a book simultaneously shows the true beauty of the creative process

The next Great American Novel might be in there.
The next Great American Novel might be in there.
Image: Flickr/Nat Welch
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Writing is an iterative process. This article, for example, was revised 16 times before publishing. Writers, however, tend not to show their creative process—the final product usually stands on its own, free from markups, strikethroughs or tracked changes. Gregory Mazurek, a computer programmer from New York, has used the tools from his day job to show that the process of writing, in his case a novel, can be just as important as the final product.

Mazurek, whose pen name is Gregory Gershwin, is a software engineer at the online retail site Gilt. Like many programmers, Mazurek uses GitHub, a version management and file hosting website, to keep track of his work. GitHub allows multiple users to make changes to the same file, but it saves a version of the file every time a change is made. This means if a mistake is found, or the programmers decide to go in a different direction with their project, they can revert to any previous version of a file whenever they want. GitHub also allows users to merge different edits of the same file, so two people can work on different parts of a file at the same time.

Mazurek, who has been writing fiction in his spare time since college, told Quartz that he usually uses Google Docs to write, but realized that if he wanted to format a book for EPUB—the text format used on many e-book readers—he needed to use something more technical. ”Creating the EPUB was the impetus for moving everything to GitHub,” Mazurek said.

Once his book, Benjamin Buckingham And The Nightmare’s Nightmare, was finished, Mazurek publicly shared the GitHub project so anyone could see the changes he made to the story along the way. Mazurek said that he originally hadn’t intended to make the project public, that he had just used GitHub as a way of keeping track of his thoughts and making sure he could access his work from multiple computers. But after he showed the project to his friends, they convinced him that there was artistic value in sharing the changes made along the way, as well as the novel itself.

The revisions are online for anyone to access, and they show just how much can change before the final product is released. Mazurek compares his GitHub repository to a time-lapse video of “a painter in a studio painting a canvas over a time.” A few examples: The book’s original first chapter was deleted, an evil character was changed to a good one, and the main character went from being ”whiny” to resolute. Mazurek’s notes and random thoughts are dotted throughout. ”It goes in and out of states of readability,” Mazurek said. “It has comments that are nonsensical. It’s sometimes brutally honest and sometimes terribly unsure of itself.”

github screenshot
The novel’s evolving structure on GitHub.
Image: GitHub/Gregory Mazurek

While there are many tools for public collaboration on the web—Google Docs itself allows multiple users to edit work and track old versions—GitHub says it’s the largest collaboration repository for code on the web. By using GitHub, any enterprising programmer could download Mazurek’s edits and turn them into something interactive. “I’d love to see an app that could allow you to hover over portions of text while reading the story to uncover what that text was in an earlier version,” Mazurek said. There’s analog precedent for this—T.S. Eliot, Jack Kerouac and James Joyce have all had draft versions of their work published.

Mazurek shows how the creative process behind published work is changing in a digital world. “For just about everything I wrote prior to this novel, I started on paper,” Mazurek said. He’s already working on a follow-up novel, which he says he is also uploading to GitHub, but as with his first GitHub project, he’s keeping it private until he’s finished.

“There are mistakes, there are revisions, there are errors, more revisions,” Mazurek said about writing. ”It’s sometimes pretty, often revealing. It’s just my creative process to eventually get at the end result.”

Note: To see all the revisions that went into this story, click here.