Saving Your Manuscript: Why Version Control Is Essential
When you delete something big from your manuscript, like a scene or even a chapter, where does it go? Do you cut and paste it into another file just in case you need it later? Do you just delete it and let it dissolve into the ether? Do you keep separate versions of your book, say, for each new draft? Or do you just keep working on the same file for the life of your book?
While I’m a fairly organized and generally minimalistic person with my objects, I actually advocate for never permanently deleting anything when it comes to your writing. In this post, I’ll be outlining why keeping all the versions of your manuscript separate and safe is essential to your writing process.
What’s version control?
Version control allows you to keep track of all changes to a document throughout its history. That way, if you want to reverse a change you make in a later version, it’s easy to go back to the original.
When writing a book, version control often looks like saving a separate file for each draft or editing phase of your manuscript. For example, you may have the following different files on your computer:
However, you can also use version control to keep track of the different feedback you’re getting from various readers. For example:
This makes it easy for you to see at a glance whose feedback you’re about to open up and look at. (I actually use these principles when naming files for clients. So if you send me “mynovel.docx,” I’ll send back “AuthorName_mynovel_edits.docx” when I’m done editing.)
Why do I need all these versions?
If you’ve never used version control before, then I bet that short list of versions above already has your head spinning. What’s wrong with just making changes to the same document?
It’s safer to change your mind.
Let’s say you decide that, in the second draft of your novel, you need to get rid of a certain chapter. It’s really info-dumpy, and the story will flow much better without it. So you delete it. But then, as you continue to work on your story a week or so later, you realize that a lot of the info you deleted was actually essential to understanding some of the plot points in the third act. Unfortunately, that entire chapter is now gone—you deleted it a week ago, and there’s no going back now. You’ll have to try and remember everything you wrote in that chapter and rewrite all of it from scratch.
In this situation, if you had a “draft1.docx” version of your book to go back to, it would be easy to just copy-paste that chapter back in, or to take bits and pieces of it and Frankenstein’s monster them into various sections of draft 2. Having different versions of your draft saves you from having to rewrite a bunch of material if you happen to change your mind later.
It’s easier to compare.
How about this scenario: You can’t decide if your story works better in first-person or third-person point of view, so you write the first two chapters both ways to see how they turn out. But you wrote them both in the same document, and so you have to keep clicking and scrolling back and forth to compare them. It’s not very efficient, and it’s still hard to make up your mind.
If you had a “1stperson.docx” and “3rdperson.docx” file instead, you could open both at once, side-by-side, and compare the two easily. It would then be easier to also insert scenes from other parts of the book to compare those as well. Keeping separate versions allows you to jump back and forth between them more easily.
It keeps you organized.
So now you’re at the beta reading stage of your revisions, and you’ve just got your draft back from six wonderful beta readers. The only problem? The files all have the same name, so you can’t save them easily to your computer, meaning you have to open each one directly from the email attachment every time. Not only that, but while you’re in the middle of looking at the feedback, you keep forgetting who said what.
If you had a different version of the beta file from each beta reader (i.e. “beta_JackSmith.docx”), then it would be easy to always know whose feedback you’re looking at at any given time, and you’d be able to easily go back to their version of the file to review comments or suggestions. Having different versions of your manuscript for each reader helps you keep feedback separate and more organized.
It helps prevent major story loss.
Have you ever had a file suddenly get corrupted for no reason? That can happen to your manuscript, which is another place where versions come in handy. (Aside from backing up your files, which you should always, always do!) If you have a slightly older version of the story, then yes, you’ll definitely have to redo some work, but you won’t have to rewrite the whole thing from the very beginning.
Tips for version control.
So if all of the above has you convinced, here’s what you can do to keep track of the versions of your manuscript.
Name each separate file clearly.
For example, perhaps you’d name your first draft “mynovel_draft1.docx” and your second draft “mynovel_draft2.docx.”
Keep only one active file at any given time.
Once you’ve started the draft 2 version of your manuscript, don’t edit draft 1! When you create a new version, you should not make any further changes to the old versions no matter what. Only work on the most recent version. If you’ve got lots of versions going on, this can get confusing, so it may help to mark the current one as something like “mynovel_draft2_active” so that you can find it easier. (Just don’t forget to delete the “active” once that version isn’t active anymore!)
Make backups of all your versions.
You should always be backing up your files anyway, whether that’s to something physical like an external hard drive or something non-physical like the cloud. Make sure to always back up all the versions of your manuscript, not just the current active version. After all, that’s part of the point—to be able to look back at older versions!
You know you need a new version when…
You want to make any major changes, such as deleting a character or rearranging chapters.
You want to do one giant sweep through the whole manuscript for a certain purpose, such as a read-through focusing only on making your sentences prettier or fixing grammar mistakes.
You’re about to pass your manuscript to someone else to read. Create a specially named version just for them, that way you have a record and don’t have to try and remember if you sent draft 2 or draft 3, for instance.
You get manuscript feedback from others, and they haven’t specially named their versions. Name it for them, for your own organization!
You’re about to reformat your manuscript to send it out to an editor, agent, designer, or other professional.
One last note for non-Word users:
Scrivener allows you to keep versions of your chapters stored right within those chapters. The feature is called Snapshots, and it allows you to save exactly what a chapter looked like before you go in to edit it. If you’re writing in Scrivener and don’t want to create a new project file for each version of your book, then this can be a great tool! (I still recommend creating different versions for your exports, though.)
Google Docs also keeps a version history of documents, and it lets you name the versions separately and make copies of them. There’s even a “Restore this version” button for if you absolutely want to go back to an old version of a doc. If you click on the “Show changes” checkbox, you can see exactly what was changed between versions. This is an excellent tool as well, but I still recommend creating an entirely new doc for sending out to beta readers or your editor(s). Why? Because they can see the version history in Google Docs, too, and you don’t necessarily want that!
I hope this post has helped you understand and consider the importance of version control when writing a novel, plus how to do it effectively. Now go forth and back up your files! And if you have any questions, you can always get in touch by email: email@example.com.