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Editing your essay. To keep earlier drafts or to discard them?

As you write and edit your essay, you accumulate a large number of drafts, fragments, lists of examples and quotations, and other relevant material.

The question then arises whether it is better to keep all this material – so that nothing gets lost – or whether you should discard it, to keep everything simple and in one place.

The choice between these alternatives depends on your personal working preferences.

And it needn’t be a clear-cut choice, one or the other, since it is possible to keep a selection of drafts while discarding earlier experiments that no longer contain anything likely to be incorporated.

There are several factors to weigh up.

It is sensible, for example, to keep all your drafts if you are working on a word-processor that can store them easily, sorted with details of date originated and date most recently edited. In any case, you certainly need to keep a back-up copy at different stages, preferably separate from the machine you generally work on.

Apart from your own distress if you lose files, tutors tend to be unsympathetic to lost files and corrupted disks; they can do little to help and have no way of establishing how justified your account of the relevant circumstances is.

There are, however, some slightly less obvious reasons for not keeping all your drafts. Once drafts proliferate, there are too many overlapping documents to read and organise.

There is also the risk of revising something in a draft that doesn’t contain all the other changes you want to retain, since they were made to a different draft.

You can then end up with multiple, parallel drafts that, to be useful at all, have to be painstakingly synthesised.

Perhaps more importantly, too, keeping all your options open by keeping all your drafts postpones making decisions – sometimes until so much material has accumulated that it is difficult to maintain a coherent, overall view of what decisions you need to make.

Editing is a process of making changes; keeping earlier versions allows a set of those changes to accumulate. But it is also a matter of making decisions. Burning bridges once you have crossed them (keeping back-ups separate and only for use if you suffer a serious setback such as a computer crash) can help you focus on achieving a final, single version to hand in.

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