The Concept of the Three Manuscripts

When you read and edit your own work, be aware of a simple concept: every manuscript has not one, but three versions. By this, I don’t mean drafts of a manuscript. Every draft of every manuscript has three versions. The first version exists in the writer’s mind. This is the version the writer thinks she has written. The second version is the version that exists objectively on the page. The version in the writer’s mind and the version actually on the page are never exactly the same. This is the primary reason writers make lousy copyeditors of their own work: they’re seeing the sentence in their minds, not the one on the page. I don’t know how many times I’ve proofed a sentence only to have a copyeditor show me that it’s missing a comma or conjunction. The difference between what a writer thinks she has written and what exists on the page can be far more significant than a missed comma or conjunction. Sometimes the writer sees in the manuscript of her mind important details of character and place that simply aren’t on the page.

The third version of a manuscript is the one that exists in the mind of the reader. You can already see the potential for misunderstandings, disconnects, and miscommunications here. If the version in the writer’s mind differs significantly from the version on the page, the reader won’t be reading the work the writer thinks she has composed. The reader isn’t perfect, either. Even a very good reader won’t read with perfect accuracy the version on the page. Studies in eyewitness testimony – and the Kurosawa film, Rashomon – have demonstrated the inability of eyewitnesses to agree on simple facts, such as the color of a suspect’s shirt. Different readers will read different things in a manuscript. You can’t prevent all misreading. But you can ground the reader in solid details of time, place, and character to keep him on track. If the version on the page closely adheres to the version in your mind, you can eliminate the one degree of confusion that can lead to a reader getting hopelessly lost.