Could you learn to write—or learn to write better—by watching an A.O. Scott article develop, keystroke by keystroke, edit by edit? James Somers, a developer for Genius, thinks so. To that end, in November—after years of ruminating on the idea and pursuing various technical solutions—he developed Draftback, a Google Chrome extension that plays back the writing process. The extension takes advantage of the fact that Google Docs already keeps a record of every keystroke in a document's history.
This can be maddening if you're watching your own spelling mistakes and sentence stalls, reliving the lede that didn't work and how long it took to think of just the right word. But Somers thinks this could revolutionize how we teach creative writing. And you don't even have to be watching the process of a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for The New York Times—although Scott is Somers' first choice.
"We know how to make a violinist better. We know how to make a pitcher better. We do not know how to make a writer better," Somers told Chadwick Matlin at FiveThirtyEight. He thinks having Draftback analyze a brilliant article is the first step. "I am not going to let a tiger go by the tail until somebody really, really great writes something important and then people can break it down," he says. "Because that’s going to be an artifact that’s valuable to every single high school teacher, high school student, college teacher, every literate person in the world."
Of course, as Matlin acknowledges, Draftback can't tell you why great authors made the choice they did, but when it comes to replaying his or her own work, it could allow editors and teachers to see exactly where a writer went wrong, for better or for worse. If you can stand to watch it, a Draftback reply of something you wrote—it doesn't even have to be from after the app was installed; the Google Docs archive of your every keystroke dates back indefinitely—could teach you invaluable lessons about your own process. Or you can just watch Matlin's article come together in excruciating start-and-stop progress over at FiveThirtyEight.