This blog is grounded in three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. The first stresses the connection between writing and thinking; the second emphasizes the importance of extensive revision; and the third underscores the value of understanding the needs of your reader.
The second key principle that informs my approach to academic writing is committing to extensive revision. Most people will readily agree that more revision would improve their writing. But despite this widespread recognition of the importance of revision, many writers simply do not make revision an essential part of their writing process. One reason for this resistance is that many writers believe their own first drafts to be uniquely flawed; in other words, they think the weakness of the first draft comes from their lack of writing skill rather than from the intrinsic weakness of any first draft. As a result, they have little faith in their ability to fix what ails their writing. I suggest a shift in perspective: rather than worrying that your writing requires an exceptional amount of revision, try thinking that all writing requires a great deal of revision. A first draft must be evaluated as stringently as we can, but there is no need to apply those harsh standards to ourselves as writers. This caution is important since very few people excel at writing first drafts; the tendency towards self-criticism means that the initial draft becomes a source of frustration rather than a valuable starting point. Accepting that the writing process must be iterative makes it easier to understand that writing will rarely be suitable for a reader without extensive revision.
Another obstacle that stands in the way of revision is the fact that many writers are stymied by their own drafts. When I ask students to bring me a piece of their writing with their own changes marked on the pages, those suggested changes are generally tentative and minor. Our own written texts can seem daunting; they may be flawed, but they do possess a certain unity and coherence. Changing them can be more challenging than letting them stand, even with their manifest weaknesses. However, we must be willing to treat our own texts as essentially mutable, as raw material that will eventually take the requisite shape. As we will see in the next post, we can learn more about the changes we need to make to our early drafts by understanding the needs of our reader.
For more on the challenges of revision, you can consult these other posts:
- In Revising Out Loud, I articulate how important it can be to develop a process for committing to our own writing, even before we tackle revision.
- In The Craft of Revision, I discuss my approach to the task of revision, from start to finish.
- In Remembering to Edit, I present some strategies for ensuring that we keep our eyes on the task of revision.
- In Bad News, Good News, I describe a common pattern: a lack of overall coherence despite local cohesion. In The Perils of Local Cohesion, I talk about the way that local cohesion can blind us to larger problems in our texts.
- In Best Laid Plans, I encourage writers to think about the ideal relationship between prior planning and actual writing.
- In Letting Go, I acknowledge how hard it can be to let go of hard-won text, even when it may not be serving any purpose.
- In Scaffolding Phrases, I introduce the distinction between writing that may be helpful to us as writers and writing that serves the ultimate goal of satisfying the reader.
- In Problem Sentences, I consider a radical revising solution: starting over.
- Finally, in Reverse Outlines, I discuss the best way to tackle structural problems in our writing. The process of reverse outlining get elaborated in my discussion of Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines. In Truth in Outlining, I stress the importance of being honest when crafting reverse outlines. In Topic Sentence Paragraphs, I look at a strategy that helps us to see if we have created coherence in a late-stage draft.