Bad News, Good News

During one-on-one writing consultations, I often find myself using the following phrase with students: ‘bad news, good news’. Of course, it is more natural to say ‘good news, bad news’, but I like to start with the bad news. I don’t do so to be discouraging, but rather to emphasize that the first impression given by their writing is problematic. Real readers—the ones who read your writing out of inclination rather than obligation—won’t necessarily last long enough to discover the good news: the ‘bad news’ is often what readers notice first. Novice writers who are accustomed to the dynamics of undergraduate writing may imagine that readers are routinely willing and able to distinguish valuable content from difficult writing. It’s true that some readers—particularly the ones who are paid to read your writing—will work through the hard parts to get to the interesting ideas. But we get fewer and fewer of those readers as we move through our careers, and, increasingly, we must submit our writing (to grant competitions or for publication or in support of job applications) to people who are not obliged to read our writing and who may in fact be looking for weaknesses as a way to differentiate among many qualified applicants. All of which is to say, first impressions matter.

First impressions can be influenced by simple things such as standard spelling, grammar, font, formatting, etc. But first impressions can also be influenced by a confusing structure. In such cases, I often write things like ‘transition?’ or ‘placement?’ in the margins. Those queries are then expanded in person: ‘Do you think this is what your reader is expecting you to discuss here?’. Since the message usually sounds a bit dire (‘as it stands, this piece of writing is pretty hard to understand’), I like to follow it up with the good news. The good news is that structural problems are often curable, especially if diagnosed in time. I mention time because structural decisions do become harder to reverse the longer they are allowed to stand. By curable I mean that fixing structural problems won’t necessarily require the hard work of rewriting every sentence. Some sentence-level work will inevitably be necessary at some point, but improving placement and transitions, even without that sentence-level work, can make a huge difference to your writing.

So what does this mean to you at home, where there is nobody to offer you these diagnoses? It means that reverse outlines should always be an early part of your revision process; I find them an invaluable way to transition from the drafting to the revision stage, but others may find this strategy to be helpful at various points in the writing process. It also means maintaining a strong sense of efficacy when confronted by real structural problems early in a draft. When editing yourself, use good editing strategies so that your ‘bad news’ isn’t just an inchoate sense that a piece of writing isn’t any good. By forcing yourself to engage in large-scale structural edits (rather than just playing around with individual sentences), you will see that much of your writing can be saved. Figuring out how to use what you’ve got to achieve your goals and meet your reader’s expectations means that you will be making real progress while still evaluating your existing draft with a necessarily stern eye.

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