Monthly Archives: March 2012

Letting Go

In two different contexts recently, I had reason to discuss the challenge of deleting material from our own writing. In both cases, I noticed that students appeared to identify strongly with what I was saying: there was a great deal of nodding and grimacing. For lots of writers, writing is so hard that throwing away ‘perfectly good writing’—i.e., writing that is both finished and marginally coherent—is difficult to do. This attachment to our own writing often means that there are elements in a draft that are left in just because we can’t bear to part with them or can’t bear to see a document shrink instead of grow. But it can be very hard to take a draft to the next level when we haven’t expunged the parts that aren’t working. Editing, especially at the early stages, requires a great willingness to jettison material. However, if you found it hard to put the words on paper in the first place, deleting them can be genuinely painful.

One response to this pain—one that, admittedly, gets me some sceptical, easy-for-you-to-say looks from my students—is to think more broadly about the purposes of writing. We don’t write just to satisfy a certain word count or page limit: at a deeper level, we write to sort out what we need to say. That beautiful paragraph you agonized over may have been written for you, not for your reader: you needed to formulate those ideas in proper sentences to understand them properly but the reader may be satisfied with nothing more than a brief mention of what you sorted out. Accepting this broader purpose of writing can lessen our attachment to particular sentences and paragraphs.

If we do come to the realization that a certain passage is no longer serving a purpose in our text, we still need to decide what to do with it. The delete key is too extreme a response for most of us. It’s like a game of Love It or Hate It: faced with a stark binary choice, many of us choose to ‘love’ our first drafts. My solution is to create a place to put all the things that I am not sure of, a place where I can save bits of text that have outlived their usefulness. Saving them means that I might have the chance to use them in some other context. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve ever gone back to these old writing fragments, but knowing that they are there gives me to the courage to be a more ruthless editor. Having a good system for managing subsequent drafts is also a good way of increasing your editorial resolve (the ProfHacker blog has a great post on version control that may help you with this). In the end, your writing will thank you for developing the habit of letting go.

This ability to let go can also help with writing efficiency. If we are somewhat steely during our early structural edits—if you don’t know how to start that process, try a reverse outline—we can avoid unnecessary fine editing of material that we might have to remove later. Indeed, the sunk cost of premature fine editing is one of the things that causes us to hang on to text that we no longer need. Having devoted time to improving a particular passage, rather than to thinking about how it serves the broader text, we can find ourselves unwilling to remove that passage.

In sum, remaining alert to the potential benefits of removing passages from our texts can help us to avoid wasted editorial efforts and can leave us with a document that is ultimately stronger and more cohesive. Finally, this brief post from the GradHacker blog talks in a similar vein about the need to delete the stuff that isn’t working for us.

Links: Attrition and Writing Support, Effective Job Talks, Understanding Journal Boycotts

Here is a recent piece from The University of Venus blog on graduate students and attrition. The author, Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, begins by allowing that some attrition is probably beneficial: some people will inevitably decide that graduate study isn’t right for them. But she argues that even those who are in the right place would benefit from additional support from sources outside their departments. She divides that support into two types of ‘services’: psychological support and research and writing advice. This notion of additional support is great, and Segesten provides a helpful list of suggestions for managing the writing process. But I think it is worth noting the implications of treating writing as a problem in need of a solution. In this framework, writing is treated as a problem—akin to other life or organizational problems—to be solved rather than as an activity at the heart of the academic enterprise. Treating writing difficulties as mere matters of organization (or approach or determination) can lead students to feel that their difficulties ought to be more manageable than they are. When writing is treated more as a life skill than an academic skill, a student can be left in a difficult position: their weakness is characterized as minor but their experience of that weakness can be extremely unpleasant. Being a weak writer is rarely a ‘minor’ problem for a graduate student, and the solution to such difficulties are rarely simple.

This post from The Professor Is In blog discusses delivering effective job talks. Kelsky’s post is full of great advice, all of which would be helpful to anyone preparing for an important talk. In particular, I wanted to highlight her discussion of the text necessary to support an effective talk. Her advice is ‘read but don’t read’, and most people can only achieve that apparent paradox with a well-designed written text. Nothing gives polish to a formal talk better than a prepared text: most speakers cannot achieve the necessary level of articulacy off the cuff (especially in a high-stakes situation when nerves are more likely to be an issue). At the same time, nothing weakens a talk more than seeing nothing but the top of the presenter’s head as a paper is read word-for-word from the page. As hard as it sounds, we all need to find a perfect blend of textual support (to avoid inarticulacy) and rehearsed confident delivery (that doesn’t appear to rely on a written text). Here is an earlier post that suggests some ways to create a text that will support a sophisticated and fluent talk without the appearance of reading.

We all know that we can’t read everything and that we can’t follow every story that comes along. When a story is new, we all make decisions about whether a story warrants immediate engagement or not. Sometimes, inevitably, we guess wrong and end up feeling as if we’ll never grasp all the nuances of a particular story. I thought (or maybe just hoped) that the boycott of Elsevier was one of those stories that I could ignore. Then, of course, it wasn’t! So I was very happy to find this helpful post from Barbara Fister writing at Inside Higher Ed. She starts at the beginning, documents the important steps along the way, and draws valuable conclusions. The comments on her post are also surprisingly constructive and interesting.

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.