Best Laid Plans

I’ve talked a lot in this space about the importance of extensive revision. Today I’d like to go a bit deeper into one of the tensions that can emerge during that revision process. As I go through a piece of writing with a student, we often find significant discrepancies between the plan articulated at the outset and the subsequent text. Obviously, such discrepancies are common, especially if we are liberal in our use of explicit signposting in our early drafts. But this observation leads to an interesting question: when the plan and the actual text start to diverge, what should we do?

Let’s take a generic example. Imagine an introductory passage of this sort:

Our discussion of this issue will revolve around three key themes. We will begin by discussing X. This treatment of X will lead us into a consideration of the importance of Y. The obvious tension between X and Y will necessitate a discussion of a third theme, Z.

This piece of writing will now head into a discussion of X. Everything will run smoothly until X doesn’t in fact lead into a consideration of Y. Instead, it may lead into a discussion of W. This introduction of W then leads away from the notion of a tension between X and Y and necessitates a discussion of the way W and X affect of our central issue. Once editing begins, we’ll have to choose between our roadmap and our actual text.

Depending on the state of our editing abilities, we will either register this disjunction consciously or just feel a general discomfort with the text. If you tend to fall in the latter camp, try something like the reverse outline to help you figure out what might be triggering your discomfort.

Once you have sorted out that a discrepancy exists, the next step isn’t necessarily clear. Should the plan be changed to reflect the ideas that emerged through the writing or should the text itself be changed to reflect the original plan? Since each case will be different, I have no across-the-board answer to this question. However, I do think it is worth giving some thought to a general understanding of the way this tension manifests itself in our writing. For some writers, the writing itself is generally more significant than the plan. This emphasis on allowing ideas to emerge through writing is in line with my general emphasis on writing as a form of thinking. But there are some writers whose writing process simply takes them too far afield; given a free hand, these writers can end up so far from where they started that the text can no longer fulfil its intended function.

If you are such a writer, you  may wish to approach the reconciliation of plan and text somewhat differently. In fact, you may wish to take steps to avoid a dramatic discrepancy. One technique is to transform the original plan into a series of in-text directions to yourself. Once you have laid out that business about X, Y, and Z, write yourself a few brief sentences (or sub-heads) that will serve as a reminder to remain within certain parameters as you write. It isn’t that you shouldn’t stray, but if straying is your natural mode of writing, you may be struggling with scattered texts. If that is the case, it can be helpful to put  some tangible reminders of the original plan in place. In other words, take steps to make it harder for you to take unanticipated directions in your text.

The key here is coming to an understanding of your own writing practices: do your drafts naturally evolve beyond your early planning or do they need that early planning to keep them on track? Once you have a sense of that, you can decide how to position yourself in relation to the provisional plans that guide your early drafts.


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