In my recent post on literature reviews and reverse outlines, I mentioned how doing a reverse outline can snap writers out of a certain complacency vis-à-vis their own writing. As I said there, this complacency rarely entails contentment, but it does impede our own editing efforts. One source of this editorial inertia is the presence of ‘local cohesion’. Even a piece of writing with serious structural issues may work at the local level. And if we lack strategies for macro-level editing, we may continue to refine a piece of writing by improving its local coherence without addressing larger issues.
I recently encountered a problem of this sort in a piece of my own writing. I realized—actually, it wasn’t so much realizing as it was being informed by an astute coauthor—that a paragraph wasn’t saying what I needed it to. I had missed this problem over time since the paragraph itself was internally coherent. Even once I saw the problem, however, I found it hard to devise a solution. The local cohesion had been deepened through many rounds of edits, which meant that the basics were very much in place: the paragraph had a discernible topic; each of its sentences appeared to address this topic; and the sentences had perfectly good flow between them. It was very hard for me to see how to go about making the necessary changes.
This may sound like I am just preparing to say (yet again!) that you’ll never regret doing a reverse outline. And I am saying that: getting at the skeletal form of your writing will definitely help you diagnose problems even when local cohesion is obscuring your editorial insight. However, I’m also acknowledging the difficulty of acting on that diagnosis. Once we have figured out what is wrong, we need to be tough on ourselves. It takes a good deal of intestinal fortitude to break up a piece of writing that is even partially working. It is so often the case that changing our writing has a significant ripple effect. Even if you can identify the particular point at which things go astray, you can’t just fix that point; you’ll also have to do the unsettling work of changing the supporting cast. Ultimately, editing our own writing is an act of faith. You have to believe that if you sacrifice local cohesion to global coherence, you are starting down a path towards a better piece of writing.