I recently met with a colleague to talk about his dissertation. As we read through his theoretical framework, I questioned the way that framework was being articulated. In response, he said that he had actually written it for a different context and then later imported it into its current location. It struck me how often I have a variant of this conversation: I say to a student that something in the flow or the perspective or the tone seems a bit off, and the student tells me that the material was ‘cut and paste’ from somewhere else. In some cases, this is said apologetically while, in others, this practice is treated as routine. Either way, the practice of cutting—or, more accurately, copying—and pasting is an interesting writing dilemma. And whether or not it is a good idea, we all do it all the time.
On the one hand, putting old text into a new document means that—Presto!—the new text has grown with very little effort. However, it isn’t coincidental that ‘a cut-and-paste job’ is used colloquially to indicate something that isn’t particularly well done; we naturally expect that something designed for one context won’t be as good in another. Text will almost always carry with it traces of its provenance. More importantly, using old text denies ourselves a chance to write that same material again from our current perspective. When I augment a document in this particular fashion, I always do so over a muffled objection in the back of my mind. I can always feel the way the imported text doesn’t fit in its new home and the way that I may have missed a chance to say it anew, to say it better.
Despite all these reservations, I am not actually suggesting that importing text is always a bad idea. Why not? Because early drafts are allowed to be weak, and getting to a complete first draft can be a huge step forward. Yes, there is still lots of work to be done, but having all the pieces can be significant. Once the basics are in place—including the imported text—we can turn our attention to the difficult business of making the full text work. I will sound one obvious note of caution: importing existing text into a new document can be a mistake if you’re not already committed to extensive revision. But if you are willing to engage in full-scale revision, you may benefit from experimenting with different bits of writing from other places. Even if this type of first draft will have even less cohesion than a conventional first draft, we can still use it a springboard for getting to a better understanding of our overall communicative intentions.
When my colleague went off to alter the way he presented his theoretical framework, he was doing so on the basis of a full draft of his chapter. He could have been stuck at his computer trying to sort out the one perfect way to present his theoretical framework; instead, he had put together a full draft that allowed him to show it to an outside observer. And talking to me about the draft allowed him to see things that still weren’t quite working. So while the cut and paste didn’t exactly ‘work’, it did do its job well enough to get him to the next editing stage. Sometimes that is what we need.
After completing this post, I read a great post by Pat Thomson responding to the Why Writing from Day One is Nuts post in The Thesis Whisperer. Her title (Writing the Thesis from Day One is Risky) and her discussion are both very helpful. Thomson does a great job of explaining how a deep understanding of the intellectual-identity-formation tasks of thesis writing make it difficult to advocate a strategy of collecting bits and pieces composed along the way. Thomson’s insights helped me to understand that the tolerance for cutting and pasting evinced above and the enthusiasm for writing early evinced in last week’s post come from the same place: a belief in the stimulating effect of seeing our own drafts (however rough they may be) and a faith in the efficacy of rewriting through editing. But she also gave me reason to question the depth of my attachment to those assumptions—and I greatly appreciate that. I will take these ongoing questions with me into a new section of my thesis writing course (which begins later today!) and look forward to returning to them in the coming months.