Over the weekend, I went poking around in my own archives to look for posts that might be helpful for other people embroiled in AcWriMo. What I found was a lot of writing advice that presupposed the existence of some sort of draft. Some posts were explicitly geared towards the editing phase: committing to extensive revision; reverse outlines; and remembering to edit. Many other posts concerned the sorts of things that I wouldn’t recommend attending to during the initial writing phase: making effective transitions; crafting strong paragraphs; creating clear sentences with topic subjects and action verbs; working with problem sentences; letting go of passages we no longer need; reconciling our best laid plans with our actual drafts; and the perils of local cohesion.
I’m obviously not surprised that the bulk of my advice concerns working with drafts. I’m very hesitant to interfere with the beautiful mystery of getting words down on paper; I’ve got a healthy respect for the alchemy that allows us to turn thoughts into prose. Editing, on the other hand, is emphatically un-mysterious, requiring a hyper-rational attention to the principles of sound academic writing. So I began this blog with a recommendation to use writing to clarify thinking and then turned my attention to the more manageable process of revising our own work. The essentially ungovernable writing process has been left largely untouched. But in light of AcWriMo, I want to offer one piece of advice related to the early drafting process.
When we write as a way of clarifying our own thinking, we are often engaging in a somewhat chaotic process. We may not be writing to a specific plan, with a neat outline to guide us along the way. Instead, we may be trying things out and experimenting with different phrasings and switching course and just generally endeavouring—through trial and error—to find the best path. Later we can use various revision strategies to make sense of it all and turn it into something suitable for the reader. The value of separating writing and revising is clear: on the one hand, you get the full freedom of the writing process and, on the other, you get time to transform that text into something suited to its eventual audience. But this dichotomy between drafting and editing can be taken too far, so I want to talk about an intervening space: not quite editing, but beyond drafting.
Have you ever come back to a rough—emphasis on rough—draft and been unable to figure out what is going on? It’s great to free the writing process from the burdens of editing, but not if you are going to end up with a text that is ambiguous or opaque. Depending on your own writing processes and the demands of the particular project, the revision stage can be far removed from the writing stage. No matter how much we imagine that we’ll always remember what we know now, we simply won’t. We all need to take steps to ensure that our future selves will understand what they are looking at. To this end, I suggest leaving a short block of time at the close of each writing session for rough editing.
This short block of time will allow you to do three things. First, you can clean up obvious errors so the text will make sense to you later. For example, during a recent round of rough editing, I found an errant ‘not’ in a sentence; it was obviously there because I had been experimenting with expressing the thought in a positive or negative way. I had chosen the positive expression but had failed to remove the ‘not’. Figuring this out took me very little time because I still remembered having struggled with this sentence. In a week or two, I might not remember and would have had to engage in a more complicated process to figure out what was going on. A quick read through—scrupulously resisting the urge to do any fine editing—can save you from great bafflement later. Second, you can take this limited time to record your quick reactions to the text so far. Switch to all-caps (or to a different font or colour) and comment on what you see. Have I done enough with this idea? Should this be here? Is the work of so-and-so relevant here? You may not have time to answer these questions right then, but you should have a system for capturing them. Third, the rough edit can be a great time to set yourself up to start your next session of writing. Whenever possible, leave yourself some sort of instructions that will greet you the next time you open the document. A concrete suggestion about the first thing you should do when you sit down to write will help you get underway and will make the prospect of returning to your text much more appealing.
I realize that this post is based on a particular assumption about AcWriMo. Judging from my Twitter feed (one Pomodoro, two Pomodoros, …), it sounds like lots of people are doing more drafting than editing this month. But that may or may not be true. I think the beauty—as I discussed last week—of the way AcWriMo has been framed this time is that anyone can use it as a way to spur productivity in whatever way they need. AcWriMo could be a month dedicated to intensive editing rather than drafting. However, since I do get the sense that lots of people are taking this month as a chance to embark on the initial writing of the texts they need to produce, I thought I would talk about the steps we can take to make sure that our eventual return to those texts isn’t too much of a shock. Happy writing, everyone!