One of my favourite bits of revision advice is that writers should learn about their own writing habits. To revise your writing effectively, you should know what words or phrases you overuse or what rules you tend to misunderstand. Bringing to bear your accumulated understanding of your own writing habits will definitely improve your revision process. While working on my book manuscript this summer, I encountered a situation that deepened my appreciation for the efficacy of this type of self-knowledge.
As I was struggling through the middle section of the book, I realized that the structure really wasn’t working. I had tried out many different things and had ended up equally unhappy with all my attempts. With the help of many reverse outlines (and the incisive advice of a good friend), I realized that I was indecisively flip-flopping between two different structural arrangements:
- Having three separate chapters of writing principles, followed by a single chapter of revision strategies
- Dividing up the revision strategies and interspersing them throughout the three chapters of writing principles
This type of structural choice probably seems pretty familiar; most of us have had the experience of confronting such a choice in our academic writing. To take a simple example, let’s say you’ve got eighteen participants, each of whom was asked six interview questions. Should you give each participant’s answers to all six questions before going on to the next participant? Or should you give all eighteen participants’ answers to question one before going on to give all the answers to question two, and so on. The best answer to such structural questions will always be determined by context. Do you want to reflect on the implications of the totality of each participant’s responses? Or do you want to draw connections between the varied responses of different participants to each question? Given whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, one of these options is surely preferable for your eventual reader. The problem can be, however, that you might genuinely not know what your reader needs in this instance. I was definitely trying to meet the needs of my future reader, but that commitment alone didn’t solve my problem: I was still able to make a sound case for either approach.
I eventually came to a resolution by reflecting more deeply on my own tendencies as an academic writer. I often—without even knowing that I’m doing so—shy away from being concrete. My readers have long told me that my academic writing would benefit from more detail, more elaborations, more examples. Recognizing that I generally err on the side of offering concepts without concrete application, I decided that the right solution was probably the one where I pushed myself to be more concrete. Rather than asking my reader to work through three chapters of writing principles before giving them a strategies chapter, I would make each chapter a blend of principles and strategies. Carving up a chapter and integrating its parts into three other existing chapters wasn’t easy, but I’m provisionally happy with the results.
What makes my experience potentially relevant for others is the general notion that self-knowledge can help with decision making in academic writing. When you are confronting a structural dilemma, try thinking about the needs of the reader. If that intervention doesn’t magically clear everything up, try reflecting on the ways in which you may typically struggle to meet the needs of the reader. This strategy is helpful because it forces you to think about how your inclinations may not reliably serve the needs of your reader. Different writers will obviously have different writerly inclinations. I revel in creating systematic principles without sufficient attention to concrete applications; others may excel at detailed explication but may be stingy when to it comes to the higher order unification of their ideas. General revision principles—like understanding the needs of your reader—are great, but your revision practices also need to be grounded in a deepening grasp of your persistent habits. Overcoming the gap between how we tend to express ourselves and how the reader wants the material to be expressed is the goal of all revision. We can each give that process a boost by personalizing our revision practices with a growing awareness of what we do well when we write and where we consistently fall short.
This post is the fifth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.
Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude each of these book reflections posts with a status update. Needless to say, the complexity of life over the past five months has made writing extra challenging. I have now finished my provisional revision of Parts One and Two, which puts me on schedule, at least according to the revised schedule I created in June. That means that I’ll try to write Chapter Seven in August (somewhat realistic) and Chapter Eight in September–October (less realistic) and Chapter Nine in November (who knows what will be going on by then!). But by the end of year, I should have a full draft ready for extensive revision.