This past fall, I accidentally published a very rough draft of a post. I still don’t know how I managed to hit Publish instead of Save Draft, but I did. The post was so rough that I hadn’t even decided whether or not I wanted to publish it; I often use this space just to think through issues that are on my mind. After my initial horror subsided, I found the reader reaction interesting. Lots of people said that they were actually glad to see a provisional version of someone else’s writing. I’ve certainly talked here about how rarely we see other people’s weak drafts and have often wondered how best to combat this problem. Mistakenly posting a work in progress is certainly one way to show the world how muddled my thinking and syntax can be. I decided there must be some way to build on this accidental overshare, but I wasn’t immediately sure how best to do so.
As I pondered this question, I realized that my revision process has two phases. I often talk about the relatively simple fact that we ought to tackle some aspects of revision before others, but here I’m getting at something different. Before we can begin these sequenced stages of revision, we may need to confront our own ambivalence about what we’ve written. This preliminary phase—which I will talk about this post—is the hard one for me. The second phase is the fun one because it involves fixing something that I know I want to share. The hard part is deciding whether something is worth sharing and whether it can be revised into publishable form. This stage is harder because it is less about technique and more about self-doubt. My litany of self-doubting questions are likely familiar to many of you. Am I saying anything interesting? Is what I’m saying even right? Has someone else already said it better? Might I be inadvertently offending someone? Could I be unnecessarily complicating the issue? Have I contradicted myself? You get the idea. In the rest of this post, I want to talk about the process of responding to such early questions in a way that allows me to make an initial commitment to my own writing. In order to get to the point at which I’m ready to make the necessary revisions, I need to assess three aspects of an early draft: relevance; coherence; and manageability.
Assessment of relevance: The first revision decision is whether I want to share something at all. As I often say here on the blog, some things need to be written more than they need to be read, and I have lots of those in my unpublished drafts folder. To decide whether to publish something on the blog, I need to think about the relevance of the topic to my anticipated audience. In this case, the key point was that presentation slides benefit from being designed rather than written. Was that worth talking about? Since I see such a large number of slides decks that are full of text while being hard for the audience to follow, I decided that these reflections were relevant. By making this decision early, I try to avoid the inefficiency that can result from being noncommittal about my own writing.
Assessment of coherence: Once I establish that I want to keep a post, I have to assess its coherence. To do this, I turn to a reverse outline. Obviously, a reverse outline isn’t nearly as important for a short text as for a long one, but it can still be helpful. Identifying the basic point of each paragraph confirms whether I’ve been able to sustain my attention to a topic and allows me to see whether each of the paragraphs makes a distinct contribution.
Assessment of manageability: Finally, I find it valuable to create a manageable path to completion. It can, of course, be hard to decide how much revision is necessary: finished is not an objective state. Because revision can so easily become a self-perpetuating activity, I like to make a clear plan. This planning doesn’t necessarily stop me from late-stage tinkering, of which I do far more than I should, but it does make it harder for me to indulge my tendency towards endless revision. Knowing that revision ultimately has diminishing returns, I like to make an explicit plan based on revision priorities and available time.
Taken together, these different assessments give me a meaningful way of managing my own discontent. As is not uncommon, my early writing efforts often fill me with dismay. It is important, however, to have a concrete way to move past such feelings of inadequacy. It can be helpful to realize that others are also struggling, but that alone won’t enhance the quality of our texts. To improve our writing, we need a way of channelling any unhappiness. By asking myself these questions, I am trying to be deliberately hard on myself without succumbing to the negativity that results from being indiscriminately hard on myself. There is some discipline required here: I allow myself to be very critical on the condition that I will accept what I come up with when I address the criticisms. In other words, I can’t just continue to find new problems.
Once I’ve finished these initial assessments, I have to do the actual revisions. As I said above, this part I love. Figuring out what a sentence (or paragraph) is trying to do and then figuring out what is getting in its way is a lot of fun. While I often lack confidence in the things I’m trying to say, I sometimes feel real pleasure in my ability to make my sentences and paragraphs do as I wish. I’ll try to do a post in the future that looks in detail at that sort of sentence and paragraph transformation. In the meantime, I’d love to hear other people’s strategies for getting comfortable with their own early drafts.