Tag Archives: Flow

Personalizing Your Revision Practice

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:

  1. Having three separate chapters of writing principles, followed by a single chapter of revision strategies
  2. 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.

Full Stop

As I was proofreading something recently, it occurred to me that discussions of punctuation and grammar contain relatively little about the period. If you go looking for information on using periods, you will mostly find technical advice about formatting. Such editorial advice is crucial, but not necessarily of primary interest to the writer. The obvious reason that writers don’t worry much about periods is that their use is pretty straightforward: we use a period after a complete sentence. The period has none of the apparent complexity of the semicolon, the colon, the dash (more on the dash here), or the comma (more on the comma here, here, here, and here). But that relative simplicity doesn’t mean that the decision to use a period isn’t consequential. A period makes evident key authorial decisions: whether to say a lot or a little before stopping; whether to be assertive or interrogative when raising questions; or whether to insert a full stop or just the rolling stop achieved by other types of punctuation. I certainly don’t want to problematize the one piece of punctuation that everyone feels good about, but the ways that we stop in our writing are worth some consideration.

Short vs. long sentences. Any time we use a period, we are deciding whether we want a short or long sentence. If we are generous with our periods, we will be writing clipped sentences; if we are stingy, on the other hand, we will end up with sprawling sentences. Neither is better. The previous sentence, for instance, is short because I want to emphasize it. And its brevity is enhanced by the fact that it follows a longer set of sentences with a semicolon framing their double-barrelled structure. It generally works well to use short sentences for emphasis and longer ones for depth. If we go too far in either direction, the reader will begin to suffer. Too many long sentences coming one after another—even if they are individually well structured—can be fatiguing for the reader. Too many short sentences will disorient the reader since not everything can warrant special emphasis. Those short sentences will inevitably contain unimportant things; the reader’s confidence in you can be undermined if you appear to be emphasizing the insignificant. Creating a healthy mix of short and long sentences can be the best thing for your paragraphs.

Direct vs. indirect questions. What is the impact of asking a question as compared with stating that a question exists? When raising questions in our work, we have to decide whether to use a direct question—i.e., one that ends with a question mark—or an indirect question, i.e., one that ends with a period. When we use too many direct questions, our readers may start to see us as having more questions than actual strategies for answering those questions. An indirect question gives us the ability to articulate a question, which is obviously essential to academic writing, while also indicating our plans for addressing the question.

Full stop vs. rolling stop. As a hopeless over-user of colons and semicolons in my own writing, I have a particular interest in this question. During editing, I often find long strings of sentences, all of which are connected by semicolons. An over-reliance on the rolling stop is a bit like an over-reliance on transition words: it tries to impose flow rather than establishing it. Genuine flow will involve the use of some colons and semicolons; there’s nothing wrong with nudging your reader towards the next sentence. The semicolon says that the next sentence is intimately connected to this one; the colon says that the next sentence completes what is being said in this one. Those relationships are emphasized by the punctuation choice, but the punctuation alone won’t create that relationship. The choice between a full and a rolling stop should be consciously based on an understanding of the nature of the connection between sentences.

In sum, if you understand what is requisite for a complete sentence, your use of periods will be perfectly correct. But thinking about how and why we end sentences can still be a useful avenue for improving the flow in your writing.