Tag Archives: Joseph Williams

The Craft of Revision

All academic writers have some sort of revision process, but that process is often either insufficient (just nibbling around the edges) or scattershot (catching some things but missing others). To improve our revision practices, we generally have to both deepen them and make them more systematic.

My starting point here is the near impossibility of crafting reader-ready first drafts. If the material is conceptually complex, if you are still struggling to understand the implications of what you’ve learned, if the internal connections aren’t yet apparent to you, then the first draft is going to be clumsy. At that stage, the text will be something that you are still learning from rather than something that others can learn from. For most of us, making the transition from a text that helps you to a text that helps the reader takes multiple iterations. When I talk about needing to make a commitment to extensive revision, that choice of words might make it sound as if the main issue is one of will power. The truth is that developing good revision practices takes more than just commitment because revision itself is very challenging. Even with the best of intentions, we still run into problems:

I always run out of time.

In other words, “I’m not actually getting a first draft done early enough to make revision a rational part of my writing process; at the last minute, I’m trying to make it better, but I don’t actually have the time or space to tackle the hard stuff.”

I try to edit, but then I get distracted by content.

In other words, “Even if I have the time and space for editing, I quickly shift my focus away from the writing to issues of content.”

I see some problems but not others.

In other words, “Even with the best of intention, with sufficient time, with sufficient attention to matters of expression (rather than content), I still can’t see all the problems in my own text.”

As these comments demonstrate, the ability to revise our own writing doesn’t generally come naturally. In fact, the challenges of assessing our own writing are such that revision must be thought of as a craft that will need to be consciously cultivated. If we think of writing as an art, it makes sense to think of revision as a craft. No matter how you came to pull the first draft together, there are some recognized ways to get it into a more manageable form.

The first thing to say about the craft of revision is that it is different than proofreading. It’s crucial that we distinguish the process of revision from the final process of making sure there are no errors. Lumping proofreading in with revision may result from the fact that we often use the term ‘editing’ to refer to anything we might do to a draft. But separating revision and proofreading means that we are able to distinguish two activities that are inherently quite different: revision is the active reading and rearranging of our text and proofreading is the process of making corrections and checking for consistency (while not making the sort of revisions that so easily introduce new errors).

Even once we exclude proofreading activities, revision isn’t one monolithic thing; there are a broad range of activities that can be called revision.

  • Word choice: Have you used apt vocabulary?
  • Sentence structure: Are your sentences easy for the reader to follow?
  • Flow between sentences, paragraphs, sections: Have you found the optimal order and then signalled that order to your reader?
  • Tone: Have you engaged your reader while still conforming to academic writing conventions?
  • Economy: Have you avoided distracting digressions or general wordiness?
  • Overall coherence: Is there a clear and discernible argument or structure to your writing?

With all these potential questions, it is unsurprising that we often feel jumbled and ineffectual while trying to revise our own prose. One way to tackle these feelings is by creating an effective sequence for our revision process. Here is one such possibility, drawn from the always-helpful work of Joseph Williams.

Broad structural issues: The first thing to tackle are the big issues. This advice may sound obvious, but many writers do begin with the small stuff. The best way that I know to undertake a structural edit is to do a reverse outline. It is practical to do this sort of revision first, before we end up too attached to everything we’ve written and thus unwilling to make deep cuts. This stage should be somewhat ruthless, and ruthlessness comes easier early in the process. During this stage, we should also be on the lookout for those things that may have needed to be written but not necessarily read. Since writing so often functions as a way of clarifying thought, we need to be alert to the possibility that we’ve said more than is ultimately necessary for the reader.

Clarity: Revising for clarity means looking for extra words and for undue complexity. In our quest for clearer sentences, it can helpful to remember how consistently we are tempted to distance ourselves from our ideas with awkward expressions, weak verbs, and unclear subjects. More generally, we are often flummoxed by the conventions of academic writing, which at least appear to require a degree of complexity that works against clarity. There is always room for clarity, but these issues of tone can still give a lot of grief to novice academic writers who are grappling with complex topics while navigating the demands of a new discourse community.

Sentence-level errors: In this round of revision, we will be looking for errors that may not have been caught while we were thinking about clarity. We will ideally be guided here by an understanding of our own particular writing patterns as well as by an understanding of common issues such as subject-verb agreement, ambiguous reference, or punctuation.

Cohesion problems: By this point, we’ve made a lot of changes, so we have to make sure it all coheres. With all this revision, it’s inevitable that new inconsistencies and infelicities will have been introduced. A final round of revision is often required to make sure our newly arranged and polished text flows naturally.

These four stages reflect the revision order that I prefer, but the process could easily be altered to reflect your own preferences. The crucial notion is that revision should be sequenced—to allow different issues to come to the fore in turn—and that the sequence should run from broad to fine.

In conclusion, I want to stress the way that revision benefits both the writing itself and the writing process: as better revisers, we are better writers. Good revisers are better writers because they have the confidence to know that they can fix the problems that are inevitably created during the composition process. Since writing is usually accompanied by some discomfort about the manifest flaws of our first draft, it is so helpful to develop faith that we will be able to fix problems later. There are many valid approaches to academic writing, but they all must end with a solid approach to the craft of revision.

This post is adapted from a presentation on the ‘art of revising’ for a virtual boot camp run by the Text and Academic Authors Association. The presentation is available as a podcast on the TAA site.

“Can you recommend a good book on writing?”

I am often asked to recommend a ‘good book on writing’. A simple enough question, but one that is surprisingly hard to answer. In my attempts to do so, I feel a bit like a sommelier, responding to the question with a few of my own: Are you having the fish or the lamb? Do you tend to like full-bodied reds? That is, it’s hard to recommend a book without knowing what sort of writing project you are doing and what sort of support you are likely to perceive as valuable. This list includes some of the books that I find helpful, allowing you to see what might be beneficial to you. (This list expands on the list of five key sources that I use for writing.) I have tried to include a range of books that are relatively general—that is, ones that I think might meet the criterion of a ‘good book on writing’ for many different writers. In the future, I hope to devote some individual posts to more specialized texts on academic writing.

Needless to say, some of you will gravitate more naturally to online resources for writing. The blogroll (found in the left-hand column) gives some great places to start. I also want to mention the top thesis and dissertation resource list put together by the Online Ph.D. Program site, a helpful source of information on doing a doctorate online.

Note: I’ve included U of T library links for those of you who are local.

Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, Fourth Edition (New York: Quill, 2001). This is an interesting and highly readable book about style; it is divided into chapters on diction, linking, tone, meaning, composition, and revision. Barzun includes sample sentences and some hints towards improving those sentences. His aim throughout is to breed an analytical self-awareness about the choices we make when we write. U of T Library Link

Howard S. Becker and Pamela Richards, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Written by a sociologist, this book explores the issues graduate students face when they begin to write scholarly prose. The first chapter (‘Freshman English for Graduate Students’) discusses the way the task of writing changes for graduate students as it becomes a socially organized professional activity. U of T Library Link

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph Williams, The Craft of Research, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). First published in 1995, this book provides invaluable advice about conceiving a research plan, conducting the research, and then conveying the results of the research in a manner that meets the needs and expectations of the reader. The book includes sections on the centrality of research; understanding your reader; finding topics; using sources; making and supporting claims; outlining, drafting, and revising; writing introductions and conclusions; communicating evidence visually; and the ethics of research. U of T Library Link

Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985). Written by a professional editor, this books attempts to demystify the process of sentence-level editing so that writers can understand and improve their own sentences. It also has two helpful appendices: one, a technical discussion of the parts of a sentence and, two, a glossary of ‘questionable usage’. Cook has a deep understanding of sentence-level problems and a subtle approach to solving those problems; this book can be a great resource but it requires a willingness to dive into a technical treatment of grammatical issues. U of T Library Link

Peter Elbow, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). In this book, Elbow provides a deeply reflective discussion of writing aimed at a broad audience. The core theme is the reconciliation of the contrary impulses involved in writing: the open and imaginative impulse necessary to get words down on paper and the critical and rational impulse necessary to make those words coherent for the reader. This book will be particularly useful for students who need to draw on their creative side in order to be productive; Elbow’s emphasis on free writing and the ‘magical’ process of writing can be empowering for a writer who is finding the act of writing itself difficult. U of T Library Link

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing, Second Edition (New York: Norton, 2010). This book argues that grounding our own claims in the previous scholarly work is “the internal DNA … of all effective argument”. In other words, all effective academic writers must learn how to situate their contribution within the ongoing scholarly conversation. This book offers concrete strategies for doing just that. By distilling the essence of the most common rhetorical moves in academic writing, this book is able to provide a useful collection of templates for academic writing. Even if using templates doesn’t fit your writing style, reading this book will help to clarify the extent to which effective arguments follow discernible patterns. Recognizing those patterns can help you to strengthen your writing or even to clarify what you need to say. U of T Library Link

Patricia T. O’Conner, Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing (New York: Harcourt, 1999). This book, which is not directed at academic writers, offers sound writing advice with a great deal of levity thrown in. The information is accurate, but it is presented with a light hand. The examples are not taken from academic prose and the text does not address the unique challenges of academic writing; however, for some writers, the humorous tone and simple examples might prove valuable. U of T Library Link

William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition (New York: MacMillan, 1979). This is a classic book on style, one which elicits a wide range of opinions. Strunk’s basic principles are strong and rarely disputed outright; for instance, he urges us to ‘omit needless words’, ‘use active voice’, and ‘avoid fancy words’. However, the brevity of the book can lead to two problems: one, a lack of room for explanations and strategies and, two, a tendency towards the oversimplification of complex writing decision. While these criticisms have a great deal of merit, the book does offer a compelling vision of clear writing. That said, most writers will benefit from a more elaborated approach; the Barzun book (listed above) and the Williams book (listed below) both treat similar issues in a more expansive fashion. U of T Library Link

John M. Swales and Christine B. Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills, Third Edition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012). This text is aimed at international graduate students who are new to academic writing in English at the graduate level. It is divided according to types of writing: general-specific texts, problem-solutions texts, data commentaries, summaries, critiques, and, finally, full research papers. While some of that terminology may not be immediately clear to students, the information contained within each chapter is useful and well-designed. The book starts with a particularly helpful chapter that outlines a general approach to academic writing, including excellent advice about formality. Grammatical issues are interspersed throughout the text as they arise in relation to the different writing tasks. The text also has several appendices that address key issues such as article usage and writing definitions. Overall, this is a valuable introductory text that clearly demonstrates its authors’ familiarity with the central challenges facing international student writers. U of T Library Link

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). This valuable text offers a comprehensive approach to revising complex prose into a form that is optimal for the reader. After an interesting discussion of the causes of bad writing, Williams offers four main lenses through which to approach style: clarity, cohesion, coherence, and concision. The book concludes with two additional chapters, one on elegance and one on usage. The chapter on elegance offers modest guidance about what we can do to our clear, coherent, and concise prose in order to make it even better. Finally, the chapter on usage offers a delightful discussion of the nature of rules in writing, one which leaves the reader with far fewer rules and far more insight into the history of linguistic infighting. Throughout, the text is animated by Williams’s belief that managing complexity so that readers can understand what is being expressed is a key social responsibility facing any writer. This book has appeared in many forms and editions since its original appearance as a textbook in 1981; the edition discussed here is widely available at the lowest cost. U of T Library Link

Writer’s Handbooks: Another type of text that writers may be looking for is a writer’s handbook. Handbooks are comprehensive writing resources, with information on grammar, style, usage, documentation, and different types of writing. Four handbooks are listed below, but there are many, many more. These four were chosen because they are widely used, because they are Canadian, and because they are all available from the University of Toronto libraries. One handbook is generally very much like another; you have to try out a number of them to see what suits you and your budget. They differ mainly in length, amount of colour, type of binding, and use of tabs, all of which contribute to the cost of the text. The basic content will be similar. The reason for using a handbook—as opposed to, say, looking for answers online—is the reinforcing effect of finding a consistent explanation every time you look something up. The rules of grammar and usage are hard to remember; it is a definite advantage to use a sound resource consistently in order to help refresh your memory. Handbooks also provide useful information on the different citations styles (APA, MLA, CSE, etc.). During graduate study, students will generally start using a single citation style consistently; at that point, it makes sense to use the style guide published by the relevant organization. The role of a handbook can, of course, be played by an online resource as long as that resource is reputable; I usually recommend using the OWL at Purdue site.

Doug Babington, Don LePan, and Maureen Okun, The Broadview Guide to Writing, Fourth Edition (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2009). U of T Library Link

Joanne Buckley, Checkmate: A Writing Reference for Canadians, Second Edition (Toronto: Thomson, 2008). U of T Library Link

Diana Hacker, A Canadian Writer’s Reference, Fifth Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011). U of T Library Link

William E. Messenger, Jan de Bruyn, Judy Brown, and Ramona Montagnes, The Canadian Writer’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2008). U of T Library Link

Verbs

One of the challenges of writing this blog is going to be the somewhat arbitrary division of topics. My hope is that this initial weakness will ultimately become a strength. At this point, the blog consists of a collection of distinct topics, an arrangement that does not reflect the way writing topics interconnect. But in the long run, I hope that the non-linear form of the blog will actually offer something valuable. By establishing multiple links between posts, I hope to create a cohesive whole, one that allows readers to combine related topics according to their own needs. Stay tuned to see if that actually happens! For now, I am going to try to talk about verbs without stealing any thunder from the next post’s discussion of subjects.

Joseph Williams suggests that we are troubled by writing in which the action is not expressed by verbs. I am going to explore this idea using two examples, one taken from Williams and one adapted from student writing:

1. Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

According to Williams, most of us will dislike this sentence. While it is a hard sentence to like, Williams’s point is that this adverse reaction alone is not a particularly helpful editorial judgment. We need to know what it is about this sentence that does not work. His answer is that the action in the sentence is not expressed through strong verbs. What is the action in this sentence? Someone did not know something; something did not get determined; someone allocated something; some place needed something. In each case, however, those actions were expressed through nouns: knowledge, determination, allocation, need. Here is Williams’s rewrite (emphasis added):

2. Because we knew nothing about local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee had allocated funds to areas that most needed assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Here is the second example:

1. Although there has long been contestation as to the meaning of literacy, there is some agreement among scholars that this new definition is complementary rather than contradictory to the essence of the term.

Again, we look for the action in the sentence to see whether that action is being expressed through verbs. When we find nouns instead, we can try changing them to verbs: contestation becomes has been contested and agreement becomes agree.

2. Although the meaning of literacy has long been contested, scholars largely agree that this new definition complements rather than contradicts the essence of the term.

(Note that I have also changed is complementary and is contradictory to complements and contradicts. This is a related topic that we will look at in a future post.)

We will return to these sentences in the next post when we discuss the need for clear subjects.

Key Sources

Today’s post will discuss the sources that I find most helpful for academic writing. This list could be longer, of course, but it was abridged intentionally: these are the five books that I would not want to write without.

Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, Fourth Edition (New York: Quill, 2001). This is an interesting and highly readable book about style; it is divided into chapters on diction, linking, tone, meaning, composition, and revision. Barzun includes sample sentences and some hints towards improving those sentences. His aim throughout is to breed an analytical self-awareness about the choices we make when we write.

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph Williams, The Craft of Research, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). First published in 1995, this book provides invaluable advice about conceiving a research plan, conducting the research, and then conveying the results of the research in a manner that meets the needs and expectations of the reader. The book includes sections on the centrality of research; understanding your reader; finding topics; using sources; making and supporting claims; outlining, drafting, and revising; writing introductions and conclusions; communicating evidence visually; and the ethics of research.

Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985). Written by a professional editor, this books attempts to demystify the process of sentence-level editing so that writers can understand and improve their own sentences. It also has two helpful appendices: one, a technical discussion of the parts of a sentence and, two, a glossary of ‘questionable usage’. Cook has a deep understanding of sentence-level problems and a subtle approach to solving those problems; this book can be a great resource but it requires a willingness to dive into a technical treatment of grammatical issues.

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing, Second Edition (New York: Norton, 2010). This book argues that grounding our own claims in the previous scholarly work is “the internal DNA … of all effective argument”. In other words, all effective academic writers must learn how to situate their contribution within the ongoing scholarly conversation. This book offers concrete strategies for doing just that. By distilling the essence of the most common rhetorical moves in academic writing, this book is able to provide a useful collection of templates for academic writing. Even if using templates does not fit your writing style, reading this book will help to clarify the extent to which effective arguments follow discernible patterns. Recognizing those patterns can help you to strengthen your writing or even to clarify what you need to say.

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). This valuable text offers a comprehensive approach to revising complex prose into a form that is optimal for the reader. After an interesting discussion of the causes of bad writing, Williams offers four main lenses through which to approach style: clarity, cohesion, coherence, and concision. The book concludes with two additional chapters, one on elegance and one on usage. The chapter on elegance offers modest guidance about what we can do to our clear, coherent, and concise prose in order to make it even better. Finally, the chapter on usage offers a delightful discussion of the nature of rules in writing, one which leaves the reader with far fewer rules and far more insight into the history of linguistic infighting. Throughout, the text is animated by Williams’s belief that managing complexity so that readers can understand what is being expressed is a key social responsibility facing any writer. Note: This book has appeared in many forms and editions since its original appearance as a textbook in 1981. The edition discussed here is widely available at the lowest cost.

When asked to recommend one book about writing for graduate students, I usually choose The Craft of Research. I think this book is the most valuable because graduate students rarely have writing tasks that are not also research tasks. Placing writing in the context of a research agenda is usually fruitful for graduate students. And if more engagement with issues of style is required, The Craft of Research does have a great chapter on style, one which fully reflects Williams’s approach to sound writing.

Note: A more extensive list of books on writing can be found in a later post, “Can you recommend a good book on writing?”.

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader

This blog is grounded in three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. The first stresses the connection between writing and thinking; the second emphasizes the importance of extensive revision; and the third underscores the value of understanding the needs of your reader.

The third principle that informs my approach to academic writing is understanding the needs of your reader. This principle relies on the simple but surprisingly elusive idea that the reader’s needs are different from our own. What we need to say—especially as we struggle with the early stages of writing—and what our readers will need to hear can be strikingly different. Extensive revision is the solution for this dilemma, but early drafts often confound us. Revisiting those texts with the needs of the reader in mind can be extremely helpful. The reader always has expectations, some that are conscious and others that are unconscious. Conscious expectations come from genre or disciplinary conventions (these are the expectations readers have before they ever read your text) and also from promises made by the writer (these are expectation readers have after reading the early passages of your text). Unconscious expectations are more complex and involve anticipation about the placement of information, particularly within paragraphs and sentences.

These three principles lay the groundwork for the more practical discussions of writing offered elsewhere on this blog. Here I would like to comment briefly on the source that knits these three principles together: Joseph Williams. Nobody, in my view, has done more to explain the normative dimensions of sound writing or to advance a practical approach to improving our own writing. I will conclude with a quote from Williams that expresses all three principles as one idea:

We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader (Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, p. x).

In other words, we must write to figure out what we think; we must commit to writing a succession of drafts; and we must alter those drafts according to the anticipated demands of the reader.

For more on the role of reader in the writing process, you can consult these other posts:

  • In Audience and Anxiety, I acknowledge that while remembering the needs of the audience can help us with revision decisions, the spectre of being read can be a source of anxiety.
  • In Self-Expression or Adherence to Form, I discuss a particular tension for graduate students: how to balance their desire for self-expression through writing with the expectations or predilections of their audience.
  • In Understanding Incoherence, I talk about the legitimate conflict between the messiness of our developing ideas and the needs of the reader.
  • In One-Way Trip, I consider what the reader is entitled to as they make their way through our texts.
  • In Signposting and Metadiscourse, I look at what the reader will need in order to follow our writing.  In The Evolution of Signposting, I address a common complaint about metadiscourse. And, in You Know It and I Know It, I own up to overusing one of my favourite bits  of metadiscourse.