Creative writers are accustomed to the idea that their writing must go through several drafts. However, much of the advice on offer to academic writers proceeds as if all they have to do is produce a draft which is then edited, tidied up, everything made neat and clean. I have seen many a thesis completion timetable come unstuck because doctoral researchers have not grasped the fact that by and large this is not what happens. Most of us have to do more than one draft of a piece of academic writing. In reality, very few of us write the scintillating introduction, the elegant conclusion, the persuasive argument right from the start. It takes several iterations.
A few people do of course produce brilliant prose early, and consistently. Prolific writers and those who just happen to be good with words seem to be able to gallop off a chapter or paper with relatively little effort. I do know people who can hole up in a hotel room and write a book in three weeks and then have to do little to their text other than a bit of editing. (Yes, I hate them too.) But these people are the exception, rather than the rule. I have – and twice only – been able to write a journal article that miraculously seemed to turn out well the first time round, and be accepted for publication pretty much as was. These two times are the exception, not the rule, in my writing life. I have also spent years writing some pieces because they have taken a very long time to come together in my head. If someone tells you that they have spent the weekend writing a paper and sent it off to a journal, don’t be envious. There is a strong possibility that it will be under-done, not sufficiently cooked, too raw for easy digestion by readers.
There is a strong temptation to send things off too early. Finishing a first draft usually feels like a win – even a triumph. You didn’t know that it was going to be possible to write that much and here it is – ten thousand words. You rush to email it to your supervisor or post it onto the journal website and then wait impatiently for the response. And when it comes, it suggests major revisions… Corrections beyond editing? This is a disaster. I am hopeless. The thesis/paper is doomed. I will never finish/make it into print. The supervisor/reviewer is an unfeeling monster. Not true. All it takes is revision, some of which could have been done in the first place if we hadn’t felt so darned elated that we’d actually produced a text.
But on the other hand… Some people are acutely aware that their writing isn’t going to be good enough, now in the first draft, and probably ever. All of the research on writer’s block suggests that people who aim for perfection the first time round are likely to seriously inhibit their writing. They agonise over phrases, work on a first sentence until they can’t face it any more, they take weeks to get a few pages written to their impossibly high expectations. We often see this kind of person characterised in movies – the unsuccessful writer who begins confidently on a first sentence but some hours later is surrounded by crumpled-up papers and sits despondently, staring sadly at a blank screen. Academic writers do this too.
Part of the problem seems to be that in conversations about academic writing we don’t talk enough about the inevitability of the crappy first draft and the importance of revising. We don’t suggest that it takes more than one go to reach the levels of polished prose that we admire. But really – let me reiterate – it doesn’t happen straight away. If we just read finished articles and never see work in progress – and how many of us actually do get to see the work of experienced writers along the way – then we have no idea how much revising good academic writers actually do. One of the benefits for doctoral researchers of co-writing with their supervisors is that it does give them access to the process of starting, revising and then finishing off a piece of academic work.
Academic writers can learn much from creative writers about the importance of revision. Anne Lamott, whose little book Bird by Bird I have posted about before, sums up the creative writing position on revision in this way:
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere, start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy. (pp 25-26)
Lamott doesn’t talk about editing. Fixing the typos, punctuation and the grammar, attending to the language, sorting out the citations and references – these are small matters compared to the importance of drafting and redrafting for meaning and for flow of narrative or argument. The editing niceties come last. Even with a great Tiny Text, plan or outline, drafting and redrafting will be required.
If I could suggest one thing, other than their research question, that doctoral researchers should print out very large and pin above their computer screen, then it would be this Lamott quote. Revision is the name of the #acwri game. Not editing. Not editing. Not editing – Revision.