Barbara and I finished a messy first draft of our new book at the end of November. We are back at it again, this time at a distance from each other. No longer sitting side-by-side, one talking while the other types, we are now on a routine of Sunday morning UK/Sunday night Australia skyping.
We gave ourselves permission to have a rest from the book over Christmas/Hanukah. This was an entirely utilitarian decision you understand, nothing about wanting to do other things. We needed the break from thinking about writing, it was the only way to get the necessary distance needed to come back and critically read what we’d done. And by critically read, I mean ruthlessly, harshly and negatively interrogate our text as if it was written by someone else.
We knew before we started reading that this writing was much rougher than any other we’d done. We spent more time on the first drafts of our other books, devoted more days to them. So while we had worked together on messy first drafts, they weren’t as messy – not nearly as messy- as the one we have now. And of course, we’d done a second edition too where we were working over something that had already been through quite a process. This one however – well, lets just say it needs a lot more work.
This book is written for doctoral researchers, unlike our other two. We’ve come up with an overall idea to hang the book together – that of a detox. Our assumption is that doctoral researchers need to take some time out every now and then to break through any unproductive writing/thinking/reading/researching habits they’ve developed over a long period of time. We’ve thought of that as a writing detox. The good thing about the detox angle is that it gives us a way in to talk about some of the very common writing problems that doctoral researchers experience. The danger with the idea is that it rapidly becomes too cute and twee. We clearly need to work with the notion of detox using a relatively light touch approach.
We set ourselves the task of reading through the whole text looking for very major structural and conceptual issues. First of all we looked at our premise. Was the detox idea viable? What wasn’t working about it? What did we need to do to make it work properly? Next we looked for content. Did we have the right content in the right order? What was missing from the chapters we had? What did there seem to be too much of? Which chapters seemed to just feel wrong, and could we put our finger on the problem?
We gave ourselves until the end of the first week of January to consolidate our separate answers to these questions. And we’ve now just done our first Skype. The text is both better and worse than we thought. A couple of chapters don’t seem to gel yet. Our basic premise is OK (phew) but needs more finessing. We also have to make sure that we have a consistent structure for the chapters in order to make the actual stuff of the writing detox work properly…
We think that we can now see how to structure the chapters in a more consistent way. We are going to start by looking at one chapter where we seem to have got it relatively right. It’s chapter five – in the middle, as it happens. We’re now each going to read this chapter very closely, making notes about the structure and the kinds of additions and removals we’d like to make. We’re also reading to refine the format for material we currently have in boxes – doctoral researcher texts, contemporary commentary from social and print media, and key thinkers. Our assumption is that once we’ve sorted out this chapter we will be able to use it as a kind of template for the rest.
We’re Skyping again next Sunday. We know that after working on this chapter we need to do a reverse outline* of the content of the entire book so that we can see whether, using our new refined structure, we can nail which chunks are missing, chunks that might have to be moved, and the new chunks that need to be written. And we’re thinking that, after this coming Sunday Skype, one of us will produce a new draft of chapter five while the other produces the reverse outline.
Let’s see how that plan holds up!
* A reverse outline is where you look at what you’ve written and draw the outline from the actual contents. Quite often the reverse outline differs from the actual outline you used to guide the writing. It’s a helpful strategy you can use to check the order of contents and it can be used on several levels of text – from a chapter all the way down to a paragraph.