I’ve been revising. My co-author Chris and I have produced about eight versions of a book manuscript. Yes, you read right, eight. From two versions of individual chapters through two interim versions to reach the one sent out to review, to another three versions of the final copy, each one marked final, but not actually so … We’ve written and rewritten and rewritten a bit more.
An academic writer clearly needs to have a Strong Inner Critic – SIC – an inbuilt evaluator which you can put to work on revision and editing. SIC is a nuisance when producing early drafts and I can happily banish my SIC at the beginning of any new writing project. But not at the end. SIC is essential for cleaning up and clearing out.
But then SIC hangs about and hangs about. I not only wish that my SIC was less concerned about reaching perfection but also that my actual ability to read and correct the text matched SIC’s unrealistic high standards. Even yesterday – on revision number eight, working on a text which Chris, a much more thorough reader than my erratic self, had proofed carefully – revealed some remnant errors and inconsistencies.
When I first opened up the file – again, sigh – and began to read, it seemed as if we’d cracked it. Pages and pages with nothing to worry about. I started to feel optimistic. Maybe finally.
And then there it was. Word repetition. An over long sentence. A missing comma here, a new word there, oh and this must become a less klutzy sentence, and I’ll just move this point up here so it reads better and I just can’t seem to say this any clearer and I do know that I’m going to hate even this latest version when I see it in print.
Some hours later and I was so tired of reading the same old stuff. It’s all meaningless. Why would anyone read this? Nothing to say. Nothing nothing nothing. It’s infuriating. I loathe and hate incompletion and I do just want to finish this. Make this stop. But the SIC wasn’t listening. I was quite energised when I sat down to the text early in the morning and by lunch time I was shattered.
I know I’m not alone here. The last stages of working on the dissertation also seem to drag on forever. No matter how many times you, or someone else, reads the text, there always seems to be more to do. More, more, more.
I know that some people can’t bear to give the thesis, or their book, away, but I have the opposite problem. The text well and truly outstays its welcome and I really desperately want to be shot of it. Go. Begone. Out damned text. But there’s that sneaky SIC saying, “Let’s just make sure, let’s just have another little look, a peek or two won’t hurt…”
I’m now revised past reaction, edited way beyond expectation, proofed beyond the pale.
But finally finally – We are SIC-ed into submission. Yes dear reader, the text has gone off for what I can only hope is the last time. Well, the last time until we get the copy edit queries back. And then there’s the proofs. The proof of the revision is in the… Not to mention opening the new book and it falls open at a page and you see… Noooooo…
A writer’s work is never done.
That’s me and my SIC in the corner rocking quietly.
The corner is quite crowded Pat!
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and here i was thinking it was just me 3 revisions later
and here was me thinking it was just me. Nice to know this corner is crowded 🙂
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This puts me in mind of some of your advice on writing and editing which requires the writer to not be precious, to get words down without SICking all over the place (choking on ones own SIC – yuk), and then to deal with the results dispassionately, in order to be able to re-form and re-shape them. I’m interested in whether there is the need for some kind of almost conscious switching on and off of different writing habits depending on the task in hand. I struggle to just get words down on the page without fiddling with them all the time, and this not only means I’m a much slower writer than I might be, but also I think probably stands in the way of expression – every time I stop and go back over a sentence am I sacrificing something of the line of thought that was about to follow? However, at some point that obsessive inability to leave a sentence alone becomes really useful, when you’re shaping and refining. So, at different times in the writing process it seems one needs to be utterly carefree and obsessively up tight. Given that we’re all required to also multi-task, to have ongoing pieces of writing at every stage in the pipeline, these extremes – and all the many shades between – might be required of us at different times in a single day. I guess this comes back to the need for good routines (does everything come back to routine!?). Is there any other advice you might offer for developing the ability to jump between different, and differently demanding, writing tasks?
I think that I have a kind of mental meta-writing monitor – this analyses what i need to do in relation to each writing task, each phase of writing – so am I planning and structuring, brainstorming, trying to come up with some felicitous phrasing, connecting to other texts, revising etc and I switch orientation. I have strategies for each phase that I can try out, a kind of personal pedagogical repertoire. The only time this fails is at the very end when I can’t bear to let it alone. There’s clearly a pretty crowded set of writing persona in my head! 🙂
” … at some point that obsessive inability to leave a sentence alone … when you’re shaping and refining” is causing major headaches here. In revising the first full draft of an-all-but-completed thesis, I’ve reached a point where, post~ some alterations, even *I* don’t understand what I meant to say … 😦
Sooner or later, overdoing re-shaping and re-refining kills a work stone dead. It loses its author’s original ‘voice,’ and makes for a dull pedestrian read.
OK, I have a creative writer’s aversion to murdering felicitous phrases, or metaphors and images that might (just might) make a bored examiner sit up, but I do wonder if obsessive polishing, fine-tuning or micro-surgery are the anxious compulsions that render so many academic works dense and unreadable?
Research shouldn’t mean bad writing, churning out meaningless or identikit words. The more complex the thoughts or ideas the clearer and simpler the prose should be. “Mystification is simple; clarity is the hardest thing of all.” – Julian Barnes, ‘Flaubert’s Parrot.’
I try to find someone utterly unfamiliar with my field to read through my work. If THEY don’t understand it then I’ve failed.
This is perhaps a question of what we DO in and as acwri revision. I now generally make things better – Ive mostly learnt how to cut away clutter and fill gaps in logic thanks to lots of co writing conversations. When Barbara and I did the second edition of Helping Doctoral Students Write a lot of what we did was to chisel away at the verbiage in order to “let the voice out”. By and large at least one of us picked up most of the awfully crappy bits.
I’ve taken to reading my work out loud. Reveals all sorts of horrors. In the throes of writing a book chapter with no time for leisurely revisions. Therefore I read it out aloud and through this process find errors in argument, logic, syntax, so on. Helps a lot!
yes. There is some research which says we read what we think we have written – and I think that this applies particularly right at the end when what you need is just distance from it so you can see it anew.
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