why tinker with your text?

After the messy first draft. After the revision where you’ve checked the order of the paragraphs and the headings to make sure the sequence of material is what you want. After the revision where you finessed the sentences, got rid of word repetitions, attended to a few slips of grammar, removed excess passive voice, excised the unnecessary nouny passages. And after the proof reading. You’re done. You’re done.

Well yes, maybe you are. But many writers keep at it after the proof reading. They then tinker with their text.

5616707205_81eda2473b_bOne dictionary definition of tinkering has it as  improving, adjusting and rearranging. So seeing what particular structure and organisation of material works best. Pausing to sort out the syntax further. Dwelling on the choice of terms.

Textual tinkering is word play and experimentation for a purpose – trying things out to see what small changes might do. This kind of tinkering is more akin to an artistic process, and it is this meaning that fits with the creative text work I am most interested in.

I tinker a lot with my blog posts, if I have time. They are, after all, just short pieces of quickly read text and there isn’t a lot to play around with, and maybe not a lot of point. But I often read and re-read an apparently completed post, changing a phrase here, a word there. Just seeing what works better, you know.

When I tinker with blog posts I am particularly interested in making the text more readable. I am interested in clarity. But I am always looking for ways to express an idea so to make the post have more ‘voice’. This might mean adding some alliteration, repetition, metaphor. It might mean varying sentence length. It might mean playing around with word choice.

I tinker with books and book chapters too. Most publishers send you more than one copy of the proofs and so you have the opportunity to read through the text that you sent off. This can feel never-ending, but it does give you an opportunity to make small tweaks to the text, as well as deal with typos, layout and grammar. And a second time back is one last chance to attend to judicious word choice and pleasing sentence construction.

With a chapter or journal article, you often don’t have to press send the moment you finish. You can wait a bit and let the paper sit – and then tinker. You also get a chance to tinker as part of the journal or chapter revision process. Doing revisions can be about more than attending to what reviewers have asked you to do. It can also be an opportunity to make stylistic changes.

Why tinker at all? Well. Tinkering is where the craft of writing really kicks in. It’s where you take the time to work with and work on the text until it works, works as well as you can make it. Until it works for the reader as well as it can.

Under pressure to publish, it is a perhaps a luxury to take time to tinker. Tinkering could be seen as procrastination. And sometimes I dare say it is. Tinkering could be seen as a futile and counter-productive quest for perfection. And I dare say it might be, and often is. It is the temptation to try to be perfect which compels those who give writing advice to say “Just send it off, don’t keep playing with it”.

But tinkering with text can also be seen as a move which refuses. Tinkering refuses speed as a measure of writing success, refuses the number of papers submitted as a sign of productivity. Tinkering says yes, let me get my paper out, but only when I am satisfied enough with it.

Tinkering says that the post, paper, chapter or book will go in when, and only when, you and it are good and ready. When, that is, the prose is as polished as you want it to be. When the reader you are writing for can slip into the argument without falling down linguistic cracks or tripping over klutzy sentences. When they are struck by the felicitous phrase, by the memorable term, by the telling argument.

Finessing a text to this degree takes time  – and a very well-honed practice of tinkering. Tinker on, I say. Tinker to tailor..

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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3 Responses to why tinker with your text?

  1. I am a tinkerer by nature, Pat. I like your notion of tinkering as deliberately pushing back against the pace and measurement of the mouse-on-a-wheel ‘publish or perish’ culture.

    I find, though, that often I need to press ‘send’ and down tools because if I don’t I can’t leave the text alone. It’s a balance between tinkering to develop and improve, and tinkering that holds close a writing-bird that has long had the wings to fly the nest.



  2. Jane S says:

    “Textual … tinkering is more akin to an artistic process, and it is this meaning that fits with the creative text work I am most interested in.” ~ 100% spot-on, Pat. As I’ve said here before, it’s an amalgam of art and science. You have the basic text, the ‘bricks,’ and once you have laid down the foundation of whatever you are seeking to build, you can play around with it, even decorate it.
    But, like Deb, I can never leave my writing alone ~ I tweak, rearrange, substitute, cut out stuff, put other stuff in …
    A PhD thesis is a difficult beast to manage, though. It has to say what you want it to say, but you don’t know who your reader/s will be, esp. the external. Plain authoring within a fictional genre is simple by comparison ~ you know your audience, and mostly they want more of the same.
    Almost all doctoral theses break discipline boundaries – mine does! – so I briefly debated finding an academic editor to crit it and point up any weaknesses, but this proved impossible in reality.
    What I do hope to avoid is elementary ‘literals’ – slipshod spelling errors (usually down to the keyboard: I type faster than my poor PC can cope with) infelicities, purple passages – but this goes for creative writing as well as academic. I’ve combed the text for grammatical mistakes and sentences that are too long. At the same time I’ve tried to preserve its essential ‘difference,’ and – dare one say it? – its basic readability.
    However, I don’t expect the viva to focus on text-based issues but on ideas. I trust I’m not wishing for the impossible here.


  3. Julie Wuthnow says:

    Fabulous, Pat. I really like how you acknowledge the craft of writing as valuable. I seem to be virtually incapable of hitting “send” until I feel happy that what I’m sending out into the world is finely formed (to the best of my ability) and has something of value (again, to the best of my ability) to offer to readers. I’m also intrigued by the notion of “voice” in that–I suspect that’s what makes any given text memorable, and if people can’t remember what we’ve written what’s the point?


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