Friday, May 25, 2012

News flash: revising still sucks

And I am still way too good at procrastinating. Today I was looking back through my old blog posts, because I had the weird idea that when I revised that one article from a conference paper, it was easier than revising the diss into a book. It wasn't. At least the good news is that I was able to take crap and make it into something really good, which bodes well for this project. I guess it is also good news that revising is no harder this time than in the past --- but what I'm really looking for is some sort of magical, painless revision trick. Haven't found it.

The good news is that I am actually asking the million dollar impossible question of this chapter: what am I really saying here? Are you sure that's what you really need to say, instead of what you are currently saying and just could clarify a bit? Sigh. I would much rather fix some comma splices and move on without really confronting what this chapter does well and poorly.

Way back when I met with my advisor over my first completed prospectus draft, she was encouraging, but noncommittal. After discussing the scope and argument of my project for a few minutes, she pointed to the prospectus itself and said, very gently, this is a good draft. Now, when you write the next draft --- she very slowly turned over the whole thing --- open up a new window and start over without looking at this. Ask yourself what are you really trying to do here? What are your claims? What argument are you presenting? Only pull the sentences from this draft that you really need. 

I remember being somewhere between stung and devastated, with a panicky, sinking feeling in my chest. But I went and did what she suggested, and in fact, the first draft was very narrative --- me coming to the discovery of this project --- and historical background, whereas the "really need" draft made a series of claims and then positioned my work in the scholarly conversation.

It is so much more work to start over with a clean draft instead of revising. And yet, I think sometimes it produces better work and helps you see what you "really need" instead of working with whatever you actually have. And this first chapter is the oldest chapter, the one where I was learning how to write a chapter, how to be a scholar, how to write a dissertation --- it is certainly the worst in terms of sentence structure and organization. Thrashing around in the thickets of old prose that have already been revised a million zillion times, I can see how starting over with a new document and what do you really need to say here could be way better than revising what is here.

But oh god. The level of work of starting over. Ugh.


Susan said...

You might enjoy this column from the AHA's president:
(sorry I can't do hyperlinks on my iPad.). But he talks about the same thing.

Psycgirl said...

I have been trying to teach one of my grad students this exact concept - I love this idea!

JaneB said...

Starting over with a blank sheet can be really liberating. I find it's great for getting me unstuck and unbored (revising is really really boring for me).

Have you thought about starting with a blank page, writing a new OUTLINE, then going through the old draft and cutting out bits that might work and pasting them in under the new headings, then revising that? It's a sort of mixture of the two kinds of revising, and the cutting up and new subheadings gives me manageable chunks to work on without that 'omg blank page must do More Laundry' feeling of violent procrastination...