While sitting and writing in Swem last week, I panicked.
Microsoft Word had crashed, and the recovery document was blank. All seven pages I had written were gone. I quickly realized there was nothing I could do but start over. Facing a tight deadline, I knew my time was better spent writing than worrying, so I set out to re-write the paper.
Although still not perfect, my second draft was considerably better than my first. It also took far less time to write. After agonizing over the first draft, I re-wrote those seven pages in one sitting. The difference was that the second time around, I finally knew what I wanted to say. This allowed me to be more creative, to rethink the organization of my paper, and to consider which examples would best sustain my argument. Having already had a go at it, I did not simply re-create the same paper. Instead, I took my memory of the fragments and made them into something new.
I gained from this experience an important reminder about the slow process of writing. That is, writing is a process, and each stage of that process matters. By writing, we are thinking and learning, and we need to slog through the sometimes arduous process to come out on the other end.
As a writing consultant for the History Writing Resources Center, I wish I could advocate for everyone’s Microsoft Word crashing at some point in their writing process. We are often too tied to our first drafts, too unwilling to start over. While I don’t think this applies exclusively to history writing, it can be particularly useful in terms of producing strong analytical arguments, a requirement of all history papers.
History papers should do two things:
- First, they need clear guiding arguments (or thesis statements) that are analytical rather than descriptive. That is, they should try to explain “why” or “how” something happened, rather than simply saying that it happened.
- Second, they should make use of evidence to bolster these arguments. They should use examples from sources (both primary and secondary) to support the main point.
This is much easier said than done. The process of figuring out how pieces of evidence are connected and what sorts of arguments they might yield is a difficult one. For those of us who think as we write, it is often not until we have already written about and explained all of our evidence that we figure out exactly what we are trying to say. A common refrain in the HWRC is “I didn’t know what I was arguing until I got to the end of my paper.” This isn’t a bad sign, but it means your work is not finished.
So, here is my advice. Once you have written a draft, start over. Since we are often pushing up against tight deadlines, this need not be taken too literally. At the very least, once you are finished with a draft, take out a clean sheet of paper or open up a new document and try once again to voice your argument. Take this opportunity to map out your paper and to make sure that the organization of your evidence fits your thesis statement. Once you have a draft, take the time to figure out if your paper actually says what you want it to say. I would also highly recommend re-writing your introduction after you have finished. Remember, you knew the least about your paper when you wrote your introduction. Your introduction deserves the knowledge of hindsight.
And every once in a while, go ahead and delete the whole thing. You’ll thank yourself later.
Caylin Carbonell is a Consultant in W&M’s History Writing Resources Center.