From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

Category: revision

Starting Over: Why Computer Crashes Aren’t Always the Worst Thing

notes-macbook-study-conferenceWhile 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.

 

Image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/notes-macbook-study-conference-7102/

The Virtue of Handwriting

cookie_crispDid you know that Jerry Seinfeld wrote every episode of Seinfeld by hand? The same goes for nearly all of his stand-up material over the years. When asked why, he answered that the blinking cursor makes him feel anxious, like he’s being asked, “So? What do you got?”

Though I’m not on Seinfeld’s level, I’ve also begun writing important papers by hand. Besides avoiding distractions on the internet, I’ve found writing long form to be helpful for two main reasons:

Pace

When you’re typing, the speed of your fingers can easily outpace clear thinking. Additionally, many people find that as they write, they further develop and understand their ideas. I find that the slower pace of handwriting allows for more of these discoveries as my brain can outpace my hand. I feel more in control of the paper and less stressed about hitting word counts or paragraph lengths that seem passable.

Necessary Revision

Of all the steps in the writing process, I find revision is the easiest to blow off. After all, I wrote the paper. I know already that it’s very good. Why waste time going back over it? Won’t that just puff my ego up more? My rationalizations can get convoluted. The truth is, everyone needs revision. That may sound trite, but it’s true. Papers, especially first drafts, need revision. Writing by hand forces you to allot the time to revise more as you write as well as when you transfer your written words to the computer.

Hopefully, as you read back over your work, you won’t just copy it verbatim from page to screen. You’ll see sentences that aren’t working or notice typos. You’ll develop a sense of the flow of your paper broadly. Once I see words on my screen, I always struggle to delete them. They look so final in Times New Roman 12 pt. font. However, when they are in pen, and I’m weighing whether they should be typed up, I’m much more honest and critical.

Consider writing by hand. Your first draft will be more coherent and insightful, and it’ll force you to review the paper as you type it up, improving your final draft. Slow and steady wins the race.

Image:  Jerry Seinfeld Breaks Down a Joke

Revision, Close Reading, and the Big Picture

For my English major, I enrolled in a  required course called Interpreting Literature. Rather than focusing on a single theme, the purpose of the class was to help students learn how to interpret a huge variation of writing, from Phillis Wheatley’s colonial poetry to Willa Cather’s post-WWI novels.

For the first half of the semester we turned in essays and short assignments, but instead of grades we received comments from our professor. We then turned in all of these assignments again, including at least one that we revised.  After spring break, we discussed these portfolios with our professor.

I’m really used to churning out essays as fast as possible, revising anything I can, and then sending it in right before it’s due. Ideally, I would start my essays much earlier, and then have enough time to look over them a day or two after I’ve written them. Most of the time, however, that isn’t the case for me, especially in the midst of an academically challenging semester. So, when I had the chance to turn in essays and then revise them weeks later, I was amazed at the improvements I could make. One sentence I had written originally had variations of the word “detail” in it three times, which is the kind of mistake that is much easier to catch when you read it with fresh eyes. You’re probably thinking, that’s obvious, everybody knows it’s better to look at a paper after a little time! I suppose I already knew that too, but how often do we actually have the opportunity to learn by revising papers after they’re turned in?

After revising my work, I met with my professor about my revisions. We spoke about my writing and what had been difficult for me so far throughout the semester. Through our discussion, I realized that in previous English classes, I had never encountered some of the difficulties that I had been experiencing this semester because my classes have usually been organized around an overarching theme or purpose. For context, here are some examples of the titles of classes I’ve taken in college so far: Narcissism in Literature, Feminism and the Environment, and The Literature of Age and Aging. Each of these classes had a clear theme and subject material, and I found it so much easier to create theses and write about the literature because I’m much better at connecting literature to specific, big picture issues.

Wow. With that understanding, I started to see why I struggled to find my writing groove in this class, a class simply titled “Interpreting Literature.” It’s not a misnomer: the entire purpose of this class is to discover how to use different methods of interpreting literature, and the first method we focused on happened to be close reading of the language. I had to work backwards from my comfort zone, finding bigger picture ideas through picking out small parts of passages rather than going into the passage with an idea to prove. It felt like I was rewiring my brain a little bit.

I hope I have more classes in which professors can take a little time to let the students do revisions. I also  hope I get my act together a little earlier in order to be able to revise work that I am less comfortable with. Being forced to challenge my normal methodology has helped me learn much more than I do when I churn out papers in my usual, last-minute style.

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