From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

Category: writing process (page 1 of 2)

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

Lessons about Writing – Inspired by Oliver Sacks

Sacks-Island-coverOliver Sacks claims that he wrote The Island of the Colorblind  “in a sort of swoop, a single breath, in July 1995, it then grew. . .” (xx). He makes writing sound easy, as if already-formed sentences tumbled out of his head onto the page in the correct order.  Yet, when he clarifies the process of reconstructing memories, we get a hint at the behind-the-scenes work required of communicating his Pacific island experiences:

“Writing, in these past months, has allowed me, forced me, to revisit these islands in memory.  And since memory .  .  .  is never a simple recording or reproduction, but an active process of recategorization—of reconstruction, of imagination, determined by our own values and perspectives—so remembering has caused me to reinvent these visits, in a sense, constructing a very personal, idiosyncratic, perhaps eccentric view of these islands . . . .” (xvii-xviii)

Like Sack’s exploration of the islands, his writing process follows a journey from discovery to synthesis or “reconstruction” and provides an example of important concepts about writing.

Concept 1:  Writing is more than a transcription from the mind directly to paper.  Writing is thinking on paper.

Concept 2:  Writing is messy. Making meaning requires work to tease out what we really want to communicate.

Concept 3:  Writing is re-writing.  Because writing is a process of discovery, new ideas might erupt at any time.  In the messiness, ideas collide and produce new ways of thinking about a subject.  Re-visioning our ideas can lead to a more sophisticated structure.  Look what happened to Sacks: his new ideas took the form of pages and pages of endnotes, creating a text of their own.

Concept 4:  How we shape our ideas is influenced by our “values and perspectives.” Each reader brings unique experiences to a text. That’s why “write about what you know” has become a truism – if we connect what we are reading or researching to things we know or have a passion about, our writing stands a better chance of capturing our readers.  Through our writing, we have an opportunity to share our perspective and challenge readers to think in new ways.

By writing Island of the Colorblind, Sacks has given us a glimpse of writing as thinking, as a process of meaning-making. Our challenge is to embrace the process.

Older posts

© 2019 From the Center

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑