Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Schooling Myself: A Lesson in Global Revision for the Teacher

For the past few weeks, I have been working on my very first article for publication. While I'm super excited about having something in print, I am really struggling through it. I do not typically have a hard time producing papers, but I know that I also care much more about this piece than most things I have written, as it will be put in a collection of essays for other academics to judge. I want it to be well-written, well-researched, and well-argued.

The problem is that it took me three weeks to write 14 pages, and I didn't even like the 14 pages I wrote. They seemed disorganized, full of loosely connected ideas. They didn't really seem to focus on anything in particular. I kept trying to rework the piece, to move things around, to add more research, or to rewrite awkward sentences. I was trying to merge narrative with research with other narratives in places where they just didn't mesh. My margins were filled with MS Word comments to myself about answering questions or transitioning better. The truth is it wasn't getting any better. I might even say it was getting worse.

So today, despite a deadline that is just a few days off, I decided to scrap it. I kept my two page introduction that laid out a framework for my argument, and I cut a few paragraphs here and there that I could work with. For the most part, though, I started from scratch. By the end of the day, I had 12 solid pages that, though they still needed work, were much better and usable.

Learning My Own Lessons

It seems silly in hindsight that I wouldn't have done this sooner, considering that I preach these exact lessons to my students. How often do I say, "Revision isn't just changing around a few sentences. It's about changing ideas"? Yet, I sat around tinkering with a very broken paper, rather than just overhauling it. I was so worried about not having enough time to finish the piece that I kept playing with the same mess of words. I probably wasted three days on the same ideas, not knowing where to go. If I had just sat back and said, "Ok, Nicole. What do you really want to say? What's the journey you want to take your readers on?" I would probably have been done by now.

I was trying to edit rather than allow for global revision. The piece was so disorganized that it needed restructuring. It didn't just need a few paragraphs to be slid around; it needed a whole new core. Losing all of those words was scary, though. We're constantly told that wasting time is the worst thing that you can do. I had put hours into those words, days even. Watching them disappear felt like a sacrificial ritual. 

Shitty First Drafts

One of my favorite pieces, and one of my favorite pieces to share with students, is Anne Lamott's "Shitty First Drafts," a chapter from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In the chapter, she says:
The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the char­acters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go--but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
Now that I'm half way done with my piece and still full of ideas, I'm glad I chose to commit to writing and sacrificing what Anne  Lamott would call a "shitty first draft." In the end, even though I deleted nearly all of what I wrote, it wasn't a waste of time. Those ideas were still circulating as I wrote, and I had more fully come to understand my position.

The experience has definitely given me a better insight into my students' brains and their resistance to my lessons on revision. If I, a theoretically experienced writer, have a hard time making the necessary changes, I know it must be even more difficult for a student who knows little about the potential for better writing to come from global revision, chopping bad writing, and allowing themselves to write terrible drafts. I guess sometimes the teacher has to learn her own lessons the hard way.

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