You can’t polish a turd, but you can edit one – the importance of early drafting

I’ve frequently written about writing on this site, and also in the How we Write collection. I usually begin by saying that while there is no one correct way to write, there are ways that are better or worse for individuals. My own practice, learned over years, is that clearing time for writing, preferably in the morning, then jealously protecting it, is the best way forward. (My piece in The Times Higher Education on workload is on precisely this practice.) But if I talk about this, and mention either time spent or words produced, I regularly get the comment about whether this is finished text or a rough draft.

For me, there is no clear line. Everything is drafted, and then edited again and again, and the final version is just the one that isn’t messed with any more. As artists say, you don’t finish a painting, you just stop fiddling with it.

I’ve said before that knowing that a sentence is not the final one really helps with avoiding block. It doesn’t need to be absolutely right, it just needs to be there. And I put what I call my stage directions into the text – this doesn’t work, rework this, where is the argument? These, usually in square brackets and frequently highlighted, act as cues for me when I come back to it. Early versions are littered with ‘gloss [i.e. comment on a quote]’, ‘check’ (usually to a translation or original language text), ‘expand’, ‘move?’ and so on. I might sketch out a list of points to develop later. At the end of a writing session I sometimes write a note to myself about what comes next.

I sometimes turn on ‘track changes’ when working on a text, though usually make these invisible on the screen. At a certain point, perhaps at the end of day, I might make them appear and check over what I’ve done. I find this is useful in seeing changes, and reviewing things. You can then ‘accept all’ to begin again with a clean slate. But I save files everyday with the date in the filename, so build up an archive of versions.

The point of all this is to say that writing doesn’t need to be put off until some future point when you are ‘ready’. Text can be moved around so easily that the ‘I don’t know where to start’ complaint really should be met with ‘start anywhere’. Write your way out of blocks, even if you are writing about why you are blocked.

This, for me, helps enormously. There are moments when I can suddenly pour out text that I’m really happy with, and that sometime later realise is the version that will make it into print. But that’s rare. Sometimes I need to write when I’m not near a computer, so write by hand, on whatever is nearby, including notebooks, scraps of paper, postcards, beer-mats, etc., or send an email to myself or save a note on the phone. But those are unusual too. The bulk of writing comes from sitting down and working, reworking and perhaps overworking.

I use this approach to help with conferences and other talks. As non-negotiable deadlines, there is a pressure which doesn’t always come with writing. Some people thrive on this. For me, as early in the preparation as possible I try to get a version which I could give tomorrow – not that I would want to, but if something prevented me from doing any more work on it, I could use it. Now the pressure of not having anything is gone, even if what I have is far from good. But pressure off, I can now revise it in all the time remaining. I may end up throwing some of the original or subsequent versions away, but I had the safety net of having something. I may end up revising until very late – I frequently sit, pen in hand, with the text in preceding sessions. But there is a version already. And I tend to write a text, even if I turn it into a PowerPoint presentation, notes or notecards, because that way there is always a text to return to for publication or other use.

To my mind there isn’t much of a way around a block other than writing something and then editing, rewriting and so on. I’m not sure anyone should always to try to get it right in their head, or even in a plan, before they begin writing. Writing something, even if you throw a lot of it away, is I think better than not writing. Writing helps me to make sense of what I’m thinking, even if that thinking is confused.

Presenting the work to an audience is a good way to get feedback of course, and you can send drafts to trusted friends and colleagues. But I also find reading the text aloud, or portions of it, is very helpful. I always spot things that are wrong, or which could be improved, that way. While I do the bulk of my writing and editing on a screen, I do always print drafts eventually, usually very late, to read on a page instead. Or I convert the file to a pdf and send it to the Kindle app on the iPad. Something about reading on that helps in ways that I find hard on a regular computer screen in Word.

You might be one of those people who can plan everything out in their head, or on paper, and then fully-formed sentences and paragraphs pour out when you come to writing. If so, great; if not, perhaps something here will be useful.


For a related discussion see Explorations of Style here and here; do check out the How we Write collection; and see Another Word for a continuation of the discussion.


This entry was posted in Publishing, Uncategorized, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to You can’t polish a turd, but you can edit one – the importance of early drafting

  1. Loved this, especially the tips that work for you. Really appreciate hearing this as so many academics don’t ‘fess up to issues around writing.

  2. Pingback: A great comment from a university press editor on publishing | Progressive Geographies

  3. Pingback: Most popular posts and pages in 2016 | Progressive Geographies

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