On Revision

Most drafts contain wonderful things, and most drafts don’t show off those wonders effectively. Some drafts are dull. Some are poorly organized. Some aren’t sure who they’re written for. Some seem unclear about the distinction between dutiful summary and original insight. Some hope that writing pyrotechnics might dazzle or sheer bulk equate to authority.

An open secret: it’s OK to be scared by the responsibilities of writing and revising, at least sometimes. Many ideas fizzle, either because the writer can’t concentrate on them long enough to blow a spark into a flame, or because the idea itself doesn’t have the strength to become more than a hunch. So let’s work with the anxiety.

I started getting serious about writing in the course of writing my dissertation. This is not to say I paid no attention to the craft of writing before that point. I have been an avid reader most of my life, which has given me a decent ear for good prose, and I always aimed to produce good work, but I also generally distinguished between the history on the one side and the writing on the other. I spent hours in coffee shops polishing my MA thesis—I even got a compliment on the writing from one of my committee members for my trouble—but I was nevertheless committed to the idea that I was not a good writer. 

Sometime during the process of producing my dissertation, an unwieldy monstrosity that received no plaudits for style, I came to appreciate a closer connection between the historical research and the process of articulating the arguments. I started to read books on academic writing and started to integrate writing into how I teach history.

And yet, I never picked up a book by William Germano, one of the doyens in the field of academic writing whose From Dissertation to Book is a standard text for grad students looking to publish their first book. After reading his latest book, On Revision, I might have to return to that text even if I am nearly finished with the eponymous process.

On Revision is, in one sense, an entirely redundant book on writing. Any book in the genre worth its price will repeatedly point out to the reader that writing a bad first draft means that you now have a piece of text to improve. And yet, this can be a difficult lesson to learn. For this reason, Germano’s book represents an attempt at shifting the entire mindset: revision not as a necessary part of a larger process, but revision as the only part of writing that really matters. 

Germano establishes what he means by revision early on:

Correction is not revising. There’s no bigger misunderstanding about how writing gets to be better. Correcting is small, local, instant….It’s easy to confuse fixing errors with revising ideas and reconfiguring the shape of the text.

In the sense that I also aim to teach writing to my students, this was a welcome disambiguation. I often idly correct grammar and punctuation while grading papers because I do think these are important things for students to become aware of (and because I have this recurring fear that someone will review a book I write by just listing the myriad of typos), but I also point out that not all of my comments are created equal. Mechanical corrections are fine, but I am much more interested in how they revise their ideas and arguments. The question I keep coming back to is how to convey this necessary process to my students within the strictures of an academic calendar. On Revision can’t help me with the structural parts of my courses, but has given me food for thought in terms of how I articulate revision to my students.

On Revision opens with a short introduction and a chapter (“Good to Better”) that makes a case for revision generally and offers nine principles to get started. From there, Germano investigates four essential rules for revision that put those principles into action.

Germano’s first rule is simply to “know what you’ve got.” This might sound tediously banal, but in order to revise a piece of writing, you need to know what you are writing toward. This means carefully reading what you have written and taking stock of what it is you are trying to do with the piece.

In one of my classes this semester, I ran an activity where the students reviewed something I have been working on for a while now. I like the argument, but it has a fatal flaw as it is currently constructed: I don’t know what it is. This was a piece that started as a draft blog post before becoming a possible conference paper, and then an article that might work for a video game journal or a classical reception journal, before finally becoming a public-facing article. This circuitous route is in part because I don’t know what I have other than perhaps a point that missed its period of relevance. As I explained to my students, this means that I have a lot of revision ahead of me.

The second rule is looking for and highlighting your argument—or, as I tell my students, making it clear what you are trying to prove. I couldn’t help but laugh when Germano declared “A lot of academics…stop at simply indicating aboutness. “My book is about economic inequality.” That’s not an argument.”

I laughed because this is very similar to a mini-lesson on thesis statements that I gave to each of my classes this year after my first round of papers came back with a very five-paragraph type of non-thesis that restates the prompt with three sub-topics loosely related to the topic.

Stating the topic of an essay is easy. Articulating your argument compellingly and concisely is hard, if for no other reason than that it requires you to take ownership of what you are saying. Trust me, it took me forever to find a way to explain the argument of my dissertation (now book) project without rambling incoherently. Even now I only do so with any amount of success about 75% of the time and have only done it perfectly two or three times. I hope one of those is in the manuscript itself.

Germano’s third rule is about revising with an eye toward the architecture of a piece. That is, thinking about the order of the information and the internal coherence of the argument. Thinking in these terms, I have discovered that I have a particular affection ring structure within my work, often opening with some anecdote that illustrates the argument I am trying to make and that I can call back to in the conclusion.

Finally, Germano calls on his readers to attend to their audience. If you are asking readers to give you their time (and often money!), then they are going to expect your attention in return.

In each rule, Germano offers illustrative examples and, usually, helpful exercises to perform on your writing. My favorite, from the architecture of the piece, echoes a piece of advice I have been giving my students for years. He calls it “The Writing W” based on the constellation Casseiopeia or “The Wain.” The constellation has five stars that look loosely like a W. Following this path, the writer has something to do at each stop. First, write your opening move, then write the conclusion. Then you fill in the gaps between the two with everything you might need to support the argument and lead to the conclusion. Then you write the conclusion again, adjusting based on the evidence. Finally, re-write the opening paragraph.

I don’t teach comp, so my exercise is less formulaic, but it follows a similar principle: the introduction should be the last thing you write. It can also be the first, and I am certainly the sort of writer who likes working through an idea from the beginning to end except on exceptionally long pieces, but I preach to my students that the process of writing a paper will often change your ideas about your topic, so you should be prepared to adjust what you wrote accordingly.

On Revision is a hard book to write about succinctly. It is filled with principles, techniques, and encouragement and while I am hard-pressed to come up with anything that I didn’t already know or do, its virtue is in how it articulates this essential process. After one read-through, my copy is filled with post-it notes drawing my attention back to individual passages or ideas. and that alone speaks to its value. But, beyond that, Germano’s authorial voice is that of a compassionate mentor who wants to see your work become the best it can be. I might hate reading my own writing, but he is here to say:

It’s OK not to reread one’s work when it’s done done, but revision is the crucially important process by which you get your work to that point.

ΔΔΔ

I am way behind on my intended posts right now, but I have continued reading apace. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness is as beautiful and traumatic as her A Tale for the Time Being, which is one of my all-time favorite novels, but maybe just a little bit behind in my personal estimation. I also recently finished Ayse Kulin’s The Last Train to Istanbul, which is based on real accounts of Turkish diplomats trying to save Jewish Turks (and non-Turks) from the Holocaust. I didn’t think it worked perfectly as a novel, but I want to know more about the history. I also read Brief Lives, the seventh installment in Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, and am now reading the second volume in The Expanse series, Caliban’s War.

(Re)visions and Assignments

Every student paper should be revised. More than once. In an ideal world, that is; in the real world there are problems of scale and deadlines.

Periodically I receive an request from a student to revise a paper in return for extra credit. In the past when teaching in surveys of American history with up to a hundred students at a time, I feel obliged to reject these requests. I would love it for students to revise their papers, but extra credit is not something I can extend to just one student in good conscience and there isn’t enough time in the semester to let every student do this unless it is built into the course. On the one hand, I feel bad about rejecting some of these requests since I am acutely aware of the challenges facing the current generation of college students; on the other hand, though, the requests are framed in terms of getting a higher grade, not in terms of education.

This disparity comes in part from the nature of these assignments. I suspect that nobody has looked at a survey-level essay on the changing conceptions of race in America from 1865 to 1925 as an opportunity to write a brilliant and incisive critique of race in America. Even if the author has a fiery passion for the topic, the prompt and supporting materials don’t lend themselves to it. The disparity also speaks volumes about how courses like this one are treated. They are a grade, not an opportunity to learn about American history or learn practical skills such as writing or rhetoric.

Returning to the nature of the assignments, one-off submission that return marked and assigned a grade lend themselves to thinking about the assignment in terms of the grade instead of in terms of process. I understand the counter argument that history classes are for teaching history and not for teaching writing, particularly in these large survey courses. And yet, history is fundamentally discursive.

This fashioning of history, along with how we remember history, is going to be a point of emphasis this fall when I teach a survey of archaic and classical Greek history. I am going to do this not only because of the recent and not-so-recent appropriations of antiquity for political agendas, but also because I hope that pushing people to think about these issues in a Greek context will make it possible to think about in our contemporary context.

I am also planning some opportunities for my students to revise their work, made possible in large part because of a smaller class size. As of right now the idea is to give an option for students to revise at least one of their assignments for a higher grade, as well as making that type of assignment recur once more later in the semester in order to maximize the benefit for the student. The plan is to have revisions take place in two phases, with the first being that they come meet with me to discuss the assignment, before then making revisions based on both the written comments and conversation. My hope is that in addition to setting assignments that push the students to write a decent amount, adding this (optional) revision stage will meet the students halfway toward thinking about assignments qua grades. That is, maximize the students’ opportunity to earn a higher grade while underscoring that writing (and thinking) is a process that doesn’t happen simply by vomiting words onto a page.