Wednesday, August 29, 2007

If You Skip the Postwriting Stage, I Shall Eat Your Mind

It is 2:45 on Sunday morning. You have just spent several hours churning out a thousand-word essay for a second-year English class. You run the paper through your spell-checker, make sure you've spelled your own name correctly, and print the essay out. You're free!

Then you wake up and find that it was all a dream.

I am dreadfully sorry, but spell-checking is not the same thing as proofreading. Spell-checkers are useful, but they can't tell the difference between "rein," "reign," and "rain," they don't fix your grammatical errors, they don't point out gaps in your logic, and they will not scream and rant at you when your conclusion is weak. If you're used to skipping the editing stage because you feel the spell-checker will do all your work for you, you need to stop deluding yourself. Your spell-checked paper is still full of errors. Your readers will not look kindly on these errors. In fact, they are more likely to forgive you the misspelling of your own name than they are the substitution of "dentist's" for "dentists."*

Several Ranting Hours ago, I explained that each of the three stages of essay writing should take a similar amount of time. Ideally, the postwriting (or editing) stage should be as lengthy and complex as the writing stage, though it is also the bit of the process that many writers find it easiest to neglect. When you finish an essay, you want to be finished, not have to spend hours fiddling with verb endings and transitions. However, a good edit will, if done properly, jack your grade right up** while simultaneously ensuring that your essay attains (and retains) basic coherence and logic.*** Editing is about more than catching misspellings and tense shifts; it allows you to tweak your paper in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways in order to make it--as a whole--a better piece of writing.

Everyone approaches editing differently, partly because everyone approaches writing differently. I, for instance, am a completely anal-retentive writer. I need to make my essays bloody damned perfect in their first drafts; I find it very hard to make changes during the editing process. In the last few years, dissertation work has taught me to be a better editor, as no dissertation is bloody damned perfect in its first draft. I have learned how to eliminate entire sentences and even paragraphs...and how to add entire sentences and even paragraphs. However, I am still a completely anal-retentive writer. I write very, very carefully, agonising over wording and imagery, and every time I take a break, I get back into the essay by reading everything I have written thus far.**** Half my editing is done while I write; writing and postwriting alternate with each other.

Other people have different methods. Some puzzle out their essays paragraph by paragraph or even sentence by sentence before they begin to write. Some fling themselves headlong into the writing process, hurtle through to the end without paying attention to spelling, grammar, or structure, and then completely rewrite the paper six times. Whichever method works for you is perfectly fine with me. What you've got to remember is that revision is necessary, whether it occurs before, during, or after the writing process. No matter what method you use, you will make errors. You will leave holes in your argument. You will write grammatically functional but hideously ugly sentences. Sometimes editing lays down a whole new layer of concrete; sometimes it simply smooths out the bumps in the pavement. Either way, it still needs to be done.

Many methods work; you will need to find the ones that suit you. Here are a few:

1) Read the paper aloud. Writers tend to shy from this method because it seems cumbersome or, for people with roommates, downright embarrassing. Declaiming, "Hamlet's indecision puts a strain on the revenge plot, causing it to shift in an unexpected direction," in front of your university's six-time beer-chugging champion may not be the best way of proving that you are not a geek. However, it may also make you realise how silly that sentence is.***** Reading aloud is a way of forcing yourself to pay attention to every word you have written. If you read silently, you'll get through the essay more quickly, but your eyes will also skip over words and phrases. I have gone back to stories I wrote years ago and have edited scores of times, and I'll still find typos; I am familiar enough with the text at hand that my brain assumes it knows what I have written, and my eyes slide past the errors.

Reading aloud will also draw your attention to awkward or nonsensical sentences. Someone who has to work his way--aloud--through this sort of thing:

The hermeneutics of the opposition to the position proposed by Hutchinson was the cause of Darry's support of the leader of the people of the Tor; nonetheless, when John Bartleman discovered the perfidy of the wife of the leader of the people of the Tor, the binary opposition between idiocy and chocolate amalgamated with the clients of the north, south, and crimson lake.

will probably end up either scrapping the sentence entirely or throwing the essay violently against the wall. Read aloud for grammar but also for comprehension. If you confuse even yourself, something needs to change.

2) Read once for grammar and structure and once for content. Some writers find that breaking the editing process into bits can be useful. I copy-edit for some of my friends, and I have noticed that I have a tendency to concentrate almost exclusively on grammar; in the process, I neglect what the writer is actually saying. If you start with a slow, careful grammatical read-through, then do a swifter one in which you try to figure out whether the argument holds together, you may find that you catch more holes and errors than you would if you went for the walking-and-chewing-gum-at-the-same-time option.

3) Read the essay from the perspective of your theoretical opponent. I haven't discussed counter-arguments in detail yet--I'll get to those when I cover the persuasive mode--but as I have said in earlier posts, an essay is an argument. It therefore necessarily has a counter-argument: a point of view (or, usually, several points of view) that opposes it in some way. Holes in an argument happen when a writer does not defend herself successfully from her theoretical opponent.

Debaters often have to argue from points of view that are not really theirs. Be a debater. Put together a convincing counter-argument, and read your essay as if you believe this counter-argument. If you find that the counter-argument is defeating the argument--if you have left so many holes in your paper that your "opponent" is winning the debate--you probably need to find more evidence and/or analyse it more convincingly.

4) Ask a friend to read through the paper. I do not recommend that you allow this friend to correct your grammar, change all your sentences around, and suggest new and exciting thesis points to you. If the friend does too much of the work on the essay, you will be guilty of academic misconduct. Even if you think of yourself as really bad at grammar, do not ask a friend to help you in this way, especially if you are in a first-year essay-writing course and thus being marked specifically, and only, on your essay-writing skills.

However, you should feel free to let a friend read your paper for content and point out holes in your argument. This process is called peer editing; some high-school and first-year classes use it as a learning method. Your friend will notice when bits of your argument don't work and point out repetition and lack of clarity. He is not as invested in the paper as you are; his brain doesn't subconsciously fill in the gaps as he reads.

5) Turn your essay into an after-the-fact outline or mind map. A good way of checking for logical holes is to take notes on your own essay as if you are planning on analysing it. Figure out not what you were planning to say but what you did say by re-outlining your essay. In the process, make sure that all your points are connected and relevant.

Some common problems to watch for while you are editing are:

1) A weak or non-existent thesis. Does your thesis answer a "how" or "why" question? Does it present a controversial but potentially convincing idea?

The thesis statement does not need to include three thesis points. It does not need to be only a single sentence long. It does not need to include formulaic words or phrases. It needs to exist, and it needs to lead to a satisfying argument. All the little formulae that go with the sandwich method are holding you back. If your thesis is complex and must be expressed over the course of two sentences--or three sentences--or an entire paragraph...fine. Conciseness is good, but not at the expense of comprehension. Just make sure that you have something to argue.

2) Clumsy or non-existent transitions. Are your body paragraphs connected? Does the argument flow smoothly from point to point?

As with the thesis, make sure transitions exist. They can consist of words, phrases, entire sentences, subtle references to preceding bits of the argument, or anything else that lets you move logically through the argument. No one is going to kill you if you don't use the word "consequently."

Don't make the common mistake of thinking that the end of a paragraph is a good place for a transition. Students sometimes finish one paragraph with what appears to be the topic sentence of the next in an attempt to provide a transition. This method is confusing for the reader, who expects a switch of topic in the next paragraph, not in this one.

3) Sentences so convoluted that the reader has to go back and examine them again simply to figure out what they say. Complex constructions can be useful, but if they are obscuring your meaning, go with simplicity every time. Your goal is for the reader to be able to get all the way through your paper without having to go back and puzzle out what the hell you mean every time you lose control of a sentence.

4) "Minor" errors. When a reader comes upon a spelling mistake, grammatical error, mangled sentence, or incorrectly defined word, she pauses briefly and sometimes subconsciously in the reading process.****** You want to avoid causing such pauses. Grammar and spelling may seem insignificant to you, but if you find something such as this enjoyable to read:

Theres lot of thing we could discuss and this point but insted Ill talk a bit about cow's and horse's which can be found in sicily!

you probably spend far too much time in chat rooms.*******

5) Introductions and conclusions that don't correspond to one another. Try reading your introduction and conclusion back to back. If your thesis seems to have changed radically between one and the other, you may have a problem.

You should also try to ensure than your conclusion does not repeat your introduction exactly.

6) Colloquialisms, pointlessly huge words, and awkward modes of expression. As you (should) know, colloquialisms have no place in formal essays. As you may not know, idiotically enormous words shouldn't be there either. Why say, "The titular hero utilises the subsequent ostentatiousness of his grandiose wardrobe" when "The protagonist then unnecessarily dons his best clothing" will do just as well? The word "utilise" is especially overused in this regard. Is anything wrong with "use"? Has some mysterious essay-writing society banned it? No? Use "use." "Utilise" is a silly word.

Not all sentences are created equal. Good writing has a certain rhythm to it; it is interesting to read not simply because of what it says but also because of how it is said. Reading your papers aloud will allow you to hear this rhythm...or a lack thereof. If a sentence seems awkward to you, it will seem awkward to your readers as well. There is not only one way of expressing any given idea. Don't be afraid to restructure your sentences.

The editing process, if properly done, often takes quite a long time. It should. If you skimp on this step, your papers will be the poorer for it.

You may have noticed that my posts are becoming less frequent. The school year is fast approaching, and I am beginning to have to prepare for it; I'm therefore probably going to be posting less often from here on in. However, I am going to keep going until I've covered everything I want to cover.

I've now finished with the basics of the essay-writing process. Future posts will deal with essay writing in more detail, covering the rhetorical modes, subtleties of language use, ways of constructing watertight arguments, grammatical and structural issues, research methods, citation, and anything else that occurs to me along the way.

*I should note right now that my proof-reading of this blog is not going to be perfect, as much as I wish it could be. I don't print out the entries and edit them on paper because I write the blog somewhere I don't have access to a printer, and my proofing is much more accurate on paper than it is on screen. As well, I desperately need to get my eyes checked but currently can't afford new glasses. I apologise for all errors and encourage you to point them out, though not if you're going to gloat.
**For those of you who are just in it for the marks.
***For those of you who see beyond the marks. Yes, such people do exist.
****Except not with the dissertation. I know it has taken me eight years to finish my Ph.D., but I'm not entirely insane.
*****How does it put a strain on the revenge plot? What unexpected direction? Are you just writing down random words and hoping they sound intelligent? Analyse. The. Play.
******Often to cringe and go, "Eeeeeewwwwwww."

*******I am not a snob. I like chat rooms. I have also seen how people spell in them.********
********Okay, maybe I am a snob.


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