Unsnarling My Prose

Yesterday I completed my own chapter draft for The Hobbit and History. Yes, rather like the cobbler’s children who go without shoes, the editor’s chapter is sometimes one of the last to be completed.

Today I printed out the draft after class. I celebrated with a wee second breakfast the serendipity of wrapping things up in time for Hobbit Day and Tolkien Week. And then I looked at what awaited me. Ugh! Some of my sentences were so wrapped up in themselves, they fell apart as soon as I tried to read them. I’ll be spending some time this week unsnarling my prose.

Part of this is an artifact of my write early, write often philosophy. I’ve been working on this chapter for well over a year now, although it stalled for many months just around 1600 words. But most of it is the reality that I write shitty first drafts (Thank you, Anne Lamott). It’s not the argument or evidence that’s at fault, it’s my prose style.

My first draft sentences will often start in the middle of an idea, roll out a clause or two, throw in a caveat or qualification and finish up with a key concept. You’d see a lot of similarly disorganized sentences in this draft, let me tell you! I also see too many weaselly or empty words such as “although” and “therefore” and “so too”, sometimes more than once in the same paragraph. I stare in horror at the vaguely grounded statements that claim certain behaviours “were expected” without indicating by whom or how that actually happened. Passive verbs litter the paper landscape. In a word? This draft sucks.

I want to cry. I don’t. Instead, I revise my work, step by laborious step, smoothing out the snarled phrases, eradicating the evasions and purging the overwhelming passive constructions. Editing your own work is just as important as writing. If you don’t allow time for revision, what you send off to the editors, reviewers or friendly members of your critique group can be so rough as to be unhelpful. I’d rather see their time spent getting me from 80% to 100% than from 60% to 80% which is what it will be if I ask them to read my shitty first draft. I can get that to respectability and then their feedback can help me turn it into something I’ll be proud of for years to come.

If you’re going to be a writer, you have to get over the instinctive flinching you experience when you review what you’ve written. (I can’t be the only one who felt that way, going back to when I was an undergrad.) Revising is just as important as writing. Yes, it takes some time, which is why I tell my students to try and have a complete draft several days before the assignment is due so they can review and edit! It also takes courage to face the truth that what you wrote isn’t nearly as clever as you imagined it was when you were writing it. But it pays off and can make the difference between a composition that’s published and one that’s not.

I’ll wrap up with a plug for a great writing opportunity. Jo VanEvery, who’s a font of wisdom on many matters academic, is running a Monday morning Meeting With Your Writing that, if it didn’t overlap with my Monday mid-day class, I’d be all over. If you’re working on getting your own writing or editing working within your schedule, check this out as a great value for not a lot of expense!


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