Category Archives: writing/editing

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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On Again, Off Again Scheduling

This term I’m teaching three days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That leaves the other two days a week for research, writing and editing.

It’s been a while since I’ve had two days in a term that were out of the classroom, especially in my heavy term which isn’t as heavy as some have been. Only three courses in my official workload but there’s also one graduate directed readings meeting at a timeslot still TBA. Usually I’ve been lucky to have one non-teaching day in a week and that usually gets further complicated by being on a day when I have regular committee obligations. This year? Not yet. All may change when the T&P committee ramps up for actual meetings but if they’re slow to get started, that might wait until next term. For now, my Tuesdays and Thursdays seem safe.

I must say that I’m enjoying the on again, off again nature of my work this term. The format helps me to recharge my introvert batteries after a long day of teaching, for one thing. For another, even though I know I can write in small timeslots set aside during a busy day, I write best when I have at least two or three hours to pour into one project. Uninterrupted time allows me to better see how what I’m adding fits into the bigger picture.

The schedule also only works by making sure that teaching prep or, in a few weeks!, marking doesn’t eat up my research and writing time. I’ve found that the weekend is the best time to finalize my visuals and class plans for Western Civ (so that the files can be uploaded to our CMS in advance of Monday’s class) and to review the readings for the Tudor seminar which meets on Wednesday mornings. The grad students meet on Friday so I’ll go back through my discussion notes on Wednesday evening (after a veeery long day). Tuesday and Thursday? They’ll stay free. They have to or all of my fall writing plans fall apart.

So yes, I’m eating into my weekends in a big way this fall. It’s unsustainable to work full-out seven days a week all through the academic year, yet somehow so many of us do just that, right? But for a few short weeks I know that I can keep it going and reap the benefits of focused, productive time to research, write and edit on some days while devoting myself fully to teaching and campus contact duties on others.

I’ll see how the rotation holds up once I’m at the midterm point, just around the time I hie off to Potterfest. That’s when a boatload of marking lands on my desk and even with the able assistance of my GTA, I suspect I’ll have to give up a Tuesday here or a Thursday there but don’t let it get to be a habit. I’m fully booked up with writing, editing, revising and researching right through the first of November. After that, it all might fall apart but I’ll hope to sustain the schedule through the end of classes in early December.

What’s your term schedule looking like? Thumbs up or fingers in ears?


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Observations on the Start of Another Term

  • I hate starting teaching in the middle of the week. I understand why we’re starting on a Wednesday. My OCD tendencies just don’t like it. Ditto for the last day of term, the first Wednesday in December, being taught as a Monday to compensate for the Monday we’ll miss on Canadian Thanksgiving. It’s logical. It just doesn’t feel right. It also means that my Wednesday morningsenior seminar will wrap up on November 30.
  • Speaking of the seminar, which I’ll do frequently this fall, we’re currently standing at 36 enrolled. I’m printing out fold-over name cards for each student to set on their desks in hopes that it will not only help me remember all of their names more readily, but also encourage them to use each others’ names in the lively discussions I hope will ensue.
  • Why is discussion so difficult to inspire and maintain? Ah, that’s the million dollar question of academia, isn’t it? If it was easy, everyone would do it. I love what Dr. Virago posted about encouraging discussion earlier this week: that feigning ignorance or error inspires students to attempt their own explanations. It’s not so much the “lying to student” part of not giving them the answer that’s important, it’s how avoiding giving them the answer helps them to generate answers on their own, sometimes even more than we’d be able to give them as the ‘sage on the stage’. Reminder to self: silence is golden, patience is a virtue and the Socratic method still is pretty awesome.
  • Tuesdays and Thursdays will be writing and editing days. I’ll also be devoting a chunk of Monday mornings to writing and editing. And, given the daunting number of projects I have on the go and due in the near future, most of the weekends. Of course, the challenge is to not let administrivia, errands and other issues fill up these blocks of time. Already there’s a service task which is in the process of blowing up in my face (not through any wrongdoing on anyone’s part, it’s just when this particular committee gets called upon, it means Work and lots of it). I’m pretty well-resigned to some of that writing and editing time getting eaten up by the service task from beyond the grave but I can hope that the only time we can tackle that problem is sometime on Friday afternoon instead, when I know I’m too tired to do a good job of writing and editing and focus, instead, on less demanding occupations such as filing, emails and blogging.

And that reminds me, it’s off to Dame Eleanor’s for the weekly writing group check-in!


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CFP: A Game of Thrones and History

We are seeking proposals for essays to be included in an edited collection with the working title of A Game of Thrones and History, to be published by Wiley in 2013 as a volume in its ‘Pop Culture and History’ series. We’re looking for essays that elaborate the historical context of G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, examining individual characters or aspects of Westeros and other cultures against a historical backdrop, or analyzing how popular historical understandings inform the material.

The collection is aimed at a broader audience than is the case for many scholarly collections, and seeks to make visible for readers the underlying use of historical events and culture in A Game of Thrones. We welcome submissions from historians or those in cognate disciplines, including gender studies, medieval studies or cultural studies.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: Continue reading

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Project Immersion

With just a few weeks left in the term I’m throwing myself wholeheartedly at another writing project that has to be wrapped up shortly, my own chapter for The Hobbit and History. To that end, I’ve pulled out my pile of books to which I’m referring, rifled through the articles I need to draw upon, reread The Hobbit and skimmed through the subsequent trilogy including the appendices as well as parts of the Silmarillion plus The Unfinished Tales. In other words, I’ve poured myself back into the world of Middle-earth.

Project immersion is the best way for me to get from skeleton outline to finished composition in a short time. I have to live and breathe the world I’m trying to recreate, whether its the story of 17th and early 18th century Londoners playing out at the Old Bailey or the adventures of people long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Along with that, I try to come to terms with the key scholarly themes – how can I ensure I’m relying on up-to-date and accurate assessments of what other practitioners are saying. This is just as important in my pop culture pieces where I will range wide and far in time and space, relying heavily on other historians to help me understand and assess many different cultures and scholarly treatments, as it is for my conventional academic writing where I need to engage with the most important and current interpretations.

As the immersion progresses, I start muttering to myself, hopefully sotto voce, testing out key themes or possible sub-headings. I drift off to sleep with important examples running through my brain. I wake up ruminating over key arguments. I peel potatoes and I ponder primary sources as yet untapped. I jot down a note about how to bridge two different sections in between errands.

And then? I write. The whole draft’s finished in just a few days but don’t be fooled. I couldn’t get my project done if it weren’t for the initial immersion.

What about you? How do you get revved up to write?

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The Galley Has Landed

Holding the galley for "Star Wars and History" It came today in the mail, my copy of the galley proof for Star Wars and History. And even though it’s still missing the colour inserts (oh, those’ll be gorgeous) and a few corrections we caught at the proof stage and the index and the back cover copy? It’s amazingly gorgeous!

I can’t wait for November!


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The Galleys are Coming

Just heard that the galleys for Star Wars and History are ready. Galleys are the perfect-bound pre-release versions of books (sometimes know as ARCs or Advanced Reader Copies). They’re pretty much the last step (besides finalizing the index and the jacket) as a book goes to press. Copies of the galleys go to publishers’ sales reps, reviewers and, in our case, other historians we’re hoping will write glowing blurbs to add to the jacket copy.

And I’ll be seeing a copy myself really soon which is a good thing to get me over the late summer hump with which I’m struggling. That’s nothing serious, just a combination of time-sucking tasks cluttering up my to-do list. Term starts in a month, eep!, and I’m so not ready but galleys? That’s energizing good news.

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In the Details

As we’re heading down to the wire to wrap up Star Wars and History, we’re dealing with all the small snafus (“This image’s not high-resolution enough to reproduce properly – we need a high-quality version or replacement!”) and final bits of tweaking with captions and other elements before we even get to the proofs. It’s a surprising amount of work from our end and much more, I’m sure, from the publisher’s. We have spreadsheets tracking contributors, chapters, artwork and edits: almost more detail than I can track. Even then, I have nightmares that I’ve missed something vitally important.

However, it’s less those errors than might or might not be than the omissions that I know have been made that leave me almost sleepless at night. There are so many fabulous historical elements that could have been in the collection, even in my articles, but didn’t make the cut. Like young Victoria’s challenges facing the expectations of queenship, a story that I deleted earlier, there were many fascinating historical women whose stories could have been shared in my chapters on teen queens and women resistance leaders.

I’m attempting to avoid second-guessing my choices but it’s difficult. Just this week I stumbled upon this fabulous historical image and sent it to my co-author for the chapter on women resistance leaders whining that I wished we could’ve used it. She calmly pointed out that we’d had to draw the line on some historical examples and Soviet women in World War II had been one of the examples we’d cut in favour of the clear parallels with some of the French resistance leaders.

Which is wise and true but, oh!, not always easy to accept. Ah, well. I’m going to try. Tomorrow there will be more images to wrangle and more details to clarify. I’ll try not to fret over the details that have already been dealt with. Wish me luck!

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Picture (Im)perfect

I’m working on a book that is going to be lavishly illustrated. That’s publisher-speak for having lots and lots of illustrations. Which is neat and nothing I have any experience of before because when I’ve written articles that’ve been illustrated, that’s been on the order of one or two images. Sure, I had to pay the Royal Collections for a photo to illustrate my chapter on the posthumous image of Queen Jane Seymour (as well as the right to reproduce that work in the modest print run it required) and I suggested the wonderful picture of an infant Prince Edward to illustrate my piece on Richard Morison. But it wasn’t until I worked on this book that I began to understand how much work and how much money can be sunk into illustrations.

First off, there’s licensing. If an image is in copyright, of course you’ll need to license it. With the various copyright extensions, this goes back a ways: in the U.S. copyright covers a wide swathe of twentieth century history. Some recent works are released under Creative Commons licensing and other strictures that obviate the need for sometimes costly licensing. But even much older works – a nineteenth century painting, a seventeenth century watercolour – might need to be licensed if the high quality image you need to provide your publisher is only available for a few from the museum, private collection or agent with whom you’ll have to treat.

Also, it’s important to note that those large and lovely pictures you stumble upon online are rarely suitable for use as an illustration. Web graphics are standardized at 72-75 dpi (dots per inch) while graphics for publishing need to be 300 dpi. Even a photograph that appears bigger than your laptop screen will rarely be up to the task of serving as a print illustration unless you’re happy with teeny-tiny pictures. You need a TIFF or other image file of really impressive quality: in which case, you pretty much need to turn to a handful of specialized websites.

If you go with some of the commercial outfits that mostly cater to textbook and major media outlets, you’ll see costs quickly running into the hundreds of dollars for one image for five to ten years. Are you publishing in one country or worldwide? Ebook as well as print? English only or are translations envisioned? All of those add to the tally!

Now, if you’re writing a textbook that will be superseded by the next edition in three to five years, that may not seem like a bad deal. When your publisher’s talking about having this on their backlist for years to come, that kind of economics gives you pause. Not every one of the commercial sources are quite so problematic. I’ve found that the Bridgeman Art Library is both more reasonable in pricing and rich in all sorts of sources a historian might want to employ.

Non-commercial image resources abound: I’ve had good experiences with the national libraries and archives of several countries. Many have contracted outside companies to manage their digital libraries but you can quickly arrange for reproductions that they’ll deliver by FTP. Most of these charge a very reasonable fee for their services: I’ve been paying on the order of $20 to $40 for such images and rights.

But free is fabulous and one of the best resources for free historical images has been the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Catalog. A few times I’ve had to pay a modest amount for a HQ image that isn’t freely available online but they have a number of excellent images that are freely available in a publishing-friendly TIFF format. These are hardly just from American history: I’ve found Japanese and British images from the 19th century and earlier, both out of copyright and freely available for download and use from the Library’s collection. Let me tell you that I’ve felt pretty darned cunning at all the fabulous pictures I’ve discovered that will perfectly illustrate the historic elements we want to emphasize. Plus, others of the library’s free images are just plain fun such as this 1872 print of popular horse breeds!

Still, you should know that simply finding, licensing and serving up the illustrations isn’t the end of the story. Wherever you find your illustrations, make sure to scrupulously document the sources, credit information and terms of use so your publisher has all of that as they put the book together (which staggers me with all the work involved!). This isn’t so onerous when you’re using one or two illustrations but when you’re moving into the dozens or hundreds, it’s a daunting task. I’m fortunate to not be in this alone and I’ve sure learned a lot in helping to create a lavishly illustrated book but I’m not sorry that the next book is likely to ramp it down a few notches because image research and acquisition has been a major part of my working hours since the start of May. If we say that “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client” a historian who is her own image researcher is sure to finish up as a tired and frazzled but hopefully satisfied scholar.


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Getting to Good Enough

This week I worked on another writing task – a new type of composition that left me perplexed and struggling at times. I banged my head against the keyboard time and again as the piece refused to jell until, in the middle of the night, I realized that reorganization would solve my problem. I needed to return to my original conception, sketched out a year ago. Once I did, the words flowed.

Well, maybe not flowed, but they came out. It was still more work and done with less certainty than I’d experience drafting a conventional chapter or article. That shouldn’t surprise me, now, should it? When you move out of your comfort zone to try something different, it won’t be as easy as doing the tasks at which you’re practiced. In the end, the composition was complete and, most importantly, it was good enough for a first draft that would go off to be edited by a collaborator. And that’s the key: getting to good enough.

What I wrote isn’t perfect but it will never be. It can be better but the marginal return of my fiddling with it for hours and days more without feedback? That’s extremely limited. What my writing needs right now is another set of eyes, preferably ones that are connected to a virtual red pen that will mark up and tweak the piece. Heck, I’d be grateful if the response was simply to eviscerate it and say “you missed this, this and this.”

Too often we jinx ourselves by imagining that our first drafts will be perfect and that they’ll inspire a swooning reaction in their first reading. “What a genius! Let’s print this right now!”

That’s ridiculous and damaging thinking because, of course, nobody’s perfect (or ‘pobody’s nerfect’ as we used to say in the seventies). But every one of us can get to good enough with our writing and then enlist someone else’s help to make it better.

Mind you, I’m incredibly grateful that I have friends and colleagues who generously offer to review and critique my work and I’m happy to do the same for them in return. After all, thoughtful criticism helps me improve as a writer, teacher and editor. And isn’t that good enough?


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