Monday, July 23, 2007

Break out the scissors

I guess I really am revising, now, because I'm about to enter what I think of as the jigsaw puzzle phase--or perhaps the better comparison would be to Magnetic Poetry.

Increasingly convinced that what I've got in this chapter isn't adding up to what it needs to add up to, I spent a couple of hours yesterday attempting to outline the thing as it currently stands. Seven legal-pad pages later, I had a much more concrete sense of what was and wasn't working: all those places where I double back and pointlessly duplicate material; where I've thrown in stuff that isn't meaningfully related to the material surrounding it; and where important connections that should be drawn, aren't. Doing this was helpful, and I've already made some tentative decisions for restructuring and reorganization.

But the only way I've ever really been able to restructure a piece of writing is to do it physically: I print out a hard copy, spread all the pages out on the floor in front of me, and start cutting them up. I tape together each section that seems to be a functional and essential unit--often just a paragraph or two, sometimes three or four pages--and I hack off the top and bottom margins to save space. Then I start moving things around: what would it be like for this section to come here? Or. . . maybe over there?

In the normal course of my writing I tend to have a certain amount of tunnel vision, worrying about the relationship of each paragraph to the next (and indeed of each sentence to the next), and although I obviously try to keep the shape of the whole in view, after several drafts it's hard for me to escape whatever structure I've arrived at. If I'm marching through texts linearly, say, or have organized them by their authors or their chronology--and if there's a good rationale for doing so--it's almost impossible to conceptualize some other, perhaps more thematic or topical organization. And to the extent that it's possible, it's scary: some other organization might mean that I'd lose an essential way of understanding and presenting my material.

But in spreading a hard copy out before me, I'm not committing to anything just yet; I'm playing around, freeing up my possibilities. After doing this for a day or two and arriving at something that looks promising, I start crossing out my old transitions and set-up material and writing in new ones by hand on separate sheets of paper. They don't have to be very good; they just have to provide enough connective tissue to make me believe that this organization has some meaningful and seemingly organic logic.

And honestly, it's rather fun. In my apartment in Grad School City I had a long empty wall in my kitchen, near my desk, and when working on seminar papers I'd tape the pieces up on the wall, organized beneath brightly-colored headers. I'd sit on the edge of my sink, swinging my feet back and forth and staring at the wall. Sometimes I'd jump down to scrawl in several lines by hand, other times I'd go back to my computer and type up a few new pages to swap in. I could keep this up for a week or more.

These days, I usually only go the jigsaw route once, probably because I do it much later in the process. When I'm done moving things around on the floor, I carefully number the pieces, return to my computer, and cut and paste and enter all the other relevant changes into the electronic file. Then I immediately print out a copy, and go back to revising and cleaning it up in slow, laborious longhand.

9 comments:

Sisyphus said...

Yeah, I did the cut-and-mix thing more often a while ago, but not as much lately.

What I recently figured out about myself was that I write a bunch of transitions and topic sentences --- good ones! --- and then discover I need to reorganize my argument. But I get so attached to those transitions and T.S. and I just can't chop them out --- so I try to move things back and forth without getting rid of the old connecting material, and it absolutely does not work.

I'm hoping that knowing that about myself will help me counteract it and just realize I have to give up the (perfectly good) connectors if I have to rearrange things.

jb said...

Well, Sis, odds are you can come up with new good transitions and topic sentences, right?

I like the cut-and-paste method; however, in recent years I've taken to printing everything out double-sided, which causes some obvious problems. I had some success with a problematic chapter last year, though, when I went through and labeled each paragraph with one of three words--let's pretend that my argument was about whether an author was happy and/or sad, and say that the three words were "happy," "sad," and "both." Once I had them labeled, I realized that my argument was proceeding thus: "She's happy! But no, she's sad! No, actually, she's both! Wait! She's happy!" instead of grouping all the happy moments together, etc. It made me really see what my advisor had been telling me all along: that my argument needed to be reorganized. It was so hard for me to grasp that when I was just reading the chapter straight through, but once I had the visible proof, fixing it became much easier.

What Now? said...

I love the idea of hanging the essay on the wall and thinking about it all laid out that way. This is apparently what P.G. Wodehouse did with his closer-to-finished manuscripts. He'd pin all the pages at a certain height, and then any page he didn't like he'd move to a different height so that it was really obvious in just looking at the rooms which sections needed to be rewritten.

And I have the same problem that you outline and that Sisyphus has above: I let my organization be determined by the brilliant transitions I've written rather than organizing the essay and THEN writing the brilliant transitions. Such a problem.

Flavia said...

Sis: see, that's exactly why this method works for me, because I have the same problem. When it comes to transitions and topic sentences, babe, love 'em and leave 'em. It may seem cruel, but it's the only way.

JB: I sometimes have that problem, too, and it's so chagrining since I see it among my students and it seems like such an easy problem to correct (in their essays, if not so much in my own).

And WN: Love the Wodehouse anecdote. Thanks!

irina said...

THANK YOU, for posting this.

I'm actually writing my first (dissertation) chapter right now, and am facing this exact problem. I always preferred to write only once I had a full, detailed outline with everything in the right place, but of course, that doesn't work anymore. On the one hand, it's exciting to find out how my argument develops *as* I write, but on the other hand, this means I have major problems with structure. You can be that I'm going to try cutting the paragraphs apart when I'm through with the first draft.

I, too, suffer from the transition-dependence. It's not even necessary for those transitions to be so brilliant -- it's just that I conceived the paragraph as a response to something in the previous paragraph, and so it's hard to rethink its purpose and put it somewhere else.

dhawhee said...

this is so funny, because when you posted for advice awhile back I almost wrote to suggest the tape-and-scissors method. But I was afraid I'd sound like a first grader. I use a giant scrapbook, but other than that, yep. Works great.

Here's hoping I'll be at the stage where I too can get out the glue.

Earnest English said...

i've definitely done the cut and paste method and had some success with it, but I also get intimidated by all the slips of paper because my biggest worry is always organization, as in, how can I find a way of organizing my thoughts so I'll get to say everything I want to say without people thinking I'm nuts? (I've often said that hypertext was the answer, but haven't written anything that way yet.) So I will often do the cut and paste thing pretty early, when I'm still discovering what I'm trying to say and then group each time I say basically similar things together. then I spend time connecting the dots I've created. I wish that the visual "layout" thing worked for me, but as Peter Elbow said in a recent article, writing, at least for me, moves through time, so the visual approach doesn't work for me. For me, it's more like music -- actually more like dance or a movie. It has to unfold in the right order. (And so I'm also transition dependent -- it's all in the transitions -- the way the argument unfolds over you.)

timna said...

my whole dissertation went through the cut-and-paste stages. I used to set it out on the air hockey table. I find the cutting and then pasting onto larger cards allows me to handwrite in more thoughts -- sometimes transitions -- and then see it as you say, a big puzzle.

feels like kindergarten, though.

Flavia said...

I'm really gratified to learn that I'm not the only wacko out there. (I do wish that I had an air hockey table, though!)