Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Revising: advice

So I'm ensconced in a nearby coffee shop, attempting both to beat the heat (which isn't terrible in my apartment when the windows are open and fans going, but which isn't as conducive to work as it might be) and to inspire myself to new heights of productivity with a change of setting. Because, that's right: it's time to get back to my chapter--the new one, with which I intend to open my monograph (there will also, presumably, be an introduction, but that's not on my radar right now).

The problem is, I have no idea what to do with it. It's been three months since I looked at it and two months since I received Advisor's comments, and I thought I was ready to look at it with fresh eyes. . . but I find I still can hardly bear to reread it. I've revised the opening so many times that I know the sentences pratically by heart, and whether they're working or whether they're not, I'm almost incapable or reading them in an evaluative way: they just are. In theory, I continue to be excited by this material, and in theory I know at least some of what needs to be done to it--the sorts of moves that need to be made, if not exactly how to make them. But I don't know, practically, how to crack this project back open.

I seem to recall that with the third chapter of my dissertation, with which I had similar but much more serious problems, I got to the point where I basically set aside the version that I'd been writing and revising for months, opened a new document on my computer and started writing from scratch. I kept a copy of the first version at my elbow, just in case (as well as to reassure myself: I wasn't really starting from scratch! I'd already written 40 or 50 pages!). Eventually I did start incorporating material from that first version into my new one, but not very much, in the end. Had the new version not gone so well, I'd probably have been depressed about how much material and how many months of work I'd cast aside. . . but it did go well, and I continue to think that it's my best chapter.

So, I wonder if that's what I need to do now, at least with the chapter's opening (the later stuff needs work, but I think it's generally progressing in a satisfactory direction). I also wonder whether part of the problem isn't that this IS my first chapter, and I'm freaking out a little about the degree to which it needs to feel like an opening chapter, and set the stage for the later ones, rather than being a nicely self-contained and self-regarding project. But how do I set the stage when the other chapters, too, will need revising and rethinking?

Wise and beautiful readers, what do you do at this stage?


MountainLaurel said...

In this case, I generally open several documents that relate to separate sections of the manuscript. Work on each one as the spirit moves you. Leave the conclusion and the intro till last. Then you can stitch them together at the end. One of the blessings of computer.

It all gets down the the same basic advice: write! Write something, but there are no rules about the order in which you'll write.

ks said...

Dear Flavia,

I just love it when you write about the very anxieties I, too, am feeling (which happens quite often). For example, I completely get the nauseating feeling of returning to a shelved manuscript and the worsening despair upon discovery that time did not, as hoped, bring increased passion, clarity, magic, whatever. I did the same thing you did with my diss and discovered that to a very freaky extent I wrote the same things on the second go'round but with more clarity and organizational acumen. The ideas are swarming in your head. Perhaps you are distracted with the way they came out in print on your first attempt at expressing them. Starting anew seems a prudent tack, to me. Regardless, I feel your pain and wish you the very best.

(Love your blog, incidentally.)

hk said...

Harkening back to when I used to write things instead of memorizing Constitutional levels of scrutiny for tests in fields I despise, I seem to remember that beginnings are hard to write. I also seem to remember that I usually started writing whatever crap was most interesting first and then going back to the beginning when I knew more specifically what it would introduce. That way I could also tailor the set-up to fit the following material.

And now, I shall return to memorizing fundamental rights and quasi-suspect classifications.

squadratomagico said...

I hate to say it, because it seems like such a waste but... when I get to this point I usually start afresh, as you did with your third chapter. Sometimes I can cannibalize portions of the existing writing, but if I feel that I've reached the the point where I cannot see the underlying architecture of a piece of writing anymore, then I start over. I totally re-wrote my book from the dissertation stage, for instance: none of the writing overlaps, and none of the chapters even are analogues to one another in terms of structure. I ended up with a totally different argument as well... and I'm so much happier with the final product than I would have been with a simple revision of the diss.

This strategy probably only works for me because I am a fairly swift writer. If you are slow to get words down on the page, you might want to think more about revising what you have.

Good luck!

Sisyphus said...

My advisor told me to do your "start over with a new clean sheet of paper" thing when going from the first draft of my prospectus to my second. It may be what you have to do.

On the other hand, I agree with hk that beginnings suck. (well, my words, but same sentiment.) I usually write my introductions and conclusions last, and put a bold sentence at the front reading "Brilliant Introduction Goes Here" followed by some spaces and then "A Magnificent Overview and Setting of the Stage Goes Here," and then I just leap into the middle of my argument. (PS, I really think the words brilliant or stupendous need to go in the note --- it reassures you that, hey, the brilliance will come; I'm just working on other things right now.) Then, once you know what you've written, you can go back through and pound on the beginning ... which, ideally, has been cooking away in the back of your mind the whole time you revised the rest of it.

Flavia said...

Dear readers, you are indeed wise and beautiful (the two must, necessarily, accompany each other, yes?). And whether it was your advice, or the break in the recent heat & humidity, but I was able to get back to writing today--a fresh and (so far) much more engaging opening. Will start interleaving some of the old material in a day or two, I think.

Beginnings are hard. And unfortunately for me, I need to have something reasonably focused and compelling in order to get moving. So I sweat over them and sweat over them . . . and then wind up scrapping them several times before I'm through. But it really does help me to have something reasonably thesis-like to begin with, even if it's nothing like what I wind up with.

As for conclusions? I never write them untill the absolute lastest possible moment of the latest possible draft.

(And Squadrato: I'm not a fast writer, alas, but as much as I fuss over ever little transition and topic sentence as I go along, I'm still ruthlessly good at junking it all once I decide something isn't going where it needs to go. Which. . . I guess is good. This is why I need to write every day, though!)

adjunct whore said...

just a quick note to say i tagged you....