Burn Me to Ashes

I am a bad writer.

Not,  I hasten to add, when it comes to getting words down on paper or, as is more likely to be the case, the screen. Sometimes I even put them down in combinations that look elegant and clever. My supervisor has always praised the clarity of my writing (an all too rare thing in academia).

No, I am a bad writer because the thing I hate to do, more than almost anything else in the world, is edit my own work.

When Q. writes, he is water on stone. He isn’t fast, and he isn’t pretty, but he is inexorable, unyielding, merciless. If Q. has an hour free in his day, he will go and write 150 painstaking, thoughtful, deliberate words. Q. quite likes the editing process. He writes and rewrites and fiddles until at last he is satisfied. When I edit his work (for I edit all of his work), there is always evidence of this tinkering, sentences where Q. thought about two ways to construct his idea and didn’t quite manage to erase all traces of the one he chose not to do. Q. misses those errors when he proof reads his own work because his eye sees the sentence he decided to write and skips over the remnants of the one he discarded.

When I write, I am fire.

An idea will simmer and slowly burn within, like hot coals. I will mull on it, chew on it, dream on it, until at last it explodes inside me, a roaring conflagration that demands I put my fingers to the keyboard (usually because the deadline for when the piece of work is due has drawn so near I can no longer ignore it). When I write, I burn. I hollow myself out. On a good day I write 1000 words in an hour. When I was writing the first draft of each chapter of the dissertation, once I actually started writing (and wasn’t just thinking about writing) I set myself the goal of 1500 words each day. Usually I’d reach that goal by 10 or so in the morning and I’d either keep writing if I was in the middle of something or I’d stop and go back to reading and researching. Some days I wrote 3500 or 4000 words- good words, quality words, words that are still there in my thesis.

I write blog posts (the only thing I’ve written in the last six years that wasn’t coursework essays or conference presentations or scholarship applications or dissertation chapters) in much the same way. An idea will float around in my head for a week or two (or more). When I finally sit down at the computer, I usually produce it in one sitting because I’ve already written almost all of it in my head. I read it over, tinker a little bit, and hit publish. I have never sat on a draft of a post for weeks at a time. I have never rewritten one over and over again. I either write the post, or I don’t.

When I am writing well, it feels like flying.

And when the draft is finished, and I have to turn back to the beginning, I fall to earth.

When I was doing my Master’s degree, at a university in the UK with enormous snob appeal, I did a course in my first term where the professor had me write a 2500-3000 word essay every week. Every week he’d give me a reading list of around 30 books, and every week I’d read as much as I could and then cry in my room until I had no time left and I HAD to sit down at the computer and write. And every week I’d write it, and then I would drop it off in his mailbox and go and have fun that night because I was free of it, and then two days later we’d meet in his office for a couple of hours and he would tell me everything that was wrong with it and then give me a new topic and a new reading list and I would go back to my room and cry for a while and then I would go back to the library and get the books on the new reading list and start again.

Every week.

It was absolute torture and a terrible blow to my self-esteem (because I had been the darling of my undergraduate department and I had won this huge scholarship to go to this fancy university and now I felt like I was being told how stupid I was on a weekly basis), but it had an unexpected benefit.

That professor taught me to do it right the first time.

In my undergraduate days, I was a tinkerer. I would finish essays two weeks before they were due, just so I could leave them alone for a week and then look at them again.

I didn’t have that luxury with him.

That course made me a better writer. It made me more decisive. It taught me to cut to the heart of a matter. It taught me to write clear, faultless prose the first time out.

Most of all, it taught me not to be afraid of dumping words, hundreds of words, onto the blank screen. The way I wrote those essays- a sharp, concentrated burst of writing- was largely the way I then wrote my Master’s thesis a year later and the way I have written my doctoral dissertation, just on a much, much larger scale.

It’s not that I don’t edit my work. Of course I do. The first draft of every single one of my chapters of my dissertation was filled with notes in bold to myself. I revised every chapter before I sent it to my supervisor. I revised the entire thesis before I sent him the full draft. I revised the thesis again in light of his comments before I sent it to the committee, and I am revising it yet again right now before it is sent to the external examiner.

I have added content, clarified the argument, made reference to more scholarship, updated translations. I have moved large sections of text from one chapter to another as the thesis drew closer to completion and the order of the argument became more apparent.

I have only very rarely touched the prose.

Vast, vast swathes of the thesis stand pretty much exactly as they looked when I frantically hurled them onto the screen while composing that first, very rough draft.

Every time I wrote a first draft I thought it was garbage.

It’s not garbage, though. It never is.

And now I really am in the endgame, and I’m at the point where I can and should edit the thesis not for content, but for style and presentation and order of argument. One of my committee members is not in my field and she has made some very detailed and helpful suggestions for changes I could make that would make the thesis more accessible to historians who don’t specialize in my era.

They are very good suggestions.

They would require me to read the thesis, in its entirety, very carefully.

I would rather do anything right now than do that.

The problem with fire is it burns out.

Every time I reach the final stage of the writing process, the point where I should take a good hard look at my prose and take the time to make changes and rewrite sentences, I find I am so heartily sick of reading it that I just can’t be bothered. I read it one last time to make sure I haven’t missed any glaring grammatical errors, and then I hand it in.

I am unbelievably sick of my dissertation right now. I hadn’t touched it since I sent it to the committee in mid-June, and as soon as I picked it up again last week all the loathing and frustration and boredom sprang back up as though they had never left. Reading it makes me physically ill.

I am done with it. SO done with it. I want nothing more than to do the last few content suggestions my committee members have given me and call it finished.

But if I want to call myself a writer, if I want to really be a writer, if I am serious about tackling one of the books that is in my head during this year at home, I have to learn how to edit my work.

I have to make those changes suggested to me by the committee member outside my field.

I have to find a way to not burn out.

5 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Life after the PhD, PhD, Writing

5 responses to “Burn Me to Ashes

  1. Ooof. Yeah, I hate the revision process, especially when comments from others are involved. I hope you find a way to rebuild your fire so you can finish up and then be able to put it down for good.

  2. Turia

    The worst part, KeAnne, is that once I defend, I have to revise it (again!) for publication! So it will be hanging over me for a while yet.

  3. On the same ship just now – final revisions are due Nov 11, defense scheduled for Dec. 9… I’ve been dabbling at this for so long now, though, that my firs draft is absolute shit. I envy your writing style!

  4. Turia

    Oh you are lucky to get them a month apart! I have to have six weeks between the submission of the final version to the examiner and the defense, and that seriously squeezes me if we’re trying to get everything done in 2014. Good luck!

  5. Pingback: Happiness Reset Sphere #3: Work | Res Cogitatae

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