There are many rules of three, including the classic to help you avoid poison ivy. In the case of writing it’s more a rule of thirds, but to some extent it is merely looking the other way through the lens. There are three parts to a piece of writing – planning, writing, editing – and in an ideal world you should spend 1/3 of your time on each part. (Making cups of tea/coffee/other are so integral that they are implicit in each part rather than being a separate one).
I know that I am particularly bad at this. Quite often my planning phase devolves into writing out a first draft long hand, rather than thinking about what the whole piece needs to look like. Either that or I end up with such a tight deadline that planning goes completely out of the window, writing ends up taking the most time (especially as I can’t leave a mistake until later – I have to kill it as soon as I notice it) and editing is relatively superficial, although it might require some paragraph replanning.
That said, I usually have a fairly clear idea of where I want to get to in my mind – my planning stages occur when I’m walking to and from places, waiting for the kettle to boil and all those little gaps in the hecticness of life. When it works though, it is absolutely brilliant. It is a particularly useful tool for those inclined to waffle and/or go around in circles and for those who struggle with that blank, white page in front of them. I’ve found it particularly helpful for this month of blogs: having decided that, yes, actually I do have the brass neck to offer advice on this subject and chosen it as a theme, deciding what my 26 posts were going to be about was relatively easy. I was able to jot down an idea for most letters quite quickly, with only one or two (ok, three or four) being problematic. This has helped me to a)focus on the problem areas and b) get started quickly on the easy ones.
But I digress. Today I want to talk about the last third – editing. If you are writing a significant chunk of text, and a book is a pretty significant chunk of text, then you will need to do some serious editing. Editing is so important that I’m talking about it in general today and I’ll be expending a blog post on an associated specific point for ‘G’ (wait and see…).
If you want, you can draw a slightly arbitrary, perhaps even hair splitting, distinction between editing and corrections. The difference, for the purposes of a sideline in sophistry, is that corrections are what you do when something is wrong, editing is what you do when something is right but could be better. I include here all the fiddling around with figures (more tomorrow) to ensure consistency making sure that the margins are correct and such like. But mainly editing is about making sure that you’ve removed all the superfluous words, and that all the words left are in exactly the right sequence. I sometimes use the analogy of the mason, removing all the extraneous material to reveal the statue hidden within the block of stone.
Your supervisor(s) will help you to get your thesis in order, advising on the intellectual agenda. Academics (and I suspect book editors too) would much rather deal with big issues like the order you present your ideas in, how you engage with the literature and that your conclusions really are merited by the results of your work (or that your novel is consistent, and that if the villain is meant to be a surprise, you haven’t given it away on page 7). In my experience they get tetchy and irascible if they feel you are using them only as a proof reading service (although most will perform this function as well). Or maybe that’s just me.
I’m taking this month as an opportunity to try out some new skills/practice things that I don’t do very well, so I’m not being particulalry consistent with my editing of these blog posts: this one in particular is therefore very much a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ piece of writing. I would be much more careful with a book or thesis, trying to capture all the typos, misalignments, accidental changes in font, as well as all the intellectual misfires, malapropisms and mismanaged arguments. But if you want to get the most out of your supervisors, then take the time to reread your work. Speak it out loud – ideally to an audience, but at least to yourself. Make sure that spell-check is turned on…
If you have one or two good friends, see if they will read your work for you. With academic writing, there are going to be things that are so specialist that you will just have to nod and smile when they say you’ve got it wrong, but if they can’t understand what you are trying to say, then you probably haven’t said it clearly enough.
Editing is a skill in and of itself – which is why good editors are in such demand: how many times have you read a book and said to yourself “this book could have been brilliant, with some good editing”? It isn’t about proof-reading – that is a separate skill entirely (but if you want to try your hand at this you might want to look at Project Gutenberg’s Distributed Proofreaders). Proof-reading will contribute to the non-planning, non-writing phase, but you will need to spend at least as much time reworking, moving and rewriting your work as you do actually writing it – more if you don’t plan properly.