learning to edit

Editing is difficult. It requires a sense of introspection and analysis which forces us, in many ways, to lay ourselves bare and open to the scrutiny of our biggest and most hurtful critics; ourselves. When I was younger, I often didn’t edit my papers out of laziness. After having written an entire paper in one sitting, having ideas race through my head for hours, the last thing that I’d want to do is sit down and reread what I’d just written. And I’m still the same way, even today. Although I don’t write in one sitting (unless it’s a short composition), I do find that I allow my work to “sit” for a while in order to allow my ideas to ferment. This is not supposed to be literal; my words aren’t literally cooking in the Word document, but my ideas are growing slowly in the stew of my thoughts. As I go about my day or do my readings for the next class session, I keep my argument at the front of my mind, looking for information or approaches I can use to make my opinions more effective. Then, after a few days, I print my work out, and start the editing process.

As I’m getting older, and beginning to see school less as the completion of arbitrary tasks and more as the formulation of a certain way of thinking and interacting in academic and public space, I’m realizing that there is a lot of information which students are expected to acquire by themselves. Whether this be how to write a cover letter or how to find books in a library, much of the information which a student needs remains relatively obscure and difficult to locate. Most students resort to googling these bits of info due to a lack of institutional instruction. What I want to do here is offer a way of approaching the editing process in a way which proves productive towards crafting a solid argument or comprehensive analysis. The key to editing, as I mentioned earlier, is a sense of introspection which may come easily to some and quite arduously for others. Nonetheless, it is this level of reflection which separates a subpar work from something worthy of publication.

For one, divorce the idea of editing as “spellcheck” from what editing really is. While checking for grammar, syntax and spelling errors is pretty important, a good Word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs or Pages will catch many of these errors as you write. Some of them will even change commonly misspelled words or homophones (e.g. their/there/they’re) for you automatically. However, students in foreign languages (like myself) will find that these programs are not as well versed with other languages, nor are they capable of parsing meaning from very complex sentences with several verbal clauses. All of this is not to say that you should not pay attention to writing conventions as you read, but it is essential that you begin to view editing as something more than just dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s.

Start by printing your paper. I find that printing allows for an easier form of tactile engagement, but if you prefer, you can leave comments in the margins of your page using a Word processor. If you do this, turn on “Track Changes” so that you can see the development of your paper. Seeing change is important and helps you to feel like the editorial process is actually accomplishing something.

What you will notice throughout this post is that much of the editing process is subjective and personal. Everyone writes differently because everyone using language differently. Sometimes I get a paper back from a professor and disagree with their stylistic comments, seeing the merit in their remarks, but still finding that the way that I speak is specific to my own writerly voice. Therefore, as a preface, you should not use my examples and corrections as a model for how you should write. Writing is a personal task, and the way you write is and should be analogous to the ways you feel most comfortable expressing your opinions and beliefs orally.

Begin going through your paper, underlining awkward, unclear sentences or phrases which you are prone to use. I’m not sure if everyone has this issue, but because I’ve studied multiple languages, the ways that I use English academically is now influenced by the ways that I use other languages, most notably French. Frenchisms, like la manière dont, which translates to the way that or the means by which appears all the time in my writing, and I have to prune these things out, mostly because they are awkward, but also because they don’t add to the cohesiveness of a sentence. “Althusser would argue that ideologies function as the means by which identities are produced within certain spaces due to….” While this sentence makes logical and syntactical sense, the phrase function as the means by which uses several words which can be replaced for a pithier, more impactful phrase. The replacement is subject to the editor’s own preferences: here, I would edit this phrase to say “Althusser would argue that ideologies influence the production of identities within certain spaces due to…” or “Althusser would argue that ideologies are integral to the production of identities.”

Phrases which appear in writing often are “because” clauses, which, again, make logical sense, but are often clunky. “I think it is important to play an active role in children’s education because children are malleable and easily influenced.” This sentence could be a good introduction to a subsequent argument/thesis statement, but it could also function more effectively through the substitution of this stiff A -> B language with more dynamic language: “Due to the malleability of children, it is important to play an active role in their education” or “Children are malleable and easily influenced, and therefore it is important to play an active role in their education in order to assure…”

A paper is a cohesive argument structured by points and with the intention of introducing, qualifying or critiquing something to the “discourse” of a particular discipline, school of thought or tradition. The first part of this may seem familiar, but the second part may not; what is this “discourse” conversation? Disciplines? Traditions? Essentially, when you are writing a paper, you are contributing to a larger conversation on a topic through the auspices of a particular (academic) discipline, like history or literature or political science or even math (I don’t know how people write math papers, but they apparently do.) This larger conversation can be about anything and everything, but there are specific disciplinary ways of approaching a topic. Literary studies are different from economic studies, which are different from sociology. The ways you approach a topic are informed by the argument and methodology you choose.

Methodology is a word which is used more often in some disciplines than in others. Particularly in the humanities, methodology is used only rarely, but that does not mean that methodologies are not important. A paper should always clearly define its methodology, or its way of approaching a particular analysis or study. A literature paper’s methodology is typically embedded or implied in its introduction; “Through a textual analysis of bourgeois aesthetics in two of Jane Austen’s later novels, I argue that…” The methodology in this sentence is in bold, for it tells us how the author is going to be going about their analysis. Methodologies are used to demonstrate the analytical and argumentative process of a research paper, and therefore allow, at least in the social sciences and sciences where such a practice is perhaps more useful, a replication of the study with the expectation of finding the same results. In this example, a humanist who would like to conduct the same research in bourgeois aesthetics in Jane Austen’s later novels could potentially find the same results, although the humanities as a disciplinary conglomeration is founded on subjectivity (a conversation for another time…)

If you outlined before you started writing, you’d have a roadmap of where you’d like to go with your argument. Outlines are very helpful, and at some point I will likely prepare a post on how to make an outline (there are, in fact, several methods and, like writing, outlining for everyone looks different), but if you don’t have an outline, that’s okay. What outlines do is give us a sense of argumentative orientation and cognitive flow. We can trace our ideas as they blend into one another through an outline, and therefore we can test if our paper needs to be fleshed out in certain parts, or if entire sections needed to be reorganized or removed.

Go through each paragraph and determine its rhetorical significance. Does it advance new evidence for an argument? Does it bring in a different perspective? Does it serve as a counterargument? These may seem like clunky terms, and you may see your writing as far more freeform than this, but best believe that most of our writing does in fact reflect this relatively rigid approach towards expression and argumentation. Every paragraph is bound by a central point, the likes of which is in relation to the central argument of the paper. Therefore, a paragraph should strive to accomplish one thing. What is that one thing? This is where the outline comes in handy. You can use the outline to tell you specifically the points that you were attempting to make. Did you accurately address those issues? If not, what did you miss? Where can you expand? As you can probably tell, this post is itself quite freeform. I don’t have an outline prepared, and actually started writing this several weeks before finishing it. Nonetheless, I went through what I had written, adding and taking things out, before releasing a finished copy.

A good thing to keep in mind is to realize who your audience is. What I’ve noticed about academic papers (at Swarthmore, that is) is that professors often want you to demonstrate some sort of mastery of the topics discussed in class. They want you to engage with readings from the previous week and to expand on, qualify or reject them. Your writing will likely be geared towards this sort of perspective, which in my opinion is sort of like bootlicking. You want to show the professor that you are a skilled, critical thinker who has done the readings and engaged enough in class discourse to develop an argument. This is different from a conference or publication paper. In this case, you are not trying to demonstrate to the expert that you are an acknowledgeable pupil; you are the expert in this situation, and therefore your language will likely be different. One of my biggest issues, besides the language thing that I’ve already mentioned, is that my research tends to focus more on critical theory, and therefore can be kind of boring in the form of a presentation or paper. While in my head, these topics are cutting-edge and groundbreaking, they are not the sexiest things to be discussed at a conference nor are they the most accessible. I often have to cut out unnecessary language and replace terms with more lay varieties in order to keep my reader (myself, mainly) engaged. A professor may not have so much of an issue with jargon and discipline-specific language, but a presentation at a symposium about race means that your audience will come from a variety of disciplines and may not have access to the language that you are using. Some terms, like hegemony, have no lay translations, but other terms, like alterity (a word I use all the time) do (read: otherness, a word which can be more easily broken down and understood by someone who doesn’t, for example, study Latin).

Returning to the point about paragraphs: try to pinpoint the key argument of each paragraph. Write in the margins or as a comment. “This paragraph introduces Michel Foucault’s concept of the Panoptique to the argument in order to….” The key point in these comments is the “in order to” / because clause. You want to make sure that you know why this paragraph is here. Make the language as clear as possible in your edits, even if it means being a little expositional. “The internalization of racial disciplines by television viewers is what Michel Foucault calls the Panoptique….” You don’t have to be as expositional as your comment, but you do want your reader to understand a clear progression of thought from one paragraph to another.

Introduction and conclusion paragraphs are probably the hardest for me to write. Depending on the task, I save them for last – if I start out with an outline of major points, I expand through adding quotes and building around the ideas of the thinkers who have influenced my ideas. Then, at the end, I write my introduction and conclusions. Everyone is different, and most people that I know write their papers top-down (intro-body-conclusion). Nonetheless, you want your introduction paragraph to introduce the primary texts you’ll be discussing and clearly delineate the trajectory of your argument. As I have been reading more and more abstracts, I’ve been adopting present-tense language to state my argument’s points (e.g. I argue that, I advance that) while also weaving in methodological clauses to add varied sentence structure (which keeps the reader engaged) and punchy language.

Many schools have writing centers or TAs who will help you with your paper. If you are interested in the craft, I would highly recommend you have someone else take a look at your work. You are biased to your own language, your own grammatical mistakes and your own logical way of thinking. A TA may argue that your thought process is flawed because of X or Y reason, even if it seems sound on the page.

Another thing I’ve learned about editing, primarily throughout this lengthy grad school application process, is to accept the comments of the people whom you have asked to read your work without contest. It has taken me YEARS to realize how rude and ungrateful it seems to have someone say “I don’t like your comments here” or  “do you think I really should change this?” to someone who just spent maybe an entire afternoon reading through and commenting on your work. They didn’t have to read it, nor did they have to give you such thorough comments. Their comments are not meant to wound you, either. If you disagree with a point (which is fine, honestly), you do not have to state that you disagree. You can always abstain from making certain changes, although it is always worthwhile to hear out the opinions of others, especially if you asked their opinion in the first place. Do not go into the editorial process with the expectation of soft comments and reaffirmation, especially if you are, at least subconsciously, looking for more structural or argumentative commentary. It doesn’t do you any favors and makes you look like a jackass. Trust me, I’ve been struggling with this for three years. I’m terrible at taking constructive criticism, but I’m the first to dole it out. It just doesn’t look good, and it’s imperative that you grow up if this is who you are.

Addendum: As I’m writing this, I’m reflecting on some of my sort of counterculture, antiestablishment feelings about language and writing and “sophistication” quotas. I think it’s unfair that the way we speak naturally is somehow insufficient enough for the prudish ways of academic writing, primarily if the peoples we are talking about do not have the access to this sort of language. It seems hypocritical and is quite elitist, but that’s just the boat we’re in. I’m not sure if you can change that by writing in slang or using house language because the (structural) discipline is too large. You may convince one prof to accept your way of writing but many of them continue to drink the elitist Kool-Aid which structures our discourse syntactically and ontologically. This blog post contributes to that process by positing that academic writing requires certain conventions which are not disciplinary, but in their very nature academic (elitist.) I could go on for days about my issues with elitism in the academy, but I also go to Swarthmore College, an elite “little Ivy” liberal arts college, and have applied to some of the most elite universities on earth for my graduate studies, so whatever I say will also be rife with hypocrisies….

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