As any of you who have ever been in school know, there’s a lot of bad academic writing out there. Academic writers can often be wordy, unclear, dry, or obtuse. They frequently use too much jargon and usually lack storytelling skills. Having suffered through reading at least my fair share of such writing, I have made it a life goal of mine to write good academic prose.
As a way of helping myself achieve this goal, I pay attention to what my friend Ed has to say about writing. Ed is an English teacher and aspiring novelist. He’s a good writer himself and has been trained in how to write. He has even taken classes at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. (Way to go, my home state, for having one of the premier writing programs in the country!)
Ed once relayed a piece of advice he’d been given at a workshop. The instructor suggested that after aspiring novelists complete their novels, they should just delete the file and start over. Not revise it thoroughly, but delete it completely. And then write the whole thing again. The instructor’s point was that before you start writing a novel, there are several things you have yet to figure out, which you’ll have resolved by the time you’re done writing the novel. If you write the novel over again, you’ll have a much better sense of what’s important in the novel, who the characters are, where the plot is going, etc. A rewritten novel will be more consistent, coherent, and all-around better.
This advice is extreme enough that it stuck with me. I thought about it again this week as I sat down to revise the prospectus for my dissertation. Over winter break, I wrote a first draft of the prospectus which was based on a proposal I had written for a class a year and a half ago. I showed the first draft to my adviser in January. She approved, but suggested some revisions. I was looking at the prospectus this week, trying to figure out how to restructure the first part of it to incorporate these revisions when it struck me: Maybe the answer wasn’t to revise the current prospectus. Maybe it was to take Ed’s instructor’s advice and rewrite the whole thing.
I care a lot about structure in my writing, so I made an outline of my prospectus as it stood. Then I outlined the original proposal off of which the first draft of the prospectus was based. I also outlined the required pieces of the prospectus as stipulated by department guidelines. In doing so, I realized that the first draft of my prospectus wasn’t based on what the department required. It was based on that earlier proposal I’d written and then hacked up and reassembled to try to fit the department guidelines. That realization gave me resolution – it was time to rewrite.
The rewriting actually went really well. Since the prospectus was short (12 pages), it didn’t take too long (certainly much less time than rewriting a novel). I did cheat a bit and reuse some of the footnotes from the first draft. Because I had carefully outlined both the original prospectus and the department guidelines, I knew exactly what I wanted to say and how to best arrange it. Rewriting also helped me think in terms of the overall arc of the prospectus rather than how to put unconnected pieces together so that they could address the guidelines. When I was finished with the rewrite, I was very pleased.
I don’t know that when I come to the dissertation itself I will try completely rewriting any of the chapters. I expect it will depend a lot on how much of a time crunch I’m experiencing. But I do hope to benefit more from Ed’s suggestions on the craft of writing, and I do hope that the dissertation will end up being a work of good academic prose.