Processes

This will be a short entry (and the first I’m writing directly on the site; luckily I can come back later and correct any errors I might make!).

I’ve talked about how writing is a process. Papers, articles, books, and such don’t move from your mind to the paper fully formed. Instead, we must engage in a process of reading and rereading our writing. We need to make sure it says what we want it to. We have to make sure that our audience (the people we are writing it for—beyond professors—will understand it. We have to make sure it is grammatically correct and has correct spelling and punctuation. If it is a piece of writing that requires us to use outside sources and state where we got them, that has to be done correctly, too.

All of this take time and patience—and the need to take time away from our work so that we can re-see it. It is a process. And I wrote the above steps in the order I did because that is usually the process we are supposed to use. After all, why work really hard on getting a sentence perfectly right when it very well may not end up in the final draft because it doesn’t fit what you want to say or won’t make sense to your audience?

This was supposed to be a segue to talking about a lesson I learned yesterday. A client, a graduate student, pointed out that the 6th edition of the American Psychological Association’s Style Guide says that there needs to be two spaces after any sentence that ends with a periods (it is different with commas, colons, and semi-colons). This is a change from the 5th edition.

If you have been around for a while—and especially if you have used a typewriter—two spaces after a period was standard. It simply made the paper easier to read. (Plus, it made essay a little longer for those of use who didn’t write enough!) Any formatting in typed papers was really limited to side margins. And all thumbs were poised to hit the space bar twice.

Then computers arrived, and formatting and typing changed. For one, much of the formatting was merely setting what we wanted; the program did the rest.. And the second space tended to disappear (though it was hard for many of us to untrain our thumbs!). The reference style manuals I used for citations and paper format (APA, MLA, Chicago, and others) agreed that one space worked well.

Well, APA changed that, apparently so people can read papers more easily. Some online comments have stated that it will be easier for professors and others who have to read a lot of papers in a short amount of time (I feel for them, but that’s not why).

However, as a friend who knows much about computers and graphic design says, With any proportionally spaced typeface, the extra space is built in. An extra space is completely redundant, and actually makes readability worse by calling attention to itself. Good typesetting seeks to make itself invisible to the reader.” He further points out that if he were to put six spaces or so between sentences on a Facebook comment, they would disappear into only one when he posted it.

The APA certainly has the right to make changes, to try different ways that they think will help. It’s possible this one will cause more confusion that it’s worth—particularly since it is only mentioned in an “exception” in a small section about very common rule (that hasn’t changed). It’s all a process.

And I’ll have to change my process: instead of my first action with a new client’s paper is to replace all the double spaces with single ones, I’ll now have to make sure that APA papers have all those double spaces.
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How to Edit Your Own Writing III: Put It Away

During orientation of my first year of college, my advisor told his group of quivering advisees to rewrite each essay three times. “And then,” he added, “when you’re sure it’s perfect, rewrite it again.”

This recommendation made little sense to me. I was very nervous about college, particularly with all the writing expected, and this made me even more anxious. Nevertheless, I tried it. Once. I dutifully copied (by hand; we didn’t have PCs then) an English essay three times, writing basically the same thing over and over. I think I changed some punctuation and a word here and there. But the third copy was essentially the same as the first. This process seemed pointless.

And it was pointless—because I didn’t understand what revision was.

Let’s look at the word, re-vision: to look at again, to see in a new way. I wasn’t doing that when I copied the English essay over and over. For one, I didn’t put the essay away. I didn’t leave it, forget about it for a while, let my subconscious mind work on it. When you leave a piece of writing (or of any type of creative work), part of your mind still mulls it over. I didn’t give myself a chance to either be surprised by anything I had written or to go any deeper. Nor did I get the chance to see if maybe the fifth paragraph might work better earlier in the paper, for instance.

I’m not sure how I learned to revise, really. Some of it is developmental; your brain has to be cognitively mature enough to visualize the flow of your argument (all essays of arguments of a sort). Some of it is practice; if you write enough and pay attention to the feedback you get, you learn to see your work through your audience’s (often your professors’) eyes. Some of it is getting help. Take your half-written essay to your professor during an office hour and share it; he or she will help you figure out where to go (and likely tell you if that fifth paragraph should be earlier).

You know how people often say they think of the perfect retort too late to say it? Well, when you’re writing, give yourself enough time for that perfect word, phrase, sentence, idea, example, argument, whatever to be included. Put it away for a while.
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How to Edit Your Own Writing II: Listen to It

Shortly after we learn to read, we’re taught to read silently; this is considered a great milestone. And it is. But reading aloud is a useful tool. Plus, it can be a lot of fun. When you read your own writing aloud, it sounds very different than it does in your head. Yes, some of it may sound stupid, silly, trite. But some of it will sound wonderful; you’ll be amazed that you wrote that sentence!

Most likely, your first draft will contain more of the poor writing than the astounding writing, but that’s to be expected. (That’s why we write and rewrite and rewrite and so on. More about that another time.) What you’ll also find is your own mistakes. When you read aloud, you’ll catch your fragments and run-on sentences. You may even find your comma splices. Plus, you’ll hear the phrases that don’t work, that are awkward or contradictory.

If you feel idiotic reading aloud, do it anyway. Find some privacy: close your door, lock it if necessary, whisper if you have to. If you find that you can’t listen while you’re reading, record your writing or have a friend or family member read it to you. In all cases, keep a draft of the writing and a pen or pencil with you and mark down any- and everything you want to come back to (don’t fix it then; just put enough so you’ll know what you mean). Imagine the money you’ll save with your editor, too!
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How to Edit Your Own Writing I: Look at It Another Way

When you’re writing, it’s easy to get stuck. So you look back at what you’ve already written to get moving again, jogging yourself to your next word or sentence, example or point. But after a while, you know what you’re going to read, so your eyes tend to skim over the words. You push yourself to focus with little success.

What to do? A useful step is to change how you’re looking at your writing. If you are writing by hand, type it up; if you’re typing, print it out. It seems minor, simple, but it works. It’s amazing how different your writing looks in typewritten form. Shorter, yes, those even fonts tend to shrink most peoples’ writing, but neat, formal, clean, glistening on the screen. And when you print it, it becomes solid.
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Writing and Blogging

The internet and blogs in particular are an interesting phenomenon. They have most people writing more: emails, status updates, comments, etc. This writing may not be complete sentences or even complete words, but it’s still writing.

When I was growing up, I don’t think I wrote on a regular basis. Oh, there were the times I tried to keep a diary or a journal, but they were short-lived and far between. I wrote letters, mostly in the summer, to my parents from summer camp and to friends from wherever I was to wherever they were. And thank you notes to grandparents and other relatives. Apart from that and assignments for school, I wrote very little.

I resisted the blog phenomenon. When I started this blog nearly two years ago, I decided it was going to have a theme; I was not going to just blather about my ingrown toenails and that I needed to buy cat food. I found that I regularly read blogs that had a focus, like
Television Without Pity (www.televisionwithoutpity.com) and Go Fug Yourself (http://gofugyourself.celebuzz.com/). These had the added benefit of being snarky and funny, something I don’t guarantee in my entries. (And you can see my resistance in the paltry number of entries so far!)

But think about it! So many people writing their lives and sending it into cyberspace for almost anyone to read, sharing very personal information, issues they might not talk about directly to family or friends. There’s a safety in writing it to the faceless public; even if this public judges us, we won’t know, so we won’t care.

And those people close to us, the ones we struggle with and complain about, we write about them, share information they wouldn’t want going outside the family. No, they may never read it, it may never get back to them, but is it really safe? Is it really fair?

What is it about writing and sharing that seems easier these days than writing and keep, as in a journal? Why is it that we are okay with writing (and not revising, me included) and posting, with all our various errors that we haven’t checked for, yet we are shy about seeking help with writing for school or professional writing?

Once again, this entry seems to have ended in a different place than it began. There are no clear answers; personally, I think more writing is good, but I’m not crazy about the texting shortcuts creeping into non-texting writing. As for the blogging, again, writing’s great, but I wonder about the great laundry room in cyberspace.
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