book blogging interlude – turn around when possible

This is the last of five days working on the book with Barbara. By the time she has to get on board the train back to London this evening, we will have finished off most of a section, and revised the introduction. We’ll have drunk quite enough cola and eaten enough greens and yoghurt to last for a bit. More importantly, we will have reoriented the book to fit our new title, angle and framing metaphor.

As you know, we had written a complete section and the introduction to this new book while we were in Malaysia. We had a good plan for the contents we wanted to cover and their order. But we didn’t have a really ‘new’ book. It was much more like the ones we had already written. This wasn’t what we wanted. Because this is a book for doctoral researchers, we really wanted to produce something less like a monograph or textbook. We wanted to provide a big bundle of resources and strategies, but to avoid them looking like ‘exercises’. We hoped for a book that was much more lively than the usual doctoral writing offering and something that was markedly different from what we’d done before.

We finally found our approach to the book about five hours before we left Kuala Lumpur. We just had time to sketch out how to reshape the contents, and how to shift the way we wrote. Our change of direction meant that when we were next together, having obtained all the relevant go–aheads, we had to get the tone, style and format of the new approach sorted. This would not be a simple retro-fit of what we’d already written. While it would be a kind of return to the existing material, it would also need to be new work.

These five days have therefore been all about producing a different first draft. We are doing a lot of first time drafting but also redrafting what we’ve already done. So we ought to be bored out of our brains right? Frustrated with going over old ground? Feeling we’ve wasted our time before and are now racing to make up ground?

Not at all. Contrary to the common view that drafting is always a complete drag, we are finding that the new approach is freeing us up. We both feel much more able to experiment and innovate. Rather than a tiresome and boring process of re-conceiving the book, this is energizing and exciting. Redrafting and revising is a creative process of building something new.

We are working with a multi-voiced approach in this book, one that uses a lot of quotations and exemplars. Rather than smooth these seamlessly into the text, our new format will have a coherent narrative accompanied by a kind of montage – different perspectives put together on a page. This won’t be a standard house style, but it is one which we are sure will work. We’ve seen a book from our publisher that does something like this, so it won’t be new news to them. We love the book they’ve already done, and we anticipate some lively conversations with designers further down the line.

However for now, while we discover how to write differently, this is relatively slow going. Establishing new patterns of composition doesn’t come straight away. We are talking ourselves into the new approach. We are writing while searching through books, theses and blogs to find different examples as we go. And we are rethinking how to express some key ideas that underpin all our work, and which we have written about before.

This kind of big rewrite sometimes happens. You don’t always get onto the right approach to the text straight away. Sometimes you start off and do quite a lot of work, and find that it’s just not quite right. The decision then is always whether to keep going and produce something that you know could be better, or whether to take the additional time to go back on your tracks, turn around, and start over.

So – you have to restructure the order of material into new chapters? your basic premise doesn’t hold true and you need to find another thread to hold the material together? your major compositional strategy turns out to be dull and unattractive? All of these have happened to us at different times. We’re no longer scared of these kinds of problems. We just think of them as turning points, and we know that we can take a new tack if we have to. We’ll always opt for the additional time and the benefits of the turn-around.

One of the quotes we are using in the new book is from Annie Dillard, and it’s one that’s appropriate for our work this week. She uses a different metaphor to capture the challenge of reworking a text. Not turning around, but rebuilding.

The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.
(The Writing Life, p.4)

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Annie Dillard, drafting, revision, rewriting and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to book blogging interlude – turn around when possible

  1. colin mills says:

    Pat (and Barbara) I cannot begin to tell you how helpful and encouraging this is! I am just working on a re draft (sorry re buidling) of my EdD thesis. Your new metaphors and your generosity are so empowering! All the very best Colin Mills

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