A colleague and I are editing a book, due out next year. I have recently co-taught a course on writing a journal article to a group of postgraduate students and early-career academics. I have also just copyedited a PhD thesis, and I regularly copyedit articles for a journal I work on. This means, altogether, that I have spent most of my AcWriMo giving other people feedback on their writing, rather than doing my own writing.
I have felt extremely frustrated by this, especially given that I am co-authoring a paper due to the journal by the end of January, and the writing ball is in my court right now. Giving feedback that is constructive and helpful is hard work, and it is taking a lot of mental and emotional energy that I would really rather save for my own writing. So it is hard to feel like I am doing useful or worthwhile work right now, given that my focus is on what other people are writing rather than what I am writing.
To try and alleviate some of this frustration I have been doing a little online reading about editing, and the kinds of feedback that authors find helpful. I read a fabulous article on how to make one’s writing more specific, and tighter, and this has changed the way I both write and edit. I also read a paper recently on a peer editing project with students at Rhodes University that suggested that the students learned more about how to improve their own writing from giving rather than receiving feedback. I have thus started to think about what I am learning about improving my own writing by helping others with their writing through my feedback.
The first thing I am realising is that many writers (myself included) tend to make sentences far longer and more complicated than they need to be in order to make our writing sound more ‘academic’. I think a lot has been written about obscure and verbose academic text, and how unhelpful this is for readers. Gerald Graff wrote a very engaging book about how academia works to exclude by hiding its ideas and knowledge behind obscure language that confuses as much as, or even more than, it educates. Having read Pierre Bourdieu, I am persuaded by his argument! But seriously, the more we use unnecessarily obscure and verbose language that our readers cannot make sense of, the more we exclude people from engaging with our ideas, and debating them within our research fields. Shorter, clearer sentences make your ideas clearer, and easier to follow and understand. The chances are that you as the writer are probably lost in your own confusingly long sentences too, so writing in more concise prose that gets to the heart of your ideas helps you to stay on track in making your argument, and has a better chance of leading your readers through it meaningfully. As I have been asking the writers whose work I have been editing: ‘what are you trying to say here?’, so I am now asking myself this same question as I write, and also edit, my own papers.
The second thing I am realising is that many writers don’t always consider their readers carefully enough. By the time you some to write a paper or chapter, you have done a fair bit of reading, and you are often writing about a subject you know a great deal about. Often, papers or book chapters draw on empirical data, and expand on research that the writer is immersed in. This tends to mean that many of the findings you as a writer of a paper/chapter have made, and the reasons why these matter as well as the literature you are immersed in, seem pretty obvious to you. You know them so well that you can forget, as you get caught up in the writing, that your reader does not find your research that clear or obvious. They need you to explain your thinking and research process to them in those concise, clear sentences I just talked about.
I have had this feedback recently on the theory I use in my research – generally reviewers want me to explain it to readers carefully, and in simpler terms. On reflection, I realised that they were right; I was assuming too much about what my readers understand about my research. Writers I have been working with recently have also, at certain points, slipped into making claims without citing sufficient evidence, or assuming too much on the part of readers and not explaining key terms or concepts clearly enough in the context of the argument they are making. From pointing out to them where they are losing me as a reader, or where I am doubting the credibility of their claims, I am noting for myself that these are aspects of my own writing that I need to be aware of, and keep working on.
Finally, I am realising that paying attention to formatting your work properly really helps a reader to navigate your text. For example, if all your headings look exactly the same, a reader would not be remiss in assuming that all sections are equally important, or at the same level in terms of the text structure. This is often the case, but where it is not, changes in levels or ordering of ideas should be marked by different heading levels. If you are using empirical data and quotes from that data, you need to spend some time ensuring that these are properly marked off and indented so that the reader can tell at a glance that this is data being analysed and discussed. If you have figures and tables, these need to be clear and labelled, and referred to in the text so that they contribute to the meaning you are making for your readers, rather than confusing readers. These often seem like small things, but ignoring them can make a big difference to how well a reader, editor, or reviewer receives your text.
I am not yet working on my own paper, as I hoped to be during this AcWriMo. But I have realised, in thinking about what I am actually doing with all the editing work for these other writers in terms of helping them to move from this draft to the next and on to their final drafts, that I am still working on my writing, albeit in a more general way for the time being. The more we are asked to give thoughtful, kind and critical-but-constructive responses to peers on their writing, the more we can learn about how to make our own writing less dense, more concise, and more readable. And this is kind of an AcWriMo win (even though my month is not over yet!)