Editor, Edit Thyself!

For whatever reason, I’ve been really focused this semester on commenting on the writing style of my students. Maybe because I’m seeing more students who have a handle on building their essay around an argument or a strong analytic perspective this semester, for whatever reason. That issue is normally what I spend more time working on.

I’ve been toying with picking out some of the worst passages from my blog and using them as demonstrations of how to edit more carefully when you make a second or third pass at an essay, maybe even making a Flash-based presentation that I can stick up in my sidebar.

Here’s an example I came up with.

From “The Shape of the Gordian Knot: Advocacy and the Classroom”:

Original passage.
Some in the Penn State administration have made it clear that they don’t care for the particular protest: words like “unfortunate” pop up. At the same time, they’ve been clear in saying that the College Republicans have a right to do and say whatever they like. The ACTA piece infers that one of the administrators “wishes” he could suppress them. I dislike that kind of telepathic mode of interpretation. What they concretely say is that some people will find this protest offensive, that civility in a college community should include consideration for what other people find offensive. They also say that students and faculty and others can say whatever they like.

Edited passage
Some in the Penn State administration have made it clear that they don’t care for the particular protest. words like “unfortunate” pop up. At the same time, they’ve been clear in saying said that the College Republicans have a right to do and say whatever they like. The ACTA piece infers that one of the administrators “wishes” he could suppress them. I dislike that kind of telepathic mode of interpretation. What They concretely say is add that some people will find this protest offensive, that civility in a college community should include consideration for what other people find offensive. They also say that students and faculty and others can say whatever they like.

Explanation of edits
Compresses the points made and removes unnecessary qualifiers and intensifiers. The “telepathic” dig, while valid, is the sort of point that should be made in a different piece: it is a good example of a person being so in love with a particular thought that they can’t bear to leave it out even when it’s not necessary to the point at hand.

——————————————————–

One of the things I might be able to do with a series on editing is explain how a tone develops over time in something like a blog, or in analytic papers. I overqualify and temporize in many entries in order to keep from sounding too harsh or polemical because that’s part of the impression I want to convey through in this weblog. It might not be wrong to choose a style appropriate to a communicative goal, but it is dangerous when it starts to become a habit.

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24 Responses to Editor, Edit Thyself!

  1. kieran says:

    I think this post could be a bit shorter.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think This post could be a bit shorter.

  3. kieran says:

    My recent comments to students have focused on their writing style. Normally I would spend more time teaching them to write analytically or build their essays around an argument. But this semester, for whatever reason, more of them than usual are already able to do this.

  4. kieran says:

    😛

    As to the edits in #2, if you want to turn a statement of opinion into a statement of fact, that’s fine with me :-)

  5. lauram says:

    Some Penn State administrators said that the protest is wrong…

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    The “statement of opinion” ——–>”statement of fact” move is a central issue when I read back over my blog entries. A good deal of the time I’m bending over backwards to suggest that my statements are personal opinion.

    Sometimes that’s necessary. Sometimes it’s good manners, or blunts the ferocity of possible replies. Sometimes it’s just a bad habit. I should pick some examples to illustrate the difference if I’m going to create a larger presentation on revision.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    To take Laura’s example, that’s where an edit can go wrong on substantive grounds. The Penn State administrators didn’t say that the protest was wrong. That was one of the points of difference between my entry and Erin O’Connor’s, and even O’Connor observed that the administrators in question didn’t come out and flatly say that the protest is wrong.

    This issue is what I’m struggling with. When is direct, clean prose substantively wrong? When do you have to employ more roundabout language?

  8. kieran says:

    As it happens, I’m editing a paper of mine in between reading checking this post for updates (er, I mean, the other way around of course). I am always astonished at how many adverbs it is possible to weed out from one’s prose, and how much better the text is after weeding.

  9. Western Dave says:

    But one of the things is that even this kind of style problem is at root a thinking problem. Your stumbling to figure out what you want to say so you include stuff that helps you figure it out but confuses the reader. Go back and get rid of it.

    And Virginia Scharff taught me that it’s “the little darlings” that have to be the first to go when editing your work. I always think, “Scarecrow, I’ll miss you most of all” when I delete them.

  10. lauram says:

    old sentence — Some in the Penn State administration have made it clear that they don’t care for the particular protest. At the same time, they’ve said that the College Republicans have a right to do and say whatever they like.

    New — While some Penn State administrators (win points for taking out “in the”) did not support (win points for taking out the passive voice and putting in a stronger verb) the protest, they also said that the College Republicans have the right to free speech.

    The best thing that I did in college was write for the school paper for two years. I learned about the economy of words, not just adverbs. Short is always beautiful.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a great point, Dave. A lot of my entries (and I think many other blog entries) are written “as we think”. So they have a lot of the kind of material intended to help the writer to clarify his or her own thoughts, but which just seems like excess or confusion to a reader.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    I like that edit, Laura, but I’m not sure it would get me out of dutch on the substantive claim that the Penn State administrators did not support the protest. What they said seems closer to a kind of inferred disdain for the protests, which isn’t quite the same thing as saying “I don’t support those protests”.

  13. lauram says:

    Couldn’t you write “inferred disdain” or “veiled contempt” or something like that. The first sentence with “don’t care for” didn’t quite convey that point either.

  14. mjh says:

    For what it’s worth, I enjoy your standard blog style; it feels like the new sentences are about 33% too short and cardboard-dry. This may be a sign that you’re on the right track, of course. I don’t trust my own taste in the matter, and couldn’t write readable prose to save my life.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    I think what I want to figure out is when my “voice” is just sleepwalking its way through an entry, and when it’s exactly how I want to sound. I’m not going to become Ernest Hemingway, nor would I want to be. My authentic voice is a bit wordy, and my arguments are by their nature deliberative. I just want to keep from the written equivalent of droning on just because I can.

  16. Doug says:

    I think the tentative nature of many of the thoughts on this blog, and the deliberate acknowledgement of alternative possibilities are important elements of what makes the blog so inviting. The extra words substitute for non-verbal cues, and readers realize they are being invited to join a conversation. Short, sharp snark we can get from Atrios, reporting from Josh Marshall, multiple voices at Crooked Timber or Daily Kos. Here we get thoughtful weighing of many alternatives. That’s not the only mode that Easily Distracted comes in, but it’s the main one. For me, the openness is an important part of the appeal.

  17. Doug says:

    And another thing: “words like ‘unfortunate'” pop out” was one of the best phrases in the original. It gives a sense of immediacy, it also gives a sense of the administrators bending over backwards not to say what they apparently think. I would have kept that part.

  18. Dee says:

    When you first mentioned this idea, I thought “oh please do it,” thinking it would be a super useful teaching tool. But now, especially after reading the comments on this post, I’m wondering.

    What would be your audience for such a series/presentation? If students, I’m not sure this is the right material to use for such illustrations, because blog writing is so different from the formal essay writing that they do for courses.

    I do think the before-and-after editing approach to teaching writing is excellent, but I personally do it with student papers. (side note: I just tried to look for such material on the web, and couldn’t really find any, which seems odd, everything else is out there.)

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    In pedagogical terms, the before-and-after is exactly what I’m trying to do, and it does seem to me there isn’t much like it.

    I find a lot of the presentations of this material in formal compositional pedagogy a bit sterile. The advantage of taking my blog entries as an example is that they’re “writing in the wild”, not written to be pedagogical demonstrations.

    Plus I can actually raise these more interesting and subtle questions that are coming up in this discussion. When does an edit for clarity and brevity actually sacrifice a sense of individual style, or miscommunicate the distinctiveness of my voice? I could work with the students on several levels of editing: the obvious no-brainer edits that anyone might suggest, the more contentious edits that substantively change the meaning and tone, the excessive edits that turn my blog writing into something it’s not (say, by adding in snark or drive-by shootings).

  20. Dee says:

    Hmm. I suppose my hesitation is over whether they will be able to transfer such (extremely valuable) lessons to their own writing. Swarthmore students, probably yes.

    I think the comments gave me more food for thought about editing than the original paragraph and edit. That would certainly be a new type of teaching tool–group discussion of editing.

  21. Melissa says:

    This seems to me a good passage to use, for a start at least.

    Even good student papers often suffer from problems (organization; s & p structure, misuse of words, erroneous presentation of some fact or consept). A decently passage with some problems permits more focus. And perhaps instuctors who post student before-and-after papers are likely to do so in WebCt or other closed forum?

    I like using a blog passage for the reasons Dee find them problematic. First it is “different from the formal essay writing.” It leads to discussion of genre & disciplinary conventions. More important, the passage actually needs an edit if it is to be part of a more serious document.

    As Doug says, your tentaitve language makes for immediate & lively prose. Why have you cut specific examples that give a sense of the goings-on: “some people will find this protest offensive…students and faculty and others can say whatever they like.”? These helped me understand the situation and the administrators’ positions.

  22. Melissa says:

    Oops!

    Quite a number of typos & unfinsihed changes in paragraph 2. I think the sense is understandable.

    This must be my version of Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation: Any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror.

  23. After coming back to writing papers after mostly writing proofs for many semesters, I found I was obsessed with the issue of whether the adjectives or adverbs I was using were justified. After mathematical writing, using vague qualifiers of any kind just seemed weird.

    An introductory course in mathematical writing and proofs would probably go a long way to contributing to better analytical writing. That is what mathematics education really offers to the liberal arts, even if all the more advanced concepts are of no use.

  24. unclewilly says:

    “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
    –Elmore Leonard

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