Try a Little Tenderness

While editing a chapter of the book I’m completing, Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children (with Robert Leston, for Praeger—making this the third in my ‘blogosphere’ series), I am stewing about writing:

Why is it I have to relearn to write each time I’m halfway through a book or an article? Why do all the skills I gained last time vanish once the work is out of my hands? The problems with the draft I am correcting are so elementary that I am embarrassed I did not catch them as I was writing.

I know: the process I use is one of dump-then-craft, getting everything I’ve thought (or found through my research) onto the page so that I can see what I’ve got. I know I should have no expectation that any of it, at that point, should be consistent, elegant, witty, or intelligent. It’s simply clay—the clay that I need, if I am to produce anything at all. I know that.

But I would think that my brain and fingers would retain enough from the past to avoid the stilted phrases, the unnecessary connectors, the cliches, and the generally ‘outright barbarous’ (to use George Orwell’s phrase).

They don’t.

It’s bad enough that my published works contain errors (things do slip through) and phrasings that I would still like to correct. But these are to be expected: no book or article I have ever seen is perfect. What I hate is that I see that I make the same stylistic mistakes over and over again—and have to waste time correcting them.

Writing a book differs from blogging. Not only can I go back and correct things here (even years later), but expectations are of a different kind of prose, more relaxed, more informal, with the reader being more forgiving of error. In a book, you’re supposed to get it right. So I go over and again the same passages, shuddering over my unwieldy attempts at elegance.

To make matters worse, I often make matters worse—as Yogi Berra might say. Rewriting isn’t always an improvement, though constant rewriting does, at least, remove the most egregious of the errors.

When we who teach writing grade our students’ papers, we might remember this: very few people write well, first draft—and our students, for all we try to teach it to them, have very little skill at revision. That’s something one learns by constant repetition—and something one has to relearn each time, just as one has to constantly relearn to write.

We can beat up on ourselves. Goodness knows, I do. But we should reserve a little kindness for our students.

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