The prose was dull and deliberate, the message blunt but unconvincing. What could this writer have been thinking? If I was particularly harsh in my criticism, then thankfully I risked offending only myself. Though I hardly recognized it, the writing was my own.  

I felt like I was reading the words of someone else because they were the words of someone else, a me from a different moment and a different intellectual mood. It is that sense of distance that we need, as scholarly writers, in order to let go of our attachments to the language, style, and the very ideas that we generate—which can be far from clear or compelling to our readers when translated to the page. As the saying goes, good writing relies on good revising. To revise, the Latin roots tell us, literally means to see again. We cannot see again or see at all unless we detach ourselves from the endeavor and clear our mind’s eye. To revise is not merely to see again, but to see as though for the first time, with a fresh perspective.

Stepping back to reflect before revising is a critical part of a larger process. That process almost always includes feedback from others. Nonetheless, we still must go through countless drafts on our own. What strategies might help us along the way? For one, we should get into the habit of reading out loud. In doing so, we listen to our own words, an attentive process that puts us in the position of the audience and makes it easier to pick up on argumentative oversights or stylistic eccentricities. We can hear rampant repetition, for example, in a way that we cannot through silent reading, glazed eyes grazing over the screen. Printing out our manuscripts further facilitates active reading, allowing us to see structural or grammatical gaffes, especially when we read aloud with pen in hand, ready to mark up the paper. We can even rearrange the order of our content by physically moving pages and individual passages.

Whether toggling between Word documents on the screen or sheets of paper scattered over our desks, we often revise in piecemeal fashion. But it’s okay to wander. Writing is never linear. Writing, reading, and revising are dynamic processes that play out again and again. Moving from a section or chapter to another (not necessarily the next) does not mean that we must work solely on that new segment and never look backward or forward. When we get stuck or when we are exhausted with a particular thread, it’s better to bracket the thought and move on to something else. This could mean revisiting a source or archived notes, revising elsewhere in light of the intellectual progress we have made, or doing both at once.

We sometimes equate wandering with erring, yet wandering can bring a sense of wonder, and to wonder becomes a direct path to wisdom. Free yourself from the tangled thickets of thoughts, and allow yourself to wander, in mind and body, before returning with new eyes. Only with this distance from your words, with the wonder that only an open mind can bring, will you arrive at the path you have been seeking. The one that will guide your reader to your desired ends, with the scars of marginalia long since healed and a clarity of purpose and voice ringing out from your very first words—the very last, perhaps, that you wrote.

Notes From a Writer's Desk: Reflections on Yesterday’s Prose

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