Think, Write, Revise

Last week’s lecture series regarding the process of prewriting was certainly helpful and welcomed, but it also created new questions.  Few can debate the overall value pre-writing incurs on a finish product, but does this process work universally for all individuals?  Are specific methods (outlines, free writing, and making sticky notes) more suitable for certain people?  Do all papers need pre-writing?  Should I have performed pre-writing for this blog?  (Okay that last one was not serious)

 

I have never had an especially structured process for formulating arguments.  My general process has generally consisted of:

 

1) List key words, points, and quotes I want to include in the paper

2) Write the paper and delete from my list of key words, points, and quotes as I use them

3) Revise

 

I tend to spend a large amount of my time fancying the revision phase.  This pre-writing process instead places the majority of emphasis in the beginning so fewer revisions will be needed upon completion of the paper.  Does this progression produce a better overall paper?  Through extensive pre-writing, writing the paper should be easy, but would of course require more extensive time commitments to properly pre-write.  Conversely, less time can be spent generating outlines, but through the revision phase.  While the pre-writing assignment was excellent practice in designing the foundations for an outstanding paper, it did little to alleviate my questions.  An interesting assignment may have been to perform pre-writing for an essay we wrote previously, and then see if the pre-writing helped us brainstorm fresh ideas that would have strengthened the piece.

 

Near the end of the lecture, Marty highlighted the importance of encouraging and focusing on the criticisms and revisions of others rather than relying on themselves.  I completely agree with the value of this statement, but I believe it to be only applicable given an educated set of eyes.  Quite honestly, I can remember few times through my academic career where someone else has truly strengthened my paper.  Even through our team submission to the CHI competition last year, we received poor feedback.  The comments our team received were mostly illogical and at times even, irrelevant.  Our primary problem was our design was built for a target audience that the audience of our paper (CHI) was unfamiliar with, thus making it difficult for CHI to judge our design.  As I ponder other issues with revision feedback, I believe much of the dilemma is the emphasis and importance our society and English teachers through middle school and high school placed on grammar.  I have found individuals tend to focus on finding missing commas rather than ensuring the second paragraph strongly proves the assertion made in a thesis paragraph.  Jeff’s notion of the lack of importance of grammar is an important one, and one I wish had been highlighted in classes years ago.

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One Response to Think, Write, Revise

  1. Excellent post with some thoughtful questions (the best kind!). Let me respond to a couple of them.

    does this process work universally for all individuals? Are specific methods (outlines, free writing, and making sticky notes) more suitable for certain people?

    It would be naive to assert that there is a universal process, like a recipe, for prewriting that works for all people and in all contexts. That is an extreme position. But a more moderate position is that a lengthy academic paper is very difficult to write because it is conceptually difficult (which means the writer is usually still struggling with the concepts while writing); carries a very sophisticated logical argument (which is hard to produce on the fly); and carries a scholarly apparatus (e.g., references, citations, quotes, explanations of prior works). As a result, it is not an easy sort of text to author, in strong contrast to, say, a blog post. Writing an academic paper involves a LOT of management, and that makes the logical expression and development of sophisticated conceptual arguments very difficult to do. Prewriting techniques help decompose this problem into more manageable pieces. What constitutes “more manageable” will vary by person and their writing experience, which is why there is no recipe. But especially for people not accustomed to developing this sort of prose (and most students are relatively new to it), prewriting can make a huge difference in both the final quality of the paper and the humaneness (or misery) of the process.

    This pre-writing process instead places the majority of emphasis in the beginning so fewer revisions will be needed upon completion of the paper. Does this progression produce a better overall paper?

    Again, this is pushing toward a more extreme conclusion than is warranted. It is possible to write a superior paper through an inferior process–it will just take longer and possibly be more misery-causing. Again, to emphasize: the primary benefit of prewriting is to facilitate management of the process, saving more time to work through difficult ideas and arguments. Additionally, it is much faster to reorder prewriting notes than to reorder prose, because when you reorder prose, you typically have to throw away all of the original transitions and write a bunch of new ones.

    I believe it to be only applicable given an educated set of eyes. Quite honestly, I can remember few times through my academic career where someone else has truly strengthened my paper.

    I agree in the abstract, but again I think you state it too strongly. There are no uneducated eyes. If someone is completely missing your point, is it not possible that it is your responsibility for having failed to get them to the point? How many systems designers get mad at their ignorant users? Do we let that argument stand in HCI? A more constructuve way to think about this is to firmly identify a set of target readers, and anyone in that group is as “educated” as you have reason to expect. It is your job as a writer to anticipate misreadings and misinterpretations by explaining yourself clearly.

    When I get comments back on writing, just like anybody else I find many to be misguided and frustrating. But I distinguished between (a) the fact that someone has misunderstood my text and (b) the actual suggestion they offer. It is often the case that whereas (b) is really dumb, (a) is legitimate. That is, if someone misunderstands me and suggests I do it another way, I’ll often disregard the other way they propose but still try to edit the place where they got mixed up, so I can preempt the misunderstanding or bad suggestion that followed.

    I do not mean any of this to be critical. if you don’t ask skeptical questions like these, I can’t address them! So I really appreciate the tough questions and hope all of you will feel comfortable keeping them coming!

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