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Perspectives on writing

A few weeks ago, I read a piece by Theresa MacPhail in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled The Tough-Love Approach to Writing. I found it a frustrating piece that, in my mind, reflected a narrow understanding of writing and of available time. I put a note to muse about it. It’s finally risen to the top of the stack.

I started reading the piece with enthusiasm. I like to explore new ways to think about writing, whether it is my own or my students’. However, as I said, I found the piece frustrating.

To summarize: MacPhail had set up a writing support group on Facebook and was criticizing participants who were not following her [1] model that Writing time should be devoted to producing new words on a page. She also writes a bit more about this perspective.

By my count, there are four [different phases of writing].

  • Research (which includes reading and notetaking).
  • Writing (the production of new text).
  • Editing/revising (the rereading and restructuring of old text).
  • And copyediting (the pleasurable task of fixing minor grammatical, spelling, and formatting errors in an otherwise solid final draft).


Argument: But I need to edit as I write. That’s just how I write.

Rebuttal: No, you do not need to edit as you write. Editing is not, in fact, writing.

From my perspective, both comments reflect a narrow view of writing which I will call the free writing perspective. Promoters of free writing suggest that the most productive way to write is to get words out and then to go back and edit later. There are even devices that force you to free write by eliminating editing options. But I know from reading numerous writing guides and from talking to the awesome folks in our writing lab that different writers find different approaches better. Some folks need to free write. Some folks need to outline carefully before writing. Some folks are comfortable writing imperfect text and coming back to that; others will bristle uncomfortably at spelling and grammatical errors. I recall that there were a few other approaches, but it’s been long enough since I’ve focused on teaching comparatively novice writers [2] that I don’t remember.

Like some of the commenters who wrote after I had read the article, I am puzzled that MacPhail does not include outlining or other document structuring activities as part of the writing process. I know writers who find that outlines provide an essential first step and plan those outlines carefully. I know others who find that outlines get in their way. Some like to write a series of topic sentences and then go back and expand them, in a less formal kind of outline. Personally, I tend to form rough mental [3] outlines but usually treat them as highly malleable.

What about the issue of editing as you go? I realize that some people find that editing on the fly interrupts the flow of thoughts and therefore makes them less productive. But I also know from experience that if I don’t immediately rearrange text when I see a better approach, it will be harder to come back later and figure out what had seemed to be a better way to organize or express my thoughts. I’ll still come back later and edit again, but I’ll have a much better starting point. Similarly, if I’m on paragraph seven and realize that what I’ve just written has an impact on what I’d written in paragraph three, I should go back and edit paragraph three now, rather than later, when I’ll have forgotten.

I’d like to see a more careful study. If you take writers who are accustomed to one mode (e.g., editing as they go, free write and edit later, outline or not) and then give them a month of training in the other mode, which technique leads to more or better prose [4]? My quick Web search reveals lots of comments that free writing is better, but not with any hard evidence.

I will admit that I have some bad habits as a writer. In some cases, I tend to go off exploring rabbit holes on the Web in the midst of some writing [7]. MacPhail would probably tell me not to do so. But for something like the musings, most of which are done on a fairly tight deadline [9], I must either go find and read the source or decide to do without. I have the same experience when I’m writing some conference papers with tight deadlines.

That’s almost certainly enough about my reaction to the writing time is just for generating words on the page philosophy. To summarize my response: People do (and probably should) write differently. Time set aside for writing should accommodate outlining/organization and minor edits along the way as well as other approaches to writing.

Wait! I forgot. MacPhail writes Editing is not, in fact, writing. It appears that my experience is different than hers. When I am editing, I will often realize that I have left out an important point or thought and then insert that text. For example, while editing a draft of this musing [10], I said to myself Oh, that’s right. I disagree with her statement that editing is not writing. And so I inserted this paragraph. Isn’t that writing [11]? Alternately, I will encounter a really bad sentence that I could not bear to release to others and will spend time writing a substitute? Is that not also a form of writing? In more substantive pieces, I also find that my editing often involves adding appropriate transitions between paragraphs and sections. Transitions are clearly new text. Doesn’t that count is writing? Or is it that none of those activities count as editing? Certainly, they only happen when I am re-reading my text to think about how to improve it, which I think of as editing. But they involve the generation of new text, which I think of as writing. Perhaps editing is writing.

Of course, those aren’t my only problems with the piece. I take issue with the insistence that all you can do during your writing time is write. When I think about faculty I know, I generally find that after they add up time for teaching, time for service, time for family, and time for paperwork, they don’t have a lot of time left for their scholarship. If someone wants to say that what is likely carefully-set-aside writing time cannot be used for other activities they associate with writing, then when are they supposed to find time for those activities?

And so I’m left to wonder: Who is well served by this kind of advice? And why does it frustrate me so much?

[1] I did not want to assume a gender for the author. However, the short biographical note in Chronicle uses her and so I will do the same.

[2] By comparatively novice writers, I mean first-year College students. I typically work on students’ writing in Tutorial

[3] And, on occasion, digital.

[4] In professional writing I’d generally prefer better prose to more prose. I have the musings as an outlet for my non-professional [5] writing and I will admit that the musings tend to focus more on decent text than on carefully edited or carefully phrased text [6].

[5] unprofessional?

[6] You know that I don’t edit carefully for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I leave my silly alliterations in my work.

[7] I remember reading something by Borges on how he polished each sentence to perfection before moving on to the next. Unfortunately, I could find nothing to that effect on the Web. I did find something one quote that suggests a different perspective.

Or as Borges said, the only way to stop editing a story is to publish it [8]

However, that claim is not cited.


[9] My general rule is to start the musing, write until it’s done, and then publish it. In a few cases, I find that the musing does not cohere or runs out of steam. In those cases, I set it aside for future writing and editing. But I’m not sure I’ve ever set a musing aside with the intent of finding additional sources.

[10] Yes, I do edit these musings. No much, but some.

[11] Or at least meta-writing.

Version 1.0 of 2018-03-24.