Facing the ghosts of drafts and papers past

It is already April (eep!) and I have three writing deadlines looming. I am making progress on only one of the pieces of writing – slow progress – so I’m starting to properly panic. One of the things that has been slowing me down is having to face and read past drafts of the work I have done on early drafts of these pieces that have had some feedback. I have written quite a bit about feedback over the last few years here: how much it can hurt, how to approach it, how to offer it to others. What I have written less about is how, sometimes, feedback can make you afraid of your own writing, seriously scared to reopen and read versions of your work that now have to be revised, rethought, rewritten, and perhaps incorporated into new writing. This post is about facing your writing and acknowledging that fear.

It may sound a bit silly to be scared of your own writing. But if you will indulge me a bit, I will share a story. In 2014, I graduated, and after recovering from post-PhD blues and illness, I started working on a paper based on the findings from one of my two case studies. It took me about six months to write the paper and I bravely (or foolishly) chose a big international journal of curriculum studies to send it to. I had not even cited this journal in my own work, but I knew so little of publishing compared to what I know now that all I could think was how good it would be to start this post-PhD with a BIG journal publishing my work. I waited about six more months for feedback from the reviewers and when it came at last it was devastating. Three reports, one really mean one from a reviewer who confessed to not understanding my theory at all, one mean report from someone who knew but disliked the theory I was using, and one more constructive report. The editor of the journal followed the mean reviewers and offered me a ‘reject and resubmit’ with zero guarantees of moving forward. I chose this option because at least there was a chance and I had invested so much time already.

But it took me two months to open the paper to begin the revisions after reading these reports. At first, I did not really understand why I was so afraid of opening the paper and working on it. The more I tried to goad myself into it, the more I procrastinated and the harder it got to double-click that file. When I did finally open it, it sat minimised on my desktop for a further few weeks. Finally, a funded writing retreat coincided with an email from the editor telling me I had two more weeks to resubmit and I opened the file and the reports.

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What I found was surprising. I expected, based on the meanness of two of the reports, to read a really terrible paper full of mistakes, poor arguments, misapplied theory, wrong-headed conclusions, obscure prose. Just a crap piece of work, really. What I found was quite a clearly written paper that had made some overly generalised and blunted claims that needed to be nuanced and explained more clearly, that had oversimplified some of the analysis, and that needed a good proofread for long sentences and overwriting. But it was not crap at all. I had been wrong to be so scared of my own writing and had wasted so much time. I was able to use the 4-day retreat to rework the paper pretty thoroughly and resubmitted it on time. It was rejected, again (after inexplicably going back to the reviewer who didn’t know the theory for re-review), and I finally published it somewhere else 21 months after I started writing it.

All in all, this was a significant learning experience for me. I learned about publishing – more on that in another post – and, most valuably, I learned about the value of feedback and a bit about myself as a writer. I want to reflect on what I learned about writing and myself as a writer here, especially managing the fear of my own writing. This difficulty in facing your own writing is not only confronted after you’ve sent it off for feedback; it can be something you need to confront in coming back to a draft you’ve left alone for too long and have to sit down with again and tame (Annie Dillard’s feral writing comes to mind here). I know several of the students I work with face this latter challenge regularly – feral drafts that are hard to tame and get back on top of, largely because they have to face their own writing and work through all the ‘why did I write thats’ and the ‘what on earth was I even trying to says’.

Perhaps, as I write this, ‘fear’ is not quite the right word. Perhaps ‘confusion’ or ‘frustration’ or ’embarrassment’, even, are better words for how we may feel when we come back to a piece of writing we started a while ago, in a different frame of mind, and now have to come back to, get back in touch with, and finish off. This is where I am now: sitting with parts of a paper I started about 6 months ago and that I am now estranged from. I’m not really 100% sure what the core argument is, I have written so many long and meandering sentences in the parts that are prose, and hard-to-expand-on bullet points in the no-yet-written bits. I am thinking I should just leave this draft as it is and start again from scratch. This may be the best way to move forward – not rewriting the whole piece from scratch, but using the ideas I have already captured and reworking them into a fresh draft that makes more sense and is more coherent.

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This is a difficult process – drafting and re-drafting. Do you edit and rework existing drafts and try to make them better? Do you leave the prior draft to one side and rewrite the piece from scratch, working on the areas that are weaker and need development and including the pieces that are working well? How do you make that call? I have tended, in the past, to do the former: I take feedback, or my own reflection based on my re-reading of my draft, and use it to rework the existing piece of writing. I don’t often write a new draft from scratch, based on the prior draft but developing it further. However, with the one piece I am writing at the moment, this is really not going to work. I am going to need to start from scratch, using my notes and prior thinking as a base, but not the actual sentences I have written. I feel tired just thinking about it, to be honest, but I know it’s going to be the most efficient way to create a full, coherent draft that makes a clear argument. I have also started recommending to the doctoral candidates that I am supervising that they take this option with their chapter drafting.

This ‘leave that to one side and start again’ approach to drafting is not always necessary. I think it works best with earlier drafts, where your thinking and writing are on the rougher side of the clarity continuum and you are still working out the core argument and structure of the piece (chapter, paper, etc.). Once you have the argument in place and the structure organised and you (and your supervisor or critical friend) are pretty happy with it, it makes more sense to do any further revisions and corrections on the draft rather than starting over every time. It can feel daunting to do put a piece of writing to one side and start fresh, but it can also be freeing – you are not bound to under-developed ideas that weren’t quite working; you are not locked into phrasing and writing that doesn’t sound quite right or express your argument effectively. In my limited experience thus far, doing this enables me to let go of some of my fear of or frustration with my prior writing and see it as something fresh, rather than something old and, well, crap.

The bottom line, I guess, is that writing can be hard. It can be enjoyable, enlightening, empowering, and it can be frustrating, difficult, annoying and sometimes even stifling (thinking about ‘rules’, norms and conventions that constrain the ways we may want to write). We may have to face many ghosts of papers or chapters past in our writing work, but rather than facing them with fear or trepidation and feeling horrible about our writing, we can shift this and see past writing as a foundation for future writing and an opportunity to learn more about ourselves as writers and our writing process. And however hard the writing then feels, that ultimately can be really enabling and empowering.

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