Book writing: Copyediting and corrections

I wrote earlier this month that I revised my book using the generous and helpful feedback of two critical friends. The files all went off to the series editor and he has finally started working through them. I have officially moved a step forward into proofreading, copyediting and finalising the files so that they can go to the publisher. Yay! and meh, all at the same time. I am having to dig pretty deep to really engage with all of the very detailed and minute edits that are needed because I am tired now and I really, really want this book to be finished, published and in my hands.

Proofreading, editing and correcting our work before final submission is part of all writing that we do, but it is not a part of the process often focused on as being important and worth doing carefully and precisely. It seems to be assumed that all writers will know that this is important and will know how to manage this part of the process on their own. As a lecturer and journal editor I have read many un-proofread or poorly proofread papers and assignments over the years. As a reader this is a frustrating process—I spend more time focused on the mistakes than I do thinking about the writer’s ideas. I have thus started talking to students in all my writing and research courses about the value of making and taking time to go over their writing carefully to catch and correct all sorts of errors that, overall, diminish the readers’ impression of both the writing and the writer.

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I am currently working through my book with feedback from the series editor. A few issues require some actual revision and bits of new writing, but most of it is editing and corrections: Harvard to APA; deleting commas where there shouldn’t be commas; hyphens to em dashes—that kind of thing. But, and this has been the super-tricky part for me, most of the corrections need to be made through reading the entire text again very carefully. I can’t just ‘Find and Replace’ my way through this stage. For things like change ‘s’ spellings to ‘z’ spellings and contractions to not-contractions I have used the magical ‘Find and Replace’ function and saved myself oodles of time and stress. But commas have to do with meaning, and meaning has to be carefully considered. So, I am reading all 78,000-odd words again.

This has been tough. I have a very short attention span these days, for one thing. I have also read this whole book about five times now in writing and revising and rewriting it. The more I read it over and over, the more I doubt my ideas and arguments and start to wonder if what I have written even makes any sense or is worth anything to my potential readers. I don’t read it and think: Wow, this is awesome! I read it and think: Is this even good? This stage is not mentally taxing because most of the corrections are minor. This stage is emotionally taxing because it requires me to be critical of my writing, to find the faults and errors and correct them. That is not easy for any writer to do, especially when they just want the writing to be over with.

But, and I cannot stress this enough, proofreading and editing your work before you make a formal submission, whether to a lecturer, a supervisor or an editor, is crucial. If you hand in a formal piece of writing with three different referencing styles, typos and spelling mistakes, odd paragraph breaks, unhelpful repetition of ideas, inconsistent formatting of headings and spaces, strange punctuation that interferes with coherence and meaning, etc. consider the impression on the reader. What might you think if you were a journal or book editor or a lecturer/supervisor and you had to wade through a piece of writing full of relatively easy-to-fix errors? I am not talking here about larger issues like argument and evidence, which peer reviewers and supervisors are there to help you think about and develop through revisions. I am talking about having the same font throughout a single piece of writing; having the same referencing format accurately applied; having correct spellings and no typos; having consistently formatted headings (which also connect to meaning and structure in a text), having pauses and stops where they make sense in sentences and paragraphs.

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In re-reading my book chapters to catch all of my own errors and update the formatting to the publisher’s/editor’s preferred format, I have been able to find a correct other issues not necessarily commented on, such as overly long sentences that need to be shortened or broken up; typos that I (and the spell-check) missed; and confusing sentences that do not make clear sense. It has been a frustrating, time-consuming, and hugely illuminating process. It is making me a better, sharper writer, for sure. I am learning that there is always more to learn about how to write for different audiences and different purposes. Writing really is a process without an end.

That can feel flattening—when will I be a ‘good’ writer? The thing is, making mistakes doesn’t mean you are not a ‘good’ writer; getting a lot of critical feedback doesn’t mean you are not a ‘good’ writer either. Although all of this editing and proofreading has been tough, I know that the series editor has offered all of it with the intention of making my book as sharp, focused and readable as I can make it. He wants it—and me—to succeed, so that feedback and critique comes from a place of care rather than negativity.

That can be a useful starting place for the painful process of proofing and editing your work: care. You care about your ideas, your writing, the time it takes you to craft papers and chapters. That care doesn’t only come through in the ideas themselves but also in the way in which you present and share those ideas. Rather than only considering the writer’s point of view (what you think about your writing), focus on your reader: what impression do you want the reader to have of your writing?

Being ‘readerly’ when we write means considering how a reader may experience our writing and thinking carefully about who our target readers are and what we want to communicate to them. Proofreading a text carefully is part of being readerly. It communicates care about your work and attention to detail. Writing is a craft, regardless of what you are writing about. As writers, we want the focus to be on our ideas, not on our typos, spelling mistakes and sloppy referencing. If we make and take time to offer ourselves as writers the opportunity to ‘polish’ the writing we have poured so much time and effort into, the ideas are what our readers can spend their time engaging with.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

When I have felt like just giving up or shortcutting this process with ‘Find and Replace’, I have reminded myself of the series editor’s words: It takes time and effort to do something properly. But do it properly now or regret the errors at your leisure‘. After all of this time and work, there is no way I am going to out myself in the position of regretting this book or avoiding it for fear of finding mistakes I could have fixed had I just stayed this course a little longer. I owe myself and my readers my very best work. I think we all do.

‘Commaphobes’ and ‘Commaphiles’: grammar and meaning-making

The university I am affiliated to recently undertook a Grammarly trial, to see whether it would be worth investing in a campus license for all staff and students. I reluctantly agreed to take part. Reluctantly, because one of my job hats is a copyediting and proofreading hat, and I was pretty sure my grammar was just fine, thank you. But, I like to be helpful, and taking part and giving the educational technology division feedback was helpful.

This is not a punt for Grammarly – their web advertising has that covered. This post is a punt for being conscious of grammar, and its role in meaning-making in your writing. Specifically, this post is about the humble comma.

Image by PDPics from Pixabay

When I was teaching academic writing courses a long time ago at a different university, one of my colleagues in a group making meeting made a comment about student writers and commas. She suggested that some students are ‘commaphobes’, writing long, verbose sentences with no commas at all, when there should definitely be some. On the other hand, there are ‘commaphiles’, who love commas, and insert them, everywhere, even when there should be no comma there, at all. I am not sure what a writer who falls in the middle would be called (suggestions welcome in the ‘comments’), but I thought I was middle-ground here, like the third bowl of porridge in Goldilocks: just right.

Boy, was I wrong. Grammarly has gently, but firmly, pointed out to me over the last two months that on the comma-continuum, I am definitely leaning towards being a ‘commaphile’. It’s kind of amazing to be offered this insight into my writing – specifically grammatical – habits at this stage of my career. I had no idea that I over-used commas, and what they do to the coherence of my writing and the meanings I make.

What is the role of a comma in writing, and in meaning-making? A comma is a pause. According to this website, a comma performs one or more of 10 different functions in writing. The most common, perhaps, are separating an introductory word from the rest of the sentence (However, …); delineating separate but connected clauses (Most academic writing is challenging, but there are ways to develop your skills); and to create lists (Firstly, you can visit your campus writing centre, secondly, you can join a writing group with peers, …). When we see a comma as readers, we pause, and that pause helps us to make sense of what we are reading. Take the commas away from this blog post, or from a paper your are writing or reading at the moment, and see what effect that has on your sense-making.

There is a well-known book about the importance of correct punctuation in the English language. It takes its title after the often-cited example of the value of a well-placed comma: Eats, shoots and leaves. As in: A panda eats, shoots and leaves, or A Panda eats shoots and leaves. On one, you have a homicidal animal, and in the other, you have an animal eating her dinner. Here’s another one: Let’s eat Grandma, or Let’s eat, Grandma. There are many you could think of, I am sure. And some are quite funny. Probably, the over- or under-use of commas in academic or scholarly writing will cause fewer laughs, but their value is no less important for meaning making. Too many pauses breaks up the sentence you are writing, and can confuse the reader, especially, when they are put in the wrong, place. Too few and the effect is also confusion and probably re-reading because it may be the case that there is more than one clause in that sentence however even though you have no commas they may be able to work it out on their own.

Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay

So, how do you see and hear commas in your own writing, and work to rationalise your use of them so you are ‘just right’ on the comma-continuum? Well, you could make use of free software, like Grammarly. Or you could go old school, and start reading your writing out loud to yourself, or to a critical friend. Reading aloud forces you to switch from being the writer in your own head to be the reader of your work. This can be a low-key, useful approach to hearing the pauses, and figuring out if they should be there, or not. (I could have deleted that last one and the sentence would work just fine, for example). You can also be really brave and set up a critical friendship pair or small group where you regularly reach out and share writing with peers at your university or college. Even just getting feedback on a few pages can help you to step back from your writing and see as well as hear it with fresh eyes and ears.

The humble comma, like all punctuation, plays a significant role in meaning-making in writing. Far from being a technical feature of writing that you use because you know you have to have punctuation, you need to really think about the role it is playing and the meanings you are trying to make. Do you need the pause? Yes? Insert a comma. Can the sentence work without it? Yes? Then maybe take it out, read the sentence over, and see what you make of it. Using punctuation, like other features of writing, requires us to be conscious writers. To really think as we write about what we want and need to say, and how to get that across to our target audience. I have certainly been reminded of this recently, and find myself far more aware, as I write, of my position on the comma-continuum as I keep striving to get my writing ‘just right’.

Overcoming my resistance to my own writing

Last year I wrote a paper – my first paper out of my PhD thesis – and sent it to a big international journal. After 4 months, they sent it back with an odd decision: ‘reject and revise’. Essentially, a substantial revise and resubmit. I was given a deadline three months hence, and three reports to work with. Two were mostly encouraging, and one was Reviewer 2. I had many angry one-sided conversations with Reviewer 2 for about a week which felt quite cathartic. I eventually revised the paper, it was rejected again by Reviewer 2, and it is now, finally, being published by a completely different journal after yet further revisions. While a pleasing eventual result, it is the messy and emotionally draining revision process I want to reflect on here.

Although I had three months to revise the paper, I actually only did the revisions in the last 3 weeks of this time period. It was not because I had so many other things to do. I realised, after some reflection, that I was putting off the revisions because I was afraid. The reviews were so painful to read, and felt so mean (especially Reviewer 2), that I became convinced that my paper was complete rubbish and should never have been sent to a journal in the first place. I was scared to open the file and read my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad* writing. I literally could not even go into the folder, and double-click on the file for about 2 months. I tried, but I found myself unable to initially overcome the resistance to going back to my own writing, and what I perceived as my failure to succeed in writing. This fear is something I have felt on more than one occasion when I have received negative peer review, and it took me a while to see it, and realise that I could confront it and overcome it.

Deadlines are an excellent motivator for confronting fear of something you have written and being forced to see for yourself just how awful it is. I eventually opened the file because I had to, and I re-read the paper. To my immense surprise, it was not quite as awful as those reviews seemed to indicate, and re-reading my work enabled me to find the courage to go back and re-read the reviewer reports, make notes, and begin to rework the paper. I rewrote almost 70% of the paper, and was much happier with it when I resubmitted it. Unfortunately, the reviewer who re-reviewed the paper (seriously suspect it was Reviewer 2) indicated that I had addressed the concerns, but wanted more revisions, pretty much along the same lines as the first round. This contradictory request, with no mediation from the editors, was confusing and unmanageable. I didn’t see how I could actually do any more for them with the comments I was given. I withdrew the paper politely, and went elsewhere.

The second round of journal consideration has been more successful. Another 5 months of waiting, but a better decision, and much more encouraging and useful feedback. Yet again, though, getting into the revisions has been tough. I really loathe this paper now. I have rewritten and revised it 5 times, and I really, honestly have no clue whether it is very good or not anymore. I don’t know if it is making any kind of useful contribution to scholarship in my field. I just hate it. I have been so resistant to revising it again, so unwilling to keep looking at it and reading it. It has been useful, though, for me to think about why I feel this way about my ‘feral’ writing, to use Annie Dillard’s brilliant term. I think we all feel really emotional, and hurt, when we receive feedback that is hard to hear and work with. This is well-known and often written and spoken about. But, I have heard much less about what comes between getting the feedback and delivering the revised thesis chapter, draft or paper.

brightonactors.co.uk

brightonactors.co.uk

I think most or all writers feel resistant to going back into a piece of writing that needs to be revised and rewritten, especially on the basis of harsh critique. Perhaps it is not always clear what that resistance is about. In my case, it has mainly been about fear: that my writing is bad, and that if I go back in I will lose faith in myself, and carrying on with this or any paper will be impossible. I would rather not confront the ugly writing I have done. And yet, if I had just chucked this paper, as I wanted to more than once, I would not have learned this about myself. I would not have learned what I have about writing – every time I write a paper, I learn something new about my style, my voice, my thinking and so on. I would not have a paper in press. I would really have failed if I had just caved in the face of the fear and stopped working on this paper.

Writing is hard work, this much we know. But what we also have to give ourselves is recognition that resistance to writing, fear of our own (potentially) bad writing, and feelings of fed-up-ness, loathing, and frustration are part of this hard work that we need to deal with if we are going to push through and make progress. Give yourself time and space to feel your way through as you think your way through, and if you are feeling resistance, frustration or more, try to work out what is at the root of those feelings so that you can get to it, work it out, and keep going. You’ll be so glad you did.

 

*From the book  ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz (1972)

It’s a PhD thesis!

I have handed in my PhD thesis. (Pause for yells of triumph and applause :-))

I feel quite different now compared to when I handed in my first draft at the end of September. At that time I just felt wiped out, exhausted, out of words and ideas. I did not think I could make it to this point, quite honestly, and I was really worried. I put off the revisions for the longest period of time I could get away with to avoid having to go back into the thinking and writing and worrying and fatigue that has been a huge part of my life for the last couple of years at least. But go back into it all, I did, and now the thing is finished enough to submit and I am very proud of myself and of the way it has turned out.

I have heard people refer jokingly to doing a PhD as like being pregnant and having a long labour, with the thesis being the ‘baby’ that one gives birth to and rejoices in after this long, painful period of time. Possible issues aside, let’s go with this metaphor for this post (with apologies to male readers who may need to find a similar metaphor – I’d be keen to hear one).

Pregnancy and labour are pretty tough, although there are really lovely parts, of pregnancy at least – one of which is the fuss people tend to make of you, even people you don’t know very well. Not all of labour is painful and these are respites from the painful  bits, but it feels endlessly long and difficult and exhausting and even though you know it cannot actually last forever, it’s often hard to see the end in your line of sight. So, in some ways I guess I can see the connections with the process of doing a PhD.

Not all of the PhD process is hard and painful, and there are some lovely bits too – the relationships you build with your fellow PhD scholars and supervisor; the way you can see your ability to write, read and think more critically and analytically growing over time; the pleasure you can take in learning new things about a field you are really interested in – and these lovely bits often make the more painful bits feel like they just might be worth it.

But the painful bits of both processes are really awful, and even though you will (and should) have people around you, coaching you and encouraging you and giving you sage advice, you are the one who has to go through it all and you can feel quite alone at times, even though you know you are not the only one who is going through something like this.

It’s a lovely relief when that little baby appears and the pain and discomfort and swollen ankles and heartburn are at an end. You know that the next phase is beginning, and it’s scary and also exhilarating. And with a PhD, it’s a huge relief to print out the thesis, ring-bind it and send it off. The next phase of your career is starting – post-doc research, writing, conferences and so on. It’s also scary and heady all at the same time.

There is another similarity too: not too long after going through all of that pain and discomfort, you look down at that little baby and think (somewhat bizarrely considering how much you whinged and carried on about how long the pregnancy and labour were taking): ‘that wasn’t so hard, really. I think I could do that again’. I must say that, in some ways, I am thinking already that doing a PhD was not so hard in the end. Of course, this is not actually the case: it was hard, and it’s not over yet. I still have corrections coming and my final submission before I can graduate. But I feel like I could gear up to do this again sometime in the future, except next time I’ll be having a book! 🙂