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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thinking on Paper

One of my friends in graduate school turned in a draft of her thesis, hoping she had finished her work. Her major professor, Dr. Sam Schulman, wrote, “Edit and fatten” on the front cover. Obviously, a great deal of work lay ahead. Since the feedback said “fatten” as well as “edit,” she needed to rewrite, not simply edit the manuscript.

Writing a complex paper is holistic and recursive, but the task is easier to understand when separated into steps. Writers think their articles into existence, but that thinking requires action as well as pondering. Thinking on paper requires originating ideas, conducting research, interviewing people, observing situations, roughing out ideas in a first draft, rewriting the first draft, rewriting subsequent drafts and editing.

As describe above, writing seems a sequential, step-by-step procedure. My description suggests that you complete step one before starting step two and so forth. But few writers work that way, however. For example, developing an idea for an article shapes the required research and suggests a list of potential interviewees. But unexpected findings from the research may cause the writer to re-think her original idea. This same learning, re-thinking and re-doing happens at all stages of writing.

Usually, your article improves most during rewriting. Early rewrites let you develop big ideas that shape the whole of the article. Later, you focus on cutting digressions and making your main points clearer. At some point in a rewrite, you may decide to interview another source or conduct more research. However, the changes generally become smaller during the later rewrites.

Much later, in the editing stage, you try to remove flabby writing and to select the perfect word to convey your intended meaning. You work to smooth the transitions between sentences and make certain that the paragraphs are in the best sequence. In late edits you remove small imperfections that detract from the flow and impact of your article.

We divide writing into various steps – drafting; research; rewriting; editing – to help us think through the process. However, it is all writing, it usually happens recursively and each part makes its contribution to the final article.

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