In the English PhD program at Rice, you take a seminar during your third year called the Writing Workshop. You begin with a paper draft and, in theory, leave with a publishable piece of writing. At the end of the semester you’re meant to slide it into an envelope, send it away, and hope for the best.
This seminar is an excellent idea, especially when led by a faculty member who is great at the mechanics of argument and composition (as mine was). And I enjoyed having another seminar with all the grad students in my cohort. The course worked for me, too. The paper I revised during my third year is my first publication, which was published this month. (Alas, it has not yet arrived in our library or been recorded in the MLA Bibliography. I suspect I will feel a little more like a scholar when I can pull up an MLA Bibliography record of my own publication. I am a big nerd and try it every day, hoping it will appear.)
So the class works and, under the correct leadership, is kind of fun. But they really should call this seminar Revise Until You Hate It.
I know that there are students and academics who actually enjoy revising their work. I know a few of them. Usually these writers don’t particularly enjoy that first draft, which they consider a document to be hammered out, gotten out of the way, so they can continue on to the sweet, sweet process of refining their thesis and rearranging paragraphs, working in a recently-published article and adding one more concession and rebuttal.
Not so for me. Revisions are my nemesis. Well, actually, Matt Lauer is my nemesis. But revisions come in a close second.
I’m currently revising an article I wrote about Robert Louis Stevenson and his collaborations with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. They worked together on a toy press and, later, on Treasure Island. (And Sophie, if you are perhaps reading this post, I regret to say that I still cannot make you a toy press.) I loved writing this article, which is in fact part of my dissertation, and I especially enjoyed writing about toy presses, a topic that forces you to generate a variety of appropriately formal synonyms for the word “small.” Miniature. Tiny. Wee? No.
Writing my piece on toy presses also allowed me to talk about some really fantastic nineteenth-century advertising images and copy. Check out this one:
But writing the first draft of this article was such enjoyable but intense work that revising is a little daunting. And when I finish a draft, it seems delicate and unstable. It’s like I got away with some scam and no one has noticed. I’m convinced that if I even breathe near the computer screen while the file is open, it just might fall to pieces.
The Writing Workshop began to convince me that this is untrue. And the good news is that I’ve already had this article accepted at a journal (wahoo!), so I know the revisions are going somewhere.
Alas, revisions, like Matt Lauer, are sometimes necessary. Okay, that didn’t really make sense, because Matt Lauer is not necessary in most circumstances. But in any case, I am beginning to put tentative notes in the margins of my first draft. So wish me luck!