Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Paper Needs a Process

A good writing process does not just make you a more efficient writer; it can also also make you a more effective one. Your writing process determines the quality, not just he quantity, of your writing. Planning your work, after all, forces you to do specific things with your text in a predetermined order. If you don't have a plan, important tasks can remain undone.

One thing that I've become sensitive to lately is the question of whether a text has been subjected to the discipline of the "after-the-fact outline". If I were teaching undergraduate composition, I would spend a lot of time on this step in the writing process. It would be a fixed assignment, and one that the students would be graded on separately.

I'm beginning to suggest the after-the-fact outline instead of trying to line-edit a text. And I think that in the future I'm going to suggest that the author send me the outline instead of the first draft of the paper for general comments. I also think colleagues should exchange such outlines, rather than full drafts, for comment more often.

An after-the-fact outline is simply a series of sentences, each of which represents a paragraph in the current draft. You make the outline by reading each paragraph in the draft and summarizing it in a single sentence. It should be possible to do this simply by choosing the paragraph's key sentence. You end up with 25 or 30 sentences that mark the progress of the argument of your paper.

It should be obvious that such an outline gives you an overview of your argument. But is also gives you a simple way to reorganize it. You can move the sentences around and rewrite them to fit into new sequences. You can write new sentences to mark place where you need to fill holes in your argument. You can remove sentences that aren't needed. When you have completed this step, i.e., when your after-the-fact outline is done to your satisfaction, all you have to do is "flesh out" the skeleton, bringing each whole paragraph back where it now belongs.

You then need spend some time with each separate paragraph to get it to support the claim in its key sentence. If you spend 20 or 30 minutes with each paragraph, you will need about 10 hours (roughly three writing sessions) to get through the whole paper. It is my sense that those hours are often just what the paper needs.

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