Editing: the most painful and most pleasurable writing task

About four months ago I submitted the final version of my book to University of Minnesota Press for publication. If you have been following this blog, you will know that I sporadically wrote about my experiences of rewriting the book over the years. See my favourite post, which is overflowing with sarcasm and self-deprecating humour. I like to think.

How I held it together and reorganised my book manuscript without being reduced to an embarassing mess (and other lies)

I have done three full re-writes, and, in the end, my book will come out around ten years after my thesis was examined. But way back when I promised to write a series of blogs on this experience. This is the last post!

Look, I’m going to be honest and say that in the end, I rewrote 80 percent of the text. In my process, there are three main stages to editing a book.

  1. Creating a list of planned edits.
  2. Restructuring and rewriting.
  3. Polishing, editing and revising.

Creating a list of planned edits

This is really hard, but really important. If you just dive in and start editing a book, you will get stuck editing the introduction over and over again. Don’t ask me how I know. It’s really important that you decide on the planned edits. This was painful — I hated reading the text, I never wanted to see it again. But I had to. I did this by:

  • printing out the whole thing and reading it through without commenting or writing or correcting. Several times (I had three rounds of reviewer/editor comments).
  • then freewriting how I feel about the text, what I think is working and not working.
  • then re-reading the reviews of the book.
  • then summarising the main issues in a to-do list (I like a whiteboard with post-it notes, others use an excel spreadsheet).
  • Reading through the text one more time, this time making comments (I did this on paper and also on the manuscript, after importing it back into Scrivener from Word).

Once you have a list of planned edits, you are not done. You need to make them into a plan. I do this by organising them into categories. It makes sense to do the biggest changes first. This is really hard, but I got there. So I did:

  1. Restructuring
  2. Introduction mostly rewrite
  3. Chapters major rewrites (chapters 2 and 4)
  4. Edit through to chapter 4 end
  5. Edit chapter 5
  6. Rewrite chapter 6
  7. Rewrite conclusion
  8. Edit the whole document from end to beginning CONTENT
  9. Edit the whole document from beginning to end CONTENT
  10. References and footnotes — edit and update
  11. Edit the whole document from end to beginning COPY/FORMAT
  12. Putting together the final submission files
Yep, it looks a bit like this. Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Most painful: Restructuring and rewriting

This is so painful, but it has to be done. While I started this several years earlier, I still had a lot to do. This had to be done at a whole of book level, and at chapter levels. I managed to create a new structure by using post-it notes to experiment with chapter order. I took on the advice of several pre-readers, who had advised that I bring the ‘end’ of the book closer to the beginning. This didn’t really work after several tries, so instead I developed a ‘patterning’ structure that went Intro/IDEA chapter/EMPIRIC chapter/IDEA chapter/ EMPIRIC chapter/IDEA chapter/Conclusion. I restructured the text I had into this pattern. This included cutting bits from some chapters and pasting them into other chapters. I decided I would mainly introduce the literature as I needed it. While my thesis and earlier versions also followed a principle of doing so, there were so many ideas jostling for space and actually they could not all be in the same chapters.

My friend Ann recently told me about how our PhD supervisor Katherine had told her that a thesis is a ‘walk through the woods’. There is certainly a whole forest out there, but you are walking your reader from one tree to the next in a linear path through the forest. This certainly describes my restructuring journey. I had to learn to let things lie, to prefigure that ideas would come up later, but actually just allow my reader (and myself) to follow the journey. Having the empiric chapters as two major chunks helped me then work out what to do with the theory chapters. I then added ‘interludes’ with some ethnographic storying –these open up the black box of how research happens and create a story of my own journey in the research and fieldwork. I deleted an entire subtheme and a whole empirical chapter, which was a heartbreaking version of ‘murdering your darlings’, to use Stephen King’s editing metaphor. But it helped, because then the topic of the book was more streamlined and easier to make space for. Here’s what I got to — the bolded ones are empircal:

  1. Introduction
  2. Thinking Multiplicity
    Interlude: In the Courtyard of Venerable Grannies
  3. Holding Out
    Interlude: The Body Multiple
  4. Shifting Assemblages
    Interlude: Situated Hygienes
  5. Traveling Practices
    Interlude: Experiments
  6. Reassembling Hygienes
  7. Guarding Life

The ‘theory’ chapters aren’t really theory, in the end, they are more context and include historical work done by others that provide context to the place of research. I imagined it with a diagram as a messy assemblage, with empirical chapters offering a contained, place-based narrative, and with the theory/context chapters offering context but also direction. See the image below for how I imagined the book as I was restructuring it.

A photo of my messy imagining of the book.

From there, I rewrote the introduction with this in mind, revised and edited the first chapter, cutting a lot of material, and using material from an older introduction. I removed a lot of ‘literature review’, since I wanted it to be compelling and questioning, leading us through the forest, to the trees I wanted the reader to meet, rather than stopping to ‘piss on trees’ without really engaging with them (another metaphor from Katherine Gibson!). I then also rewrote the entire ‘ideas chapter’ of Chapter 4, since I had a different framework for what it is was doing (from the image). This involved bringing material from the end of the book up to this chapter and reading a lot of things, new books and so on. This was two months works.

I then worked through those chapters again, then lightly edited the content chapter 5, then rewrote chapter 6 using material from previous versions and two published papers. Finally, I read everything then rewrote the conclusion.

When I say rewrote, I generally mean I literally start a new document (move the old chapter to ‘research’ in Scrivener). Then move pieces that work into the document with a lot of writing in between. Sometimes I just print out the old stuff and only type in what I need in the new chapter. The act of retyping (rather than cutting and pasting) forces me to decide if it is worth keeping. Restructuring and rewriting are certainly the most painful aspects of revising a book. It is so big! It’s hard to hold it all in your head! It took me months and months longer than I thought! I needed a break from teaching to be able to do it, and indeed, a break from meetings for ONE MONTH to get myself on track.

While this was undoubtedly painful, I did get pleasure from reading texts and engaging with authors who had published new things on the topic. I did get pleasure each day from having ‘been a good girl’ and doing the hours of work that chipped away at the task.

A forest: Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

Most pleasurable: Polishing, editing and revising

I deliberately wrote these kind of out of order — because the process is not linear. I added extra steps to my plan by polishing up bits then reworking them. Eventually, I exported the documents chapter by chapter to word and started editing in there for final checks. This is the part which gets fun! I discovered that I loved Chicago style footnote referencing, the press style. I usually write with an in-text referencing style such as Harvard or APA. I loved how it forced me to ‘introduce’ people in the text, rather than slap their name in brackets at the end of a sentence. I loved how I could put the reference, but also a bit more about why it was important. I loved how since there is no performative name-dropping, you really had to think about who you were inviting into the conversation and why. I wasn’t able to correct all my citational privileging, but it will help me in my next book for sure as I think about whose ideas frame my work and who are just being ‘added in’.

Editing from end to beginning meant that I was aware as I edited what I needed to do to set up the ‘end’ of the book. Then editing from beginning to end helped me work on the flow and signposting. I also did things like search for the first mention of ideas, and then work on introducing those well in the first mention. Sometimes it meant I deleted an earlier performative mention.

Reading aloud helped me see which sentences were awkward and long, and which ones took too long to get to the verb. It helped me ‘see’ things I couldn’t see, by hearing them — including missing words my brain filled in while reading silentely. I also recorded it, so I have a beta audio book!

Finally, I hired a proofreader to do the final copy editing and proofing. I also asked her to read for meaning and let me know when she got lost. This was so helpful for my confidence in submitting the final version. The timeframe was too tight to allow a friend to do this, and I was lucky enough to have some funding available for this.

Then of course, there is submitting, the author’s questionnaire, all the work on permissions and figures and so on — which is what I am doing these days! These are quite pleasurable, because they are making me feel like this is really going to happen!

Pleasure and pain in the final stages

All in all, writing and revising a book are both pleasure and pain. It was certainly more pain than pleasure for this book. But I think I’m so looking forward to having it out there and having conversations about it, and sharing ideas with others. I know the next one will be easier, because it is NOT MY PHD THESIS. In the end, it was letting go of the PhD and embracing the new book that made it possible.

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