‘Membering; or, strategies for book revisions

Back in early 2018, I composed a series of blog posts about researching the publishing process, targeting series, oft-circulated myths, and, in five parts, how to fund it. I am now two-thirds through my own revision process before final submission, having just finished those elements for which content existed. The introduction and afterword remain. It seemed an appropriate moment to reflect on what exactly the revision process looks like—a nuts-and-bolts query I have found it difficult to pin down those who do have books about.

In the vein of my previous reflection on the first-book process, in this post I write on the tactics that have made up my repertoire of revising my thesis into a book: to collate, section, and cut-and-paste; to polish page-by-page; to rely on surefooted tools Scrivener and Zotero; and to track. Of course everyone’s processes are different, and different kinds of projects also necessitate unique approaches.

For me, in the heat of it, revising is an act of dismembering and remembering.

Collating

A long-time devotee of Scrivener, each chapter has a file with subsections in addition to the manuscript. These include a “flypapers” folder for scraps of notes from notebooks, archival transcriptions, and so forth. I also keep a separate file for all of the permutations of the chapters, from conference papers and keynotes to the thesis deposit. Scrivener lets me compare them all so I can see where are the changes, new content, and other revisions. I include the body of emails from colleagues with notes and feedback about what is working, what isn’t, and where to look.

Collating before beginning the work of revising means I know that every time I open the chapter to work I have everything I need already. It is all in that file or otherwise lives digitally nearby, such as images and figures. I don’t have to physically pull out a book or reference I am citing. It is all there, so I can work on the task of composing only. I find that when I scrounge for physical resources, it is not only time-consuming in the searching, but also my desire to linger over the book or look at other articles in the issue derails my focus.

A snapshot of what my binder set-up looks like for an individual chapter using Scrivener.

Sectioning

Part of my slow launch into this process last December had to do with forgetting about this part of my process. It had been nearly three years since the thesis, so I had disconnected with some of my techniques for large-scale writing projects. I was easily scared away from the project by its size. And then I remembered: make it smaller. <!Insert facepalm here!>

For all of my chapters, I have pieced them apart in individual files for each section they contain. (See snapshot above.) Even if the section doesn’t have a proper header (i.e., introduction) or won’t necessarily live alone, piecing them out in this way made it immediately manageable. I was also able to see and justify to myself explicitly how these words participated to support my larger aims—or easily see the reason they did not.

This goes, of course, hand-in-hand with developing at least a rough outline of the chapter. If you aren’t one given to outlining, this sectioning may feel difficult and unwieldy. Ultimately, the trickle-down effects—identifying weak or missing topic sentences, more easily composing abstracts—always make this worth it to me.

Print, Cut, Cordon

All of the writing self-help literature swears the necessity of having a printer at home. In the age of digital computing and the cloud, I never really understood this advice—or rather, couldn’t visualize the “necessity” beyond an effective way to hand-mark for final polish at the level of mechanics.

In using the sectioning strategy, I began to find it very useful to print off bits of written mess I had for a chapter, cut out each individual paragraph, highlight the topic sentences (sometimes buried in the middle), and then arrange them on our dining room table. I’d sometimes use neon index cards to start to build section headings and groups. This way I could literally see how all the sections might fit together, test out different arrangements, and ultimately make the best choice quickly.

This was the most effective and efficient way for me to (a) organize the internal development of a chapter’s argument and (b) decide what should be cut entirely (or move to another chapter in rare cases). Then it was simply a matter of pasting the digital version of the paragraphs in the order I had arranged. The Snapshot feature in Scrivener meant I never lost a previous version, but did not require me building entire new documents to keep that record.

Page by Page

As a teacher of first-year writing, I have learned that focusing on the elements of style, grammar, and mechanics at the start of a revision process is never productive. While certainly the delivery of ideas depends on the means and form by which they are communicated, focusing on “local” technical polish before “global” issues of arrangement and argument sets one up for wasted effort.

Now applying that to my own process is entirely a different matter. The first chapter I worked on was one that I thought was in pretty good shape, and so would buoy me into the other chapters. I started with a cold read and began editing for minor things instinctively, then hit a solid wall when I came to sections that needed significant re-working. It put me out for several weeks until I reformulated the game plan. If I just accepted the inevitable from the top, it would have saved me anxiety and time.

When I do think I have all the moving parts sorted and drafted, I print out each section as I complete them and hand-mark for mechanics and style. Then I apply those changes to the digital file (again always using the Snapshot feature to keep previous versions). For every page that I finish, I use brightly colored highlighters to mark the bottom right-hand corner. That way, when I come to a page with a more complex problem to solve beyond spelling, such as adding a new paragraph or hunting down a source, I skip it entirely. I work through all the pages with superficial changes and mark them. Then I know which pages are not completed and will need more focused effort. This keeps me from rushing through, but also maintaining a realistic vision of the level of work to be done. For each section there were also only about two or three pages that needed more substantive work, which at that size seemed utterly doable. Hiding in a stack of fifteen undifferentiated pages made it seem so much more arduous.

As I write this, I think that my process, aside from trying to produce the best thing I can, is often about de-escalating the perception of “work” to be done for myself.

Zotero

I continue to extol the virtues of Zotero and citation management software in general, as I am still shocked by how many scholars use no method of organizing their citations. As an avowed A-type personality with a love of lists and cataloguing, building citations is fun for me. (I perversely look forward to building my index.) This means that this kind of work can be an easy if virtuous distraction from the writing at hand. And, if I build a bibliography before I’ve finished the revision, it will be harder to figure out what I have and have not included.

I save creating the bibliography for the end, although I do create the footnotes and other in-text citational apparatus as I write. In using Zotero, while I do have to create what I now think of as “artisanal” hand-crafted citations for archival materials (including locations, STC numbers, &c.), the bibliography is otherwise made for me. To close out the file, the last thing I do is copy-and-paste the bibliography over from Zotero into Scrivener and polish it up. It all takes less than five minutes.

Tracking

As a researcher, I like data—whether it is a selection of poetry quotations or my weekly record of steps. What a dear friend, a physicists turned lit PhD, calls “personal science,” there are certain kinds of data that rattle my assumptions about my process in productive ways.

At the start of book revising, I adopted Paul Silvia‘s system of keeping track of my academic writing. It is simple in that it is tracking only one question longitudinally: did I do research writing today? If I did two or more hours of writing, I mark my spreadsheet with a 1. If not, a 0. I include other information like the date, what I worked on, and number of words. In revising, the latter isn’t very useful as it is often zero: deleting, moving, or tweaking doesn’t often produce substantively “new” words. (Scrivener has a function that tracks this automatically for you, too, to keep one honest.)

A sample slice from tracking my writing process following Silvia’s method. Note that time spent is not included purposefully.

From doing this, the crazy thing I have learned thus far is that when I am actually working, it really doesn’t take that many days to revise a chapter. Even when I am conducting and infusing new archival research, it isn’t nearly as long as I was led to assume. While I plan to write a blog post reflecting in detail on this tracking at the end of my process, right now it is taking me between fourteen and twenty-two days to revise a chapter, and decreasing with each successive one. And yes, the first chapter I thought was in the best shape has taken the most days thus far. Again, this includes reading, drafting, data collection, and all the other kinds of tasks I count as part of the “writing” process, not just composing.

It will be interesting to compare the rate of revision to that of new chapters, but it all seems so much more do-able and less frightening. With data, I could revise my timeline into feasible periods of work based on real data. It’s been a powerful way to both close-the-loop, make better deadline decisions, and cultivate motivation.

Bonuses

I’ve done a few other things in advance of this revising process that are now bearing fruit. They aren’t for all comers, but I have been fortunate in these opportunities and found they have worked for me.

While academics have a variety of feelings about the value of conferences, I have found conferencing pieces of my chapters to be significantly productive to my process. I try to mention in the presentation the aim of the paper, that it is for a book on X topic, to help guide my respondents in what kind of feedback I am looking for. I have also tried to time one or two papers with the period in which I guessed I would be in the thick of revisions of that chapter to get fresh eyes immediately. I have found this significant for my process.

I have also been fortunate to participate in a series of fellowships that have allowed me to workshop individual chapters with different constituencies. For example, on a fellowship focused on the interplay between Italian opera and English drama at McGill University, I had a room full of period-instrumentalists and theater critics with which to workshop a chapter on blocking and trumpet calls. At the Harvard School for Theatre and Performance Research, focused on the topic of repertory and canon, I shared another chapter with my basic framework to a room of scholars working on a wide range of periods and traditions. Another chapter on what would count as a “Mediterranean” play was workshopped while on fellowship with the Academy for Advance Study of the Renaissance, comprising scholars of Italian Renaissance History and English Renaissance Literature. Slowly but surely I’ve been fortunate to find venues to test ideas with different groups, all of whose notes are not invaluable in this process. It is one way to play the long-game, but I have found authentic in garnering feedback. I have been able to come back to revising without feeling like I am in an echo-chamber of my own intellectual commitments.

A sixteenth-century corner of the City of London preserved from the Great Fire. July 2019.

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