It is edifying to reflect upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s telling proclamation: “Writing is a joy, tinged with pain, passion and more than a bit of irony. Each finished text is merely a mirage, the starting point of rewrites and edits; for it is this process of reconstitution and refinement that transforms mere words into art, raw language into polished prose.” A sentiment echoed, though in terms very much his own, by Samuel Beckett, Nobel laureate: “Had I followed the counsel of friends, I would have put forth verbal sewage – raw, odiferous, vulnerable and unfinished. Writing is only the first step: one must revamp, recast, amend, even transcend – time and again –until each phrase cries out and leads the reader, flowingly, from one period to the next. Had I followed my instincts fully, Godot would still be waiting.”
Both authors invite us, as if by indirection, to ponder the keys to effective prose development. And there is no place for equivocation: the initially finished product is but a blueprint of the whole, yet to be constructed and far from any point of consummation. Nothing is more critical to the act of transcribing thought into its written form, for what often appears to be the point of fulfillment is patently but the point of departure.
Whatever the nature, scope and purpose of a given text (commentary, essay, report, synthesis, summary, analysis, memorandum, editorial, abstract, study, novel or other), one constant underpins every work: its author must be prepared to distance himself from the initial draft temporally and emotionally – in order to initiate the quintessential processes to follow. The writer must be poised and prepared to ask himself an array of evaluative, objective questions and, following therefrom, to adapt, revise, recast, reshape, redo, repair the text accordingly.
* * *
Consider the following:
Is the introduction effective? Does it provide a logical starting point? Does it put forth a proper and contextualized lead-in to the central thesis? Does it sustain the interest (or summon the attention) of the reader?
Is the thesis clearly stated? Does it establish the platform for the evidence and arguments to follow? Does it serve duly as the fulcrum or axis to which every other part (like each spoke of a wheel) is centrally attached? Is it sustainable? Does it provide one or more worthwhile and solidly-anchored insights or points likely to enlighten the reader? Does it avoid mere re-hash of former, well-known writings?
Are the arguments presented adequate to sustain the thesis? Is the content compelling and persuasive? Are cited sources (where required) well-selected and sufficient to substantiate the points made and to exemplify research skills and/or knowledge of the pertinent literature?
Is there organic and integrated transitionality throughout the text? Does each point flow naturally or logically from that which precedes and does it construct a meaningful context for, and lead-in to, that which succeeds? Is the writing coherent? Does it hold together as one progressive whole, as it must? Does it sustain the interest of the reader? Does it implicitly guide him along the readerly excursion so that the path is well paved and well defined?
Does the conclusion befit what precedes it? Does it follow naturally and logically from the thesis and from the evidence and the argumentation proffered? Does it offer satisfactory closure? Does it end (as it ideally should) on a prominent, intriguing, provocative or memorable note?
Is the writing technically and mechanically correct? Have all rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling and usage been verified and confirmed? Have ambiguous terms or unclear phrases been properly replaced or elucidated? Are citations or references properly formatted and in conformity with the prescribed style guide (APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian)?
Is the writing stylistically effective? Does it sustain readability? Does it avoid banal repetitions and wearying redundancies? Are central points imagistically or persuasively rendered? Does language usage befit the work? Have descriptors been adopted with care so as to make the piece meaningful, cogent and salient? Does the writing “sing out” its message?
* * *
Once the writer has fairly assessed, re-assessed and responded to each criterion noted above, the text is ready to move from sender to receiver. Indeed, the outlined process is often strewn with obstacles: some cannot see the flaws or lapses; others recognize them, but are not adequately armed to implement the requisite modifications and enhancements. In like instances, one should avail oneself of tutors and writing specialists poised to provide the keys to effective written communication. Take advantage of their skills: let them review all the fundaments of good writing and ensure that your text is in ideal condition to move forward and that you may share it with confidence and pride.
A number of websites provide particularly helpful keys to the editorial process. Students will find useful guidelines at The Writing Center and at The Writing Process. Systematic suggestions pertinent to technical and formatting issues are constructively presented at the Purdue Online Writing Lab.
The complex and multi-faceted process of effective editing and proofreading, however daunting it appears, can, in fact, be mastered. The crucial skill-set does requires neither a word-artist nor a master-technician, but rather special, focused training and practice. Take heart! Recall the oft celebrated confession of John Steinbeck: “When I first set out to write, I had no idea what the re-writing process was all about. No idea. At long last, with tenacity in my soul and proper guides at my side, I came to master the techniques that have sustained me ever since.”
With the proper guidance, you, too, can acquire the skills that will allow you to take “ownership” of all you write – academically and professionally. We are eager to accompany you on this quest.