Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

Halifax, NS

Lessons Learned: One Writer’s Experience with Revision

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Sheelagh Russell-Brown, SMU Writing Centre

“The good news is that your paper has unanimously been recommended for publication”—these are the words that every researcher looks forward to reading. But then comes the proviso—“with, however, a few points that need revision.”

As teachers and tutors, we are advised to always precede the negative comments we may be forced to make on our marking with some positive remark. Sometimes we joke about this well-intentioned recommendation, but with this last piece of revision, I wasn’t laughing so much. The process of revision, especially when driven by the comments of three distinct reviewers, is a useful education in what our students experience during their years of university education—the frustration they feel in deciphering exactly what we mean with our contradictory demands and in attempting to retain their intentions in the face of our more authoritative advice.

First, trusting that “a few points” meant some misplaced commas, perhaps a need for better documentation, I put off actually looking at the four pages (as I discovered when I actually downloaded them!) of comments until just three weeks before the revision deadline. Three of the four pages were from one reviewer, who numbered the comments. They involved recommendations for quite substantive reorganization of the paper. Accompanying the reviewers’ comments was the article itself, now awash in green comment boxes, at times whole paragraphs highlighted along with the less troubling “comma deleted” sort.

Compounding the process of revision was the history of writing the article itself. After having my response to a call for conference papers on linguistics and literature approved, I had been told that because of the large number of papers, my submission would be part of a poster session. I was vaguely aware of what a poster session entailed, but as a teacher and researcher in English literary studies, rather than in the more “scientific” discipline of linguistics, I had never encountered such a session in reality. While I was happy not to have to endure the stress of presentation, which I have frequently regretted (usually five minutes before it’s time to begin), art and poster making have been my worst skills from childhood, and still cause me more nightmares than speaking in front of a human audience would ever do. In fact, in much of my schooling, I had relied on my artistic brother to help me with posters. And this was to be no simple “draw some pictures of Atlantic Ocean fish and put some information below them” sort of poster. Instead, I had chosen to write about one of the most difficult poets in the English language, Gerard Manley Hopkins, explaining his wordplay in six of his sonnets. Already, I had enough material to fill a wall, let alone a relatively small poster.   Clearly it would require some diagrams—and diagrams, both making them and interpreting them, give me a headache. When I finally completed it my poster was full of words, with a few pictures; those who actually took the time to stand in front of the poster for minutes at a time to read it did have the grace to say that such a subject required intense study and to thank me for providing them with the opportunity.

The writing of the original article had been almost from scratch, without the benefit of the give and take of conference presentation, the feedback that helps the author of a paper refine and improve. Still, I had to deal with the revisions in a relatively short time. Here are some of the lessons I have learned—lessons that our students must learn every day.

First, consider the audience. Who would be reading this article? The comments were somewhat conflicting. I had assumed, based on the comments of those I had spoken to at the conference (held in Germany), that Hopkins’s poetry was not widely known, and so had provided profuse background information as well as the complete text of the poems. Since I have often chided my students for “padding” their papers with a complete text when it is readily available online or in the library, I should have known better! I was reminded by one reviewer that Hopkins’s poetic and linguistic theories were by now well-known, at least by those who would be tempted to read my article. At the same time, another reviewer suggested that I provide more specific information to strengthen my discussion of some of these theories. My solution was compromise. As I have recommended to my students, I had to put myself in the place of the reader—what would he or she need to know to understand my points? Gone were the entire sonnet texts, which accurate citations and a complete bibliography directed readers to. Any explanations that I still thought were necessary were slipped more subtly into the discussion of individual poems. This sounds easy, but it was a painful process, which it is good to remember when I require something similar from my students, or recommend it to someone I’m tutoring. Having to give up whole pages of theory felt like sacrificing my first-born child, but the result was the foregrounding of the poems, a preferable outcome.

Second, and somewhat related, was to consider the benefit of reorganizing the content of the paper. I have often assumed that a seemingly disorganized student paper was the result of a lack of care—that the student just put ideas down as they occurred, without attention to how best to display them. I now believe that this is the case only in a very small number of instances. I had thought carefully about how to organize my presentation of material; however, I had not considered whether other patterns would be more successful or convincing. Again, here the reviewers disagreed, but from their suggestions I was able to settle on a pattern that would satisfy both my own vision of the paper and the vision of the reviewers and eventually of the wider readership (I hoped).

Third was to navigate the often divergent recommendations of the different reviewers. I had to deal with not having written the paper that the reviewers would have written! We all have our “hobby horses” that we feel comfortable riding, but these may not be comfortable to other riders who have chosen their own vehicles. Reviewers suggested that I use the lens of this “-ism” or that “-ism,” suggestions that would have, in some cases, involved months of research before I would have felt competent to apply the theory to my analysis. In the end, while I considered each suggestion carefully and took from each what I could, I stuck with what felt right and what felt comfortable for me and for the material I was presenting. At the same time I tried to stretch my comfort zone a little. In thinking back to this experience, I have come to realize that as a teacher and tutor I must consider what the students feel comfortable with, and how far I can push them to expand to include another point of view.

All in all, I found this to be a humbling experience. The lessons learned are timely not just for my own practice as a teacher and a tutor, but also for the next bout of my own revisions, which is coming up in a few months.

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