Dissertation Guide

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How much rewriting should I do?

“I always rewrite. I never write anything in a first draft that I think is good enough to go, other than a letter, especially with the advent of the computer, which allows you to be sloppy first time around and change it later. With everything I write I would redraft once. It’s then difficult to say. It’s partly a practical thing in that I make a judgment most of the time about when things are ‘good enough to go’. I can always improve it. I’ve never written anything that I was wholly satisfied with. I could always make something more stylish, I could always lose a few words, but generally speaking I am doing things against a timetable. I’ve started off trying to be disciplined, trying to get it done by a particular time, and, assuming I’ve managed reasonably well, I’m going to let it go at that time. But I need to allow enough space to get enough rewriting done. It might only one redraft, it might be two or three, it might be more, depending on who the audience is, but it will eventually be constrained by time. I will have to feel then, ‘That’s enough’ so I’ll reread it and I’ll make some changes.”

“I’ve heard of authors who do twenty or thirty drafts, and those who have rewritten the beginning and the ending a hundred times. I think professionals expect to rewrite and they see revision as re-vision, that is, an opportunity to think again about what they have written and how the piece is structured.”

“The amount of redrafting does vary a lot, but I think we ought to school our students at all levels in saying, ‘Three drafts is perfectly reasonable.’ You’ve got a kind of pre-draft stage with notes, ideas, plans, this, that and the other, scatters of things, which enable you to get going and find out things. In a way that’s a draft – it’s a projected view of what you might be doing, however skimble-skamble – and ideally it should be chaotic in the most respectable sense. There are latent orders but you maybe don’t recognise them. And then redrafting does vary a great deal: some people can plough straight through, writing in detail, virtually for keeps; most people can’t. What we need to tell ourselves and our students about writing is, ‘It’s okay, you sketch possibilities, bits of which will make it, but the first draft is establishing your main points, your main areas.’ That may change but at least you know the overall size of the canvas, as it were, and roughly what you’re dealing with. That’s first-draft stuff, and thereafter it’s up to people, how they are themselves, and their modes of working, and the kind of project they’re working on. If it’s really just recording things, then it’s probably only going to go to another draft, with a bit of tinkering afterwards, but if it’s exploratory, if it’s trying to develop an argument that you’re not sure about, an argument you feel is important, then of course it may go to three, four, five drafts.”

“The bulk of a thesis is redrafting, and the final piece is just what’s cooked at the end of the process really. The cooking is the redrafting. And the final draft is merely the serving up, where you add your bits and pieces and make it look nice. And, as with cooking, you’re pretty sure when it’s more-or-less done. There are various ways of viewing that ultimate stage. Some people think of it as ‘when you can’t do any more and you’ve got to abandon it’. Or there’s a more positive view where you think, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty well done, it’s more-or-less cooked, if I do any more I’ll spoil it. So if I do anything else I should do another dish.’ I could follow through that cooking analogy and obviously people do with writing. You can run it out in wonderful ways. It does depend on what you’ve got in the larder and what you go out and buy, and it depends on your cookbooks, and it depends on your experience and whether you’re doing it all the time and the tact you have in saying ‘Ah, chuck a bit of that in.’ The cooking is a big analogy and I think it’s often talked about and I think it’s very real. There’s a lovely passage about thirty pages from the end of Midnight’s Children, where Rushdie is talking about making his novel as putting together all these spices and herbs, and he compares it with cooking. He talks of writing as chutnification.”