Writing and Editing

I’ve spent most of the time since returning home on writing and editing. The main focus of my attention has been the monograph that I authored with David Pettegrew (and with meaningful contributions by R. Scott Moore) on the results of our survey work at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus. The manuscript was accepted by the American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Report Series, and we’ve almost finished revising the seven chapters of the completed manuscript. It’s boring, but necessary work.

Doing this large scale editing work is also timely for me. For the first time in 6 years, I’ll be teaching an upper level history course here at the University of North Dakota. As one might expect, an upper level course requires a greater focus on writing and revising over 100,000 words of dry-as-dust archaeological analysis has reminded me how terrible my writing is. (Readers of this blog probably already realize this, but since I rarely read what I’ve written, I can hide.)

So here are some things that I need to do better:

1. Avoid using the dash and the semicolon. When I got desperate to link two ideas, but struggled to use “my grammar”, I introduced a semicolon or – worse – a double dash. As I revised our text, I found that well over half of the times that I used double dashes, they served to link clauses that had almost know grammatical relationship with the rest of the sentence. 

Semicolons travel in swarms. In paragraphs where one appears, more are sure to follow. Generally, we seem to use these when we began to link (endlessly to my mind) idea after idea. Like the double dash, semicolons appeared when we began to pile up ideas more densely than our grammar allowed.   

2. Avoid starting sentences with the word “While…”. Heavens. While x appears to be the case, y is more interesting. At one point I use the word “While” close to 80 times in a 50 page chapter. That’s close to twice a page. Like my semicolons and double-dashes, “while” is a word that I tended to use to escape from onerous requirements of making the relationship between ideas clear. Generally, I use “while” when I need two ideas to exist simultaneously in an ambiguous relationship. By using while, I use time to juxtapose ideas that I should probably link together more explicitly. Moreover, I use the word so often it creates a sort of boring repetitiveness to my writing.  

3. We equivocate too frequently. seems, suggests, hints, may be… et c. Most of the reason why we juxtapose ideas without making clear connections is because we lack the confidence to tie ideas together in a positive, deliberate way. We also saturated our text with the words that allow us to escape from the pressure of making clear statements. I realize that this is keeping with the ambiguity present in research that dances the edge between social-scientific confidence and humanistic self-doubt (or recognition that all knowledge is provisional!).

Whatever the reason, the proliferation of these words throughout our work makes our text a big drag to read. More importantly, our constant equivocating makes it hard for us to distinguish between arguments that deserve some qualification and those where we should speak more confidently.

4. Too many adverbs throughout. We love ourselves some adverbs. In most cases, we use adverbs to qualify arguments that probably do not require any qualification (see what I did there?). Adverbs make our text ugly. They add little to our arguments. And they often obscure as much as they illuminate.

5. Avoid vague terms “a fair amount” “somewhat”. In most cases we words as lazy descriptors: How much more African Red Slip? Somewhat more! I can justify the use of these vague terms by explaining that our text is already filled with specific figures. These figures can be very precise and specific, but they do little to communicate the significance of a value. The advantage of using phrases like “a fair amount” is that they are both descriptive (to a point) and interpretative. Unfortunately, when we use them too frequently and in place of more precise documentation, we run the risk of 

6. Repetition. We repeat ourselves. We say the same things, sometimes using the same words, in multiple places throughout the text. On the one hand, this saves the reader from having to move back and forth through the text. But, it can appear lazy and be annoying when we repeat basic information (like the dates of a particular feature in the landscape or some point of clarification).

7. Citation format. I tell my students that if they are going to take the time to create their own citation format, they should at least use it consistently. It’s a waste of time to invent a new way to cite a source every time you need to cite it. Of course, we could be a bit more efficient in this area as well. Sheesh.

8. Passive voice. It was used too much by us. (See what I did there?) I hate passive voice. I find it tedious to read and painful to write. I have no idea how so much of it came into our writing. I suspect it has to do with what I have called elsewhere the “grammar of excavation”. Archaeology depends on phrases that place the object of study in a passive position and obscure the scientific hand of the researcher: “artifacts were measured and recorded on special forms”. One the other hand, our project made a big fuss about how we took into account the position of the archaeologist in documenting the landscape. We need to do better here to make sure the archaeologist is always active.

9. Figures, Illustrations, and Tables. Egads. It is tricky to know how to include figures, illustrations, and tables into a text. We will have well over 200 of these (and maybe closer to 300), but I still can’t quite figure out how often we need to refer to a plan, map, or table, during our discussion. Do you just do it once and let the reader figure out that referring to the same plan or map later will help make our argument more clear? Or do we do it constantly relying on the reader to filter out the repetition? Should we direct the reader to maps in earlier chapters or reproduce the map? I have no idea. 

As I look ahead to another long week of editing (both this and other manuscripts), I hope to be able to gradually eliminate some of the worst habits from my writing and get back to writing good, simple prose.

4 Comments

  1. John R. Trimble, WRITING WITH STYLE: CONVERSATIONS ON THE ART OF WRITING (2nd edition, Prentice Hall, 2000).

    Reply

  2. The passive voice is underrated. The best writers of English use it with regularity. Often it is the best choice for clarity and indeed emphasis (e.g.: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004456.html). Of course some passive constructions are not good, but in my view avoiding it entirely is a bad move.

    Reply

  3. Most all of this applies to fiction just as much as academic writing but I have to say — the grammar part of editing is not my favorite part either. I much MUCH prefer the substantial editing stage where I’m actually still WRITING new stuff, to the line by line, and even worse, the word by word.

    The other thing worth mentioning maybe is that I was once marked down for not equivocating *enough* in a paper (not by you) — do we train this confidence to make connections out of students, in some part, to have it become problematic later for scholars?

    Reply

  4. A follow-up comment. Here is some damn fine writing: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Passive verb (“was…attacked”) and a restrictive clause with which (“a date which will live in infamy”). Suck it, William Strunk!

    Reply

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