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Tweaking the Rest of the Piece Accordingly

March 29, 2014

Over the years I’ve developed a procedure for writing—in my case, producing literary criticism—and I hadn’t much thought about it until invited to contribute to this blog. I can imagine a better approach than mine but, because it has generated several books and a number of articles, I’m not going to change anything.

When I read a literary text I think I might want to write about, I highlight all the passages that appeal to my interests. Occasionally, not often, I’ll annotate something. When I’m done reading I go back through the highlighted bits and, on paper or computer, make a list of their page numbers and attach a topic label to each one. Then I think about the various topics that have arisen, and usually, by this time, I more or less know what I want to focus on. Notecards that I could shuffle and categorize might work better, but I find looking over the same material again and again, inefficiently trying to find this or that passage, allows me to understand my writing project better and to see new possibilities. Some kind of order gradually arises from this relative chaos, and by the time I’m done with the process I have a sense of what position I want to defend regarding the literary work in question.

Next I try to write an introduction ending in a provisional thesis statement. The introduction takes me a long, long time as I try to understand what it is I’m trying to say or, more accurately, to write myself into some understanding of what I might want to say and then to say it as well as possible at this stage.

Then I do a scratch outline, nothing very detailed. On that basis I write the rest of the piece.

Normally by this time I’ve read quite a bit of secondary literature that seems relevant (I go by titles and references in bibliographies). I try to reference a reasonable number of such sources. Occasionally I play off of what someone else has said, but, for better or worse, I usually say what I want to say first and then see what sources agree with me or offer alternative perspectives I should take into account. There are certain big names or authorities in whatever field I’m working in, and I do need to acknowledge their work.

Revision involves moving a lot of elements around, tightening or altering the thesis statement (and hence tweaking the rest of the piece accordingly), and making sure the thesis position is appropriately foregrounded throughout the essay, chapter, or book. I try to do a fair amount of “sign-posting,” giving the imagined reader a sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

I love tinkering with words. I spend a lot of time, probably more than necessary, trying to articulate things as precisely and concisely as possible. This is like a game to me; it’s fun, and time passes quickly. Once I have a draft I enjoy proofreading and polishing, knowing that what I’m working on is essentially in the bag.

In the whole process I imagine a reader who has read whatever I’m writing about but perhaps not recently—so that some refamiliarizing is necessary—and who has an educational background somewhat similar to mine. I try hard to hit a happy medium between, on the one hand, authorities on my subject matter and, on the other, general readers who are reasonably bright, well educated, and with enough interest in my subject to at least start reading what I have written.

John Glendening is a Professor of English.

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