Critical friends, coffee and the writing process.

 In my last post (https://sharonmcdonough.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/diy-writing-retreat/)  I wrote about my DIY writing retreat where I locked myself away in the solitude of my farmhouse and crafted the draft of a paper in 2 days. At the end of that post, I reflected on the fact that perhaps the only downfall of the process is the lack of critical friends when you’re running a DIY with just you. As I identified in that post, once I’ve written the paper and read it a couple of times, I can no longer see it for what it is. I see it as what I want it to be, what I think it is, but I cannot reflect it back to myself in a way that enables me to step outside it, and I definitely cannot do that the day that I write it. With some time it is possible to look at the paper in another way, but it is crucial that I get eyes other than my own to read it.

 Finding critical friends to read your work can be a challenging and difficult process. A new colleague stopped by my office the other day to ask who might be a good person to give a draft of writing to and I, have at times, wondered about who I might seek feedback from. I’m lucky to have a couple of people that I have written and worked with, who seem happy to read my drafts and provide thoughtful and generous comments. This was not good planning on my behalf though, just luck that the people I like and like working with, are happy to read my work and sit and discuss the ideas that spring from it. My critical friends write about similar concepts to me, they know the field, the literature, the methodologies we draw on and this enables rich, fruitful discussions about the work.  My friend and colleague, Maryann is a constant reader of my work, and today we sat in the coffee shop with my paper draft and she talked to me about her reactions to the paper as a reader. She’d already sent me some brief feedback the day before and I’d already started thinking about how I could take her feedback on board and use it to shape the paper into a better version of itself.

 This is not a natural or easy process for me. I have a tendency to write and then think ‘that’s it, I’m done’. I pour myself into my drafts and am exhausted once I finish them. Whenever I first look at feedback, either from my trusty critical friends, or from reviewers, I’m instantly shocked that they didn’t love everything about my work. How is this possible? How can it not be the best piece of writing they’ve ever seen? In this reaction, I hold myself up to impossible standards. I tell others, including my undergraduate and my HDR students, that writing is a process, that no-one gets a perfect draft first time, that it is important to embrace the SFD (shitty first draft) and to develop the work from there. Yes, that’s all fine in theory, but in reality, I want to be able to write a perfect piece, FIRST TIME, EVERY TIME. So there is a certain thud in my brain when I get feedback and realize that like every other writer, I am in a constant process of revisioning and rewriting.

Today with Maryann, we unpacked the ways the paper might be stronger, the ways I might play with the structure to lead my reader through my argument more effectively. In this paper, I’m adapting the work of someone from a different discipline and applying it to my own field and in my draft, I’ve found it difficult to find the balance between acknowledging that I am adapting someone else’s model and claiming the space for my own argument. Maryann sat while I talked through the way I could revise and reshape the paper – and I was struck again by the importance of critical friends in the writing process.

I walked away and scrawled all over the hard copy of my paper. Some parts need to be moved, some need to be tweaked, one needs to be chopped out and another new piece slotted in.  Once I have a clear sense of what I want to do in the rewriting process, I’m keen to throw myself into it. Any initial discomfort I had about not writing a perfect draft vanishes after chatting with my critical friends, and with a coffee in hand I’m ready to tackle the next part of the writing journey.

 

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