A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Edit thyself

Margaret Steinfels asked me in another thread, "You are a writing teacher; do you agree (with me) that self-editing and rewriting are among the critical skills writing students need to acquire?"

Yes, Margaret. I tell my students that the best way to self-edit is to a) know your weaknesses and b) know why youre writing.

I have a pretty good sense of my weaknesses (and so do most of the rest of you). In case you havent cottoned on:

Weakness 1: I free associate too much (though less than I am tempted to do) and I talk too much. I like other free-associators and talkers. I want to go to their houses and have coffee with them. Often, Im the last one commenting on a thread because I've taken the conversation so far afield I'm the only one left standing in it. A day I stay on topic and am not the last commentor is a good day.

Weakness 2: I've been to college, I have an advanced degree, and I teach at a university. But I'm not, at heart, an academic, and few of my friends are academics. I respond to and offer the personal, the anecdotal and the practical rather than the abstract, quantitative and theoretical.

Weakness 3: As a kid I was praised for my ability to play character parts in drama class and write stuff about things nobody else had thought of. So my original posts contain clever phrases, allusions, asides, dialectical embellishments and withering remarks that impress the hell out of me. Then I take them all out (mostly), like Samuel Johnson, the great essayist, told me to before I hit the "post" button.

Why am I writing? I offer perspectives cradle Catholics don't have because I was raised to be skeptical and suspicious of organized religion, especially Catholicism. I see and understand the beefs people have against Catholicism and can articulate them. I dont want to know just whats in the catechism, but how it plays out in real life. The responses I get, particularly from those with whom disagree most, are usually the ones that deepen my faith.

For the record, this post took me three hours to write and edit (roughly 30 minutes to write and the rest to edit), and I pruned the original verbiage by 50 percent. Writing is a lot of work and should be an exercise in humility.


Commenting Guidelines

HI, Jean,Thanks for your self-evaluation. It made me think. Somewhat like you I come from a Catholic background that is not what I think of as typical Eastern American Irish Catholic -- the backgroung of those who seem to me to be the main contributors to and readers of Commonweal. Though I'm a cradle Catholic, I'm also the child of Sourthern liberals, my parents were very much influenced by a family friend who spoke in favor of freedom of conscience at Vatican II, I'm mainly of French descent, and went to a non-Catholic university, All of this inclines me to be much more critical in my thinking than Catholics of my generation, a trait which has it's good side and bad. It certainly hasn't made me diplomatic.Having been a philosophy teacher by trade, I'm particularly critical of people who are unwilling or unable to get down to the most basic issues (the ones *I* think are basic, anyway :-) and the issues that need clarification, linguistic and otherwise. I'm sure this seems like going off on tangents to some. The problem is I don't know how to make others see that philosophical questions are highly relevant, even most relevant.

Oops -- I'm sorry, Jean, I didn't mean that your background is Catholic. I did read your post carefully. I meant that like you my background is different in basic ways from many of my fellow American cradle -Catholics.Why is it that when I proof-read something I don't see a big problem with my writing, but as soon as I read it online I see the problmes *immediately*!!! Sheesh.

Jean--Reminds me of William Safire's words of wisdom on editing:"If you re-read your work, you will find on re-reading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by re-reading and editing."

Thank you, Jean. Excellent reflection. "Follow the pain" has been a useful guide for me over the years. Understanding wounds has for me been key to understanding the perspectives of others and for critically examining my own. Among other things, it shifts the focus from divergent content of our beliefs to common processes of engaging with beliefs. Aficionados of dotCommonweal and of Amy Welborn's OpenBook are equally engaged with the tradition and, perhaps, equivantly wounded by the church. Question: Does repudiating the views of persons and institutions that have wounded us move us closer to the truth?

Years ago, while Provost at U of Notre Dame, James Burtchaell, CSC (yes, that one) taught Biblical Theology for Freshman Notre Dame Scholars. Evidently these were the crme de la crme of their high school senior classes.When I first met Jim he told me that he was brutal in editing their papers for spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc., and would quickly give true miscreants a failing grade on their papers, irrespective of content, if they remained lackadaisical in their use of the English language.I asked him why and he indicated that most of these kids had been led to believe that they were superstars and their small peccadilloes were to be overlooked in light of their (ontological?) blessedness. He set out to convince them that they needed to demonstrate knowledge of the basics if they wanted to be viewed as Notre Dame Scholars in his eyes.

Jimmy, I don't knock having high standards, and I will often grade down a student who is just being lazy.But I've seen teachers use the "demonstrate knowledge of the basics" arguments as an excuse to get through a lot of papers very quickly.It's really easy to grade 30 papers if you're only chasing down are misspellings, punctuation and style errors. It's much harder to try to engage in the ideas expressed in 30 papers, and then explain, in a note or two, what the main problem is and how to improve it. Not to say that James Burtchaell, CSC, was doing that.I've noticed (just to make one of my annoying asides) that mechanics have improved in the past 25 years.

Jean, excellent post.I'm no educator, but it does seem to me that in this era of spell check, grammar check etc., papers full of such errors would be particularly difficult to accept (or at least, particularly indicative of 'laziness') -- unless we're talking about hand-written essays and such (where quite possibly the reverse is true).RM

Jean,Do you think word processing has made for better writing --or lazier writing? I find that when I give take home exams with no word limits, I end up with everything but the kitchen sink. And even one or two quotes from Stephen Colbert. So what I have taken to doing is putting pretty tight word limits on the answer. They have to go for essentials, and they have time to polish.It works quite well--when forced to get to the essentials, and write well, they really shine.I would, of course, give extra words for the Colbert quotes--not for the kitchen sink, though.

Jean, brilliant post.In my humble opinion I view your "weaknesses" as your strengths. But I must agree writing is very hard work and self-editing is even harder.In this age of blogging, it separates the wheat from the chaff.

John, my weaknesses are "strengths" only because you don't see the unexpurgated me. Cathleen, I do put a word limit and a list of "must haves" on assignments. Students say they can't get it all in in the limit allotted, and I tell them they can if they've been paying attention.Robert, spell- and grammar-check certainly help, but there are few students who bypass that because "it takes too long."

JeanThere is no one who could not use a good editor. I had suspected you had one. Now I know who she is!

Hello Jean (and all),I suspect we are somewhat kindred spirits. Like you I'm a professor (and like Ann I teach philosophy), but in many ways I'm not an academic at heart, or at least not an academic in the mold of what's preferred in most American philosophy departments. Indeed, I very nearly left the academic profession a year and a half ago and only chose to remain when some of the juniors at the university I was leaving asked me to return for their graduation a year later. (I did go back in May to see my ex-students receive their diplomas, and while this was self-indulgent I think I needed it. A number of their parents took me aside and thanked me for working with their children. That was a better reward than getting an endowed chair at Harvard would have been.)I'm a pretty savage self-editor myself, and typically end up discarding large fractions of my essays and book chapters and invariably rewriting everything I decide to keep. (It's my understanding that Johannes Brahms, my favorite composer, trashed 90% of his own compositions without presenting them publicly because he thought they were substandard. I'm not quite that conscientious, but I do try to publish only quality work.) In a way it's fortunate that philosophy editors and referees are very slow, because by the time a piece of mine gets accepted for publication many months have elapsed and I have had a long rest from the accepted version and it looks like a relatively fresh document for me to revise.For most of the classes I lead, I tend to assign only in-class or take home exams. A few times for very advanced classes I have asked for a few short essays on very specific questions. As I tell my students, I think in most cases it's simply unreasonable to ask a university student who is a relative newcomer to philosophy and taking five or six classes to write a philosophy paper in only a semester when professional philosophers will take six dedicated months or more to write essays for publication, most of which are not even that good in the end.