Simplify, Simplify

When one thinks of Henry David Thoreau, the classic image that comes to mind is of a man who lived alone in the woods, attempting to live simply using only that which he deemed necessary. After all, one of his most famous sayings from Walden is “Simplify, simplify.” However, for someone who was so adamant on preaching simplicity, the number of times Thoreau used the term simplicity (or variations) was actually quite low. The word simple was used 25 times, simply was used 19, simplicity was used 10, and simplify was used only twice.

This brings up some interesting observations and questions. Why do certain sayings stick out to us and become memorable, especially if the words in the saying are rarely used? Generally, in order to remember something, we have to drill it into our heads, and read it and see it often to embed it. It seems that that is the opposite here. Here, the lack of frequency of certain words is what seems to be the key to remembering it. The lack of the variations of simplicity is also interesting from a message point of view. By not using those particular words frequently, Thoreau is being simple in using the term “simple,” and direct in the language he is using for his overall message of living simply. Whether he did this on purpose or not, the idea is interesting to think about.

Wordy Relationships

For a man who loved nature, I find it intriguing that Thoreau mentions his house more frequently than he does nature. I do believe that he took great pride in the structure that he not only build but also lived in for many months. I also think that this is not necessarily a true representation of how much Thoreau talks about nature, for one can talk about something without explicitly naming it. In looking at words used to describe nature, or things that are found in nature, it is clear that nature really is spoken about more often than the house is.

I am curious as to if this is a common method of Thoreau’s writing: discussing something, like nature, using both its name and its components with similar frequencies. I have found in past reading that the author will tend to either rarely name the actual object of discussion to avoid redundancy and use its components or ideas within it to talk about it or will repeat the topic name often using a variety of descriptors, rarely repeating one or another. Additionally, in comparing ‘house’ and ‘nature’, the former is more of a concrete concept than the latter. So I wonder if Thoreau finds it necessary to define the more abstract with concrete things like trees and animals. Perhaps this is a theme of his writing but that would require an analysis of other concept pairings across his works.

Thoreau was clearly an intelligent individual. However, I have to wonder what brought him enjoyment. He hardly uses the word in Walden and barely makes use of its synonyms. (He doesn’t use the word ‘fun’ once.) It is difficult to determine a correlation between amusement and companionship or a lack thereof. I think it would be interesting to explore some of his other works to see if he truly requires solitude to enjoy himself or if he just prefers it to spending time with people. I am in no way trying to suggest that he does not know how to have fun with other people; merely that he more frequently enjoys himself when people are not around.

Despite the apparent lack of amusement, it is highly likely that Thoreau had a positive outlook on life. His discussions and evaluations of the world around him reflect a deep passion for nature as seen in Spring. Perhaps his enjoyment is described in ways in which are not obvious to the untrained eye and are similar to his discussions of nature: defined without being named explicitly.

Smells Like Teen Apathy

First question: Is it good? Second question: Do I care? I have always been a champion of the path of least resistance, call me lazy but I prefer to not do any frivolous work (we’ve all had enough busy work in high school to last lifetimes). Like most everything else, I always consider the opportunity costs of the time and effort required for revision, although this doesn’t mean that I will never revise my work. If I am submitting an important document, like a cover letter or writing sample, I will make certain that I run spell check multiple times and read over the piece at least three runs through to make sure the words come together smoothly. Strangely enough, for hyper-important documents like my personal statement for the Common Application I find that printing out the document increases the accuracy of my revision. For some reason, my eyes miss more errors when the writing is on a screen, maybe because of the eye strain that pixelated, colored displays tend to cause. Maybe that is also the reason for why I can almost never bring myself to re-read texts before I send them.

Nevertheless, the infrequent yet intensive revision that I engage in is not nearly enough, since for most pieces I write I only run a rudimentary spell-check and cursory skim of the text for glaring errors. The rationale I often create for myself is that, probability-wise, I most likely didn’t make enough errors to truly impede understanding or lose more than a few points. Given my status as a freshman at an institution of higher learning being forced to take certain general education classes, I don’t think that it’s very surprising that I am so aloof, but once I clear the lower level requirements for my core classes I believe that I will be able to better motivate myself.

My Revision Practices

Revision is a useful practice, but one of which I often make too much or too little use. When working on an assigned project, I usually take substantial time to sit and think without doing  much real work before embarking upon a frenzy of productivity when the deadline draws near. I then perform whatever revisions I have time for at the end. I am, if anything, worse when writing formal communications; I spend a lot of time deliberating over minor details and take days to produce a finished version where five minutes would have gotten me something almost as good. When writing for my own enjoyment I have few time limits, so I write as much I want, rewording it as I go, then take some time and look over it later to make corrections and improvements.

When writing something for a class, I tend to spend a lot of time pondering the specific and general aspects of the task (and also getting distracted and doing unrelated things). This step is followed by that of drafting up an outline that divides the assignment into smaller portions that I can develop individually. This helps to mitigate the apparent size of a composition project, which is important to me, since the main factor in my tendency to procrastinate is the magnitude of the undertaking. When I realize I am running low on time, I decide to finally begin work on the actual assignment, and produce a body of text that loosely follows the outline I laid out previously. If this is done and there is still time, I go over my work and make corrections, taking out redundant sections and clarifying where necessary.

I also spend some time writing short stories and material for RPGs. I don’t have a strict procedure for this kind of writing; when I have a good idea and feel the impulse to do something more than just jot it down, I spend whatever time I need creating the text, then make whatever changes are necessary to achieve satisfaction. I then take some time off and come back later to examine the writing with fresh eyes, which allows me to add helpful details and remove chunks of text that seemed necessary when I was writing it, but now appear redundant or confusing.

I take a different approach to personal or formal communications. If I am writing to someone I know well about a familiar subject, I will generally take a casual tone and write however I like with little care for minutiae. However, when sending letters or emails to people I don’t know that closely, or about more serious or formal topics, I tend to spend inordinate amounts of time overthinking fairly insignificant aspects of the dispatch, such as the best way to word a particular sentence, the appropriate titles with which to address the recipient, and so forth, which results in me spending far too much time and delaying responses that should have been immediate.

All things considered, I tend to perform too little revision in contexts that deserve more thought, and overuse it in those that merely require a quick response.

Revision

Writing this post about my revision practice is hard, because it is something I do with everything. It comes naturally and I usually don’t consciously think about doing it. I quickly re-read every text I send and every Instagram caption I write. I would never turn in a paper or send an email to a boss or a professor without going back over what I have written.

However, I certainly choose when to revise with purpose. If I am texting a friend or parent, I do not put as much time or care when re-reading the text because the stakes are lower. If I misspell a word or don’t use proper punctuation, my close friends and family probably do not care. I am comfortable with them, they know me, and it does not matter if I make a mistake. Academics and the workplace are different. Essays and assignments must have, among other things, proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation in order to receive a high grade. A boss wants to make sure they have hired a smart and competent individual. In both of these areas, professionalism is important, and part of that comes from being able to communicate ideas and thoughts in a proper way, which is why revising your work is so important.

When revising, I look for spelling errors, grammatical errors, and check the overall flow of the sentence to ensure I like the way it sounds. If I am unsure about the sound or flow, I read the sentence out-loud, as hearing the words highlights awkwardness in a way that reading words silently on a page cannot. For thesis, topic, or concluding statements, I usually write slightly different versions of the same sentence, and the one I end up using is usually a combination of all the different ideas. For paragraphs, I generally try to write down as much as I can, and then go back over and revise. I find it is better and quicker to write down all your thoughts and then sift through them, rather than trying to make things perfect sentence by sentence. Looking back on past assignments and how I am handling this one, I’d say that my revision process includes the classic look-over, but I think it is a lot more verbal than the average person’s. I have no idea why, but I think I’ll stick with it.

 

On Revising

When it comes to revising I try to do as little of it as possible. I like to keep my work as close to the original as I can, even if that means grammar mistakes and all. I attribute this to being lazy. To say that I do not revise all together would be a lie. Only time I revise is when my professionalism is on the line (i.e. work emails), that does not include school work. I also may consider revising seriously when I am creating something that may reach the mass audience and my integrity is on the line with those that do not know my well. My style of revising is: catch it the first time, if not its lost forever. I try not to re-read my work. This often leads to many confused responses from my family and friends who cannot decipher my texts. I know that this is a poor practice but the truth is that I’ve never lost much from not revising and so I will continue to not revise. When I consider revising I only think grammar and spelling. As far as content goes, it is usually fine straight off the bat. When it comes to school assignments I usually procrastinate and wait for the pressure to pile up so that I am on edge and think more critically, i.e. why I am doing this post at 11:30. That being said, for school assignments such as essays I usually write a full draft and call it quits. Whatever is on the paper is what will be turned in. Because I am so apposed to revision, I do most if not all of my writing work on a computer. Thus leaving it up to more intelligent device to catch all of my poor grammar and spelling mistakes. Though it may be convenient for grammar and spelling mistakes, I often lose my work because I forget to safe my work, and that is a great inconvenience. Since the discovery of Google Docs I try to do most of my work there, but I simply hate the interface, I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I have also resorted to uploading my work onto Dropbox now that I know better. something that is interesting about my revision practice is the message that I think it sends, that message being that you should never let perfection be the enemy of good enough.

Keyboard Warriors

Revision is a staple of my writing. Not only is it advantageous, but also necessary. From academic work to leisurely texts and tweets, revision has many purposes.

First, revision ensures that I say what I actually intend to say. Spell check is usually good with correcting rudimentary spelling errors but has limitations. For example, homonyms typically fly under the radar of spell check and need a manual fix.

Secondly, revision makes me not sound stupid. When going over a piece of writing, sometimes I find that a certain word appears way too frequently, and replacing some with synonyms keeps the writing fresh and sophisticated. Sure, it may make the writing sound a little pretentious at times, but refined work and pretentiousness often go hand in hand.

Thirdly, revision keeps me honest. This is usually for texts or social media posts but is sometimes helpful in academic writing as well. Usually, this aspect comes in the form of a question: “Should I actually say what I’m about to say?” I like charged writing; it is the only enjoyable form of writing in my opinion. Saying bland or pointless things just to say them or to meet a requirement for a paper is boring, and will usually result in weaker writing by me. When I actually care about what I’m saying, the words seem to flow out easily and writing is genuinely enjoyable. However, charged writing by nature means some people will disagree with my beliefs. And, when it comes to social media, contentious messages are highly dangerous. Often, it’s better to leave these thoughts in your head than to be attacked by virtual “keyboard warriors,” which brings up another helpful question: “Is saying what I’m about to say worth it?” This is also useful for academic purposes; if my teacher differs from me with regards to political philosophies, it’s probably better for our relationship- and my grade- to stay away from controversial thoughts and language.

When I have academic writing to do, I typically begin by writing down very broad topics to discuss, starting with general introductory notes, then body paragraph ideas, then a general conclusion. Next, I sit back and let ideas come to me, stirring different thoughts in my head. Finally, I start writing each section individually under the broad topics, starting with the introduction. After finishing each paragraph, I read it over again (usually many times), making edits and increasing the flow. After the entire piece is completed, I read through it wholly, again making edits as I go. (All of this is done on a computer; I very seldomly- effectively never- draft on paper). This is a tedious and time-consuming process, but it is the best way I have found to ensure that I produce the highest quality writing I can.

In sum, I revise virtually everything I write. Both informal and formal writing need some level of revision to make sure I’m saying what I intend to, to help me sound intelligent, and to determine if I actually should say what I am about to say. Revision is essential in today’s world of nitpicky people.

Reduce, Revise, and Recycle

Revision is something I struggle with. I find I have vastly different approaches to revision depending on the type of writing I’m doing, as well as vastly different areas of success.

Part of my problem with the idea of revision is that I am an over-planner when it comes to writing. Not always, of course. When I used to be in time constrained situations for writing essays, I could just jump out the gate with nary a plan in my back pocket and it always seemed to magically come together. But when left to my own devices, I tend to not write until I have a clear path as to where I’m going. That’s the way I write everything, from essays to creative works to emails. Instead of revising later I tend to just think think think until I have something to put down. I find this makes the revision process shorter because I already made revisions in my mind before actually putting anything down on paper.

After everything is written, if I am not mentally exhausted with the work and if I have time, I will go back and edit. The easiest revision for me is getting rid of things. I suffer from overwriting, so I often find myself crossing out superfluous language or entire sentences that are just restated thoughts from a previous sentence. Accidental repetitiveness the one thing that my over planning, all in one shot strategy of writing adds to.

The harder revision is when you have to restructure an entire argument. Sometimes after writing, you realize all the ideas are there but they’re not presented in a way that flows and develops your argument well. Normally I make a copy of the paper and chop it up so that I can compare the two after the restructuring and still be able to return to the original in case the new structure is worse.

The only type of revision I am truly terrible at is grammar revision. I can stare at a paper forward, backward, and sideways and still miss a grammar mistake that will only become painfully clear after I have handed in the paper. I agonize over professional emails because I know that somehow I will make an error that will ruin the serious nature of the correspondence. For an example of my incompetence: I once tweeted that anyone who treated a dog poorly was a “peace of garbage” and only noticed three months later that I had used the wrong word. I don’t know how that happened.

Normally with school work, I accept that revisions can only be done so many times. With creative works, I find myself constantly fixing the things I’ve written, sometimes completely changing their original meaning, sometimes recycling one line in a completely different piece of writing. Unlike with school where a deadline and a grade often feels like a closing note on how good something I’ve written can be, I find myself making revisions to my creative pieces years after I thought I had left them in a google doc to rust.

Write. Delete. Repeat.

I write reluctantly. I am perfectly capable of writing, but I don’t particularly find any joy in it. If I am required to write about a specific topic, especially one that I dislike, then I am much less likely to care about what I write. The resulting composition isn’t read over or edited so bummer if there’s a typo or an extra word somewhere. If I am given a choice as to my topic, then perhaps I will put some effort into it. I might even go so far as to make an outline. *gasp* However, there are these crazy moments in which I am completely possessed and actually revise what I write. I hear you- she must be crazy. While that may be true, really I care about how I come off to the reader.

These revised works tend to fall into the category of creative writing. Literatures pieces such as these require a bit of vulnerability on my part. Questions of “what will they think of me? what if they don’t like what I wrote? can I deal with their responses?” often pop up in the back of my head. Thus I do a lot of writing and deleting and writing and deleting. The worst cases of this are Facebook posts. I have a wide variety of people who will see my posts which makes writing them a bit more challenging. Often I will write out a post then completely scrap it and start fresh. I have developed the habit of running it by my mom before posting as she is a far better writer than I am.

As far as the specifics of my revising habits, I am very much an all-or-nothing type person in my writing. I either write something brilliant or complete trash. In the first case, I may have someone else read it over and tweak it a little. For the latter, the whole thing is trashed and I start over again. If I have a good idea then I may recycle it but will most definitely rework how it is presented. I usually type up my writing as it is faster and far easier to erase. Speaking of which, I should probably delete this and start again. Oh, wait. I already did.

Nothing is Perfect

For me, revision is an extremely important process in my writing. I am almost always dissatisfied with initial drafts of mine. If I’m being completely honest, I am a bit of a perfectionist.  I typically revise everything that I write from text messages to emails to analytical essays. The extent to which this process occurs is accordingly very different for an essay as compared to a text message. I typically read over a text message once or twice before sending it. The more acquainted I am with an individual, the less time I spend on the revision process. Embarrassingly enough, I can distinctly remember my friends and I working together to edit our text messages to petty crushes. Should I say this or this? Is it weird to say this? Should I use this emoji or that one? It was all largely trivial but revision nonetheless.

With essays, my revision process is much more in depth, spanning a few days’ time, and beginning before my fingers even start to tap away at the keyboard. I consider my brainstorming process to be a form of revision. I find it critical to map out my ideas before writing anything substantial. I typically narrow my focus and do test runs of different structures and setups. I go through all potential evidence for my argument and narrow it down to the quotes that I coin to be important. Even before I wrote this very blog post, I determined which questions would be the most pertinent to discuss based on my initial responses to them.

Revision does not end after my brainstorming session. Revision simultaneously occurs as I put down words on paper. After the development of each sentence, my brain won’t allow me to move on till I have read it over, checked it for appropriate diction, grammatical correctness, and its contribution to the flow of the piece.

The truth of being a perfectionist is that you have a complete inability to let things go. The act of revising is almost like a vice, enabling the perfectionist to see the work as they would like it to be: incomplete. However, there is one thing in this world that the perfectionist is constantly battling: time. With the clock ticking and deadlines approaching, there is only one thing left to do. Let it go (or maybe check it over just one more time…)