The Revised Version

 

Time and time again, I have learned the lesson that I really should revise everything I write, whether it be this blogpost, an intense research paper, an email, or even a simple text.  Obviously, I do not need to revise a text anywhere near the extensive revisions I use for a research paper.  I use different revision techniques depending on what I am writing.  With texts, I simply read them once over, edit the parts that sound unclear, check to make sure the recipient is correct, and send it on its way.  The horror of sending a text that comes across as distasteful is only second to sending a text meant for my friend, to my unsuspecting mother! Sadly, Apple hasn’t created an un-send button yet.  For emails and blogposts such as this one, I type them up in a Microsoft Word document first.  I then make grammatical corrections and reread it to make sure there are no mistakes in the content of my email.  A copy and paste later, and it’s good to go.  Unfortunately, I failed to revise an email once, and instead of addressing a college coach who was recruiting me with the title “Coach,” followed by his last name, I instead sent “Coach” followed up by the name of the college.  Needless to say, “Coach Vassar” did not reply to my email.  When it comes to longer pieces such as essays and research papers, my revision process is a lot more intense.  I always create a rough draft first, with a piece of paper and a pencil.  Once the entire rough draft is complete, I normally have a peer or my mother read it over to check for grammatical errors and phrasing that doesn’t flow.  After that, I type up my piece, editing and rephrasing sentences as I go.  I read this draft aloud to myself to make sure I like how my ideas come across.  It also helps me to notice if I used an incorrect homonym or left out a word.  If you hear me talking to myself in the library, I promise I’m not crazy!  Once I’m done reading it on my screen, I print it out, reread it one last time, and if it is to my satisfaction, I consider it my final copy.  While revision can be very time consuming for me, I have only ever regretted not revising my writing.

Revision–The Literary Double Take

My ideal mindset on revision would be exactly what it sounds like: envisioning something for the umpteenth time since its initial creation, with a fresh set of eyes ready to see the flaws, or simply how that first vision has changed over time. To be frank, this is not how I actually look at this term when I see it day-to-day. When the words “Revision Due” or “Peer Editing Day” stare up at me from a class syllabus, my first thoughts are usually pretty negative. I am a list maker by nature: the idea of finishing a project, and being able to obliterate it from my endless list of to-do’s, provides a rush the likes of which would make a drug addict swoon. The finality of handing in a job well done, and knowing I don’t have to touch it again, gives me leave to relax for a minute before moving on to the next thing I have to do. The idea of having to absorb feedback, and keep chipping away at something I was so glad to be done with, always makes me feel exhausted like some literary Sisyphus whose work is never done.

If my calendar were not such a looming presence, I am certain the concept of revision would be aligned with my initial, idealistic version. I am reminded of a phrase coined by my 10th-grade English teacher, which kept sentinel over unimpressed and fearful sophomores on the blackboard every day: “We are made to think deeply, and hard work is the reward.” While daunting, this idea of thinking and working as an enjoyable, lifelong activity is incredibly exciting. It makes every day, and every work produced, seem thrillingly impermanent and imperfect, showcasing that people and the pieces they produce are always waiting to be improved and altered by future thinkers and their dialogue. This inner drive toward perfection within myself and all humans certainly shows in writings as mundane as Facebook posts, where I aspire to sound as effortlessly witty and earnest as possible to friends, family, and the public.

It strikes me that revision really is a balancing act. You are exhausted by the thought of never stopping the process of work, but excited to see where it leads. You are required to be humble enough to take critique and change work you have already become attached to, yet vain enough to think you can make it better. You relish the thought of never having to set your eyes on a piece of writing again: yet, simultaneously, the yearning to see what that fresh set of eyes will reveal beckons, and you become certain that the only way worth looking at anything is, truly, through re-vision.

Thoughts on Revision

I don’t ever write anything without also revising it. Revision is a vital tool of organization and clarity for me. Even as I write this sentence, I am already planning to return and rethink the previous sentence; so, too, revision happens without my noticing.

As with most tasks, when revising, I work exclusively on my computer. I find that typing, rather than handwriting, is more fit to keep up with my flow of ideas as I write. Revision, in particular, is so much easier on a computer than the alternative of scribbling in margins, making cross-outs, inserting carets, and so on. Specifically, I use Google Docs. To some extent, I rely on the Google Docs versioning feature, but I also create several individual documents during different stages in the process. I find that I very rarely use the feature at all, and I rarely revisit earlier versions to retrieve previous phrases. It is mostly a comfort, that my work will not be entirely lost if disaster strikes.

I often – indeed, always – revise my school work. To do so, I find it very helpful to write a draft of an essay that is just a stream of my rambling thoughts (namely, when I cannot think of a clear argument or direction I want to take the assignment in). I write what I call a “bad essay”, and by simply writing, I start to uncover truth and understand my own beliefs better. For me, writing is thinking. Having to convince yourself of any given side of an argument reveals your true leanings. When my “bad essay” is finished, I know where I stand, and I know the steps in my argumentation that led me there. Then, I start over.

I even revise Instagram captions, Facebook posts, and emails to professors. I guess it’s a way of composing myself before publishing my naked thoughts. I have never been a big fan of first impressions, and revision grants me a do-over, at least in written circumstances.

In addition, I frequently edit other people’s writing. As a member of the TEDx team on campus, I have spent months editing and revising others’ work, which is vastly different from revising your own. In this context, revision focuses on simplification and clarification, while attempting to preserve personality. I am tasked with prioritizing their voices and stories and leaving my syntactical and aesthetic preferences behind.

Revision is an act of humility. It is being able to admit that your past self was ignorant. It is, even, prioritizing coherence over admiration for your own words. It can also be sacrificing your own voice for someone else’s story.

Most of all, it is never finished. I reject the idea that an author’s work is presented to an audience exactly how they wanted the audience to experience it; I don’t think a good author is ever “exactly” satisfied. Elementary school taught me that there is always something to “fix”, yet “fix” isn’t quite right either. It isn’t as though one piece of writing is more right than another (excluding grammatical errors). It is more so about which is more true to you, and only by revision do we come the closest to that truth.

On Revision

I had the rather meta idea while doing this to “word vomit” and publish, just to make a point about how important revision is. I wound up being unwilling to risk my grade for such a point, but as I revise this very piece, I am reminded yet again of just how much revision means to me.

As someone who writes both academically and creatively, I am a firm believer that just as much–if not more–writing is done in revision as is done in a first draft. The first thing I do when writing is make an outline. That may not seem like a part of the revision process (perhaps the prevision process, if anything), but it is hugely crucial to my writing, for it allows me to revise even as I am writing a first draft. Are the sources I’ve listed in my outline actually helpful, or do they drag down my paper? I can fix that here. Do I actually need to make this point, or is it too similar to a point I made earlier? I might decide either way. Should I use my meta idea about not revising this post as a final thought, as I originally intended, or should I use it as a lead, instead? It was while writing the first draft of this post that I made that choice.

Once I’ve written my draft, I will start truly revising. These revisions don’t feel very formal to me, as I don’t usually save drafts in their entirety or do it in a methodical way. Instead, I’ll begin by reading over a paragraph and then, when I feel there’s something I could fix, I’ll rewrite it. Then I’ll rewrite the idea immediately following it. Then I’ll keep rewriting, pushing the original text further and further down the page. Sometimes, if I remember phrasing something really well the first time around, I’ll copy that in and pick up where the good section leaves off, but often I’ll just keep writing, not even looking at what I’ve written earlier. And then, when I’ve finished the new paragraph, I’ll cut and paste the old one at the bottom of the document, so it is there to refer to if I need it. And this continues until I have a finished work.

However, if there is one thing writing this post has taught me, it’s that I don’t always do things the same way. This being a shorter piece, I didn’t do as extensive an outline. I also found myself very motivated to write; much of my original writing wasn’t that bad, so I didn’t rewrite as much and instead focused more on tweaking, as I might do in the final stages of a large paper. Ultimately, however, if there is one constant across all of my writing, it is that I do revise, no matter how much or little. And when I don’t, I tend to wish I had. Once, I sent an email to a former teacher. Instead of revising, I convinced myself to trust in my own ability to write and understand grammar rules. Turns out, I had misplaced three commas and written “two” instead of “to.” I pride myself in being a very good writer and grammarian, but I know I would be nowhere without revision.

On Annotating

In general, as a student I am not one to annotate, so one when it comes to writing in books, the short answer is that I do not, at all. As an outsider, the idea of a colorful annotated book, with color coded content is intriguing, however my brain just does not work this way. Only time I would ever be caught writing in books would be if I were to be forced to, i.e. a homework assignment or something of that nature. That being said, in the rare circumstance were I do find myself being forced to write in books I tend to abuse the skill of underlining and usually just resort to writing brief summaries next to each paragraph to make sure I got the jist of the content. For the most part I depend on the always handy summarizing and paraphrasing skills to make sure I understand what I am reading. This also comes in handy when I have to write about whatever I read later because I can just rewrite what I already wrote on the margins. When I write on the margins, I tend to write to myself and depend on a newly composed language of my choice as I see fit. As long, as I can understand it, it is all good. In hindsight, only time I genuinely annotate out of my own free will would be on my second run through the book. The first time, I read solely to understand the content and this takes me very long so, to take my time to annotate would not be time efficient. However, if assigned an assignment where I have to gather evidence or quotes, or do a word count of a specific word I will use annotating. I will dog-ear pages, and circle words, and highlight sentences, but I do all of this not out of pleasure or as a means for better understanding, but rather necessity and data gathering. I can only annotate once I know what I am annotating for, or already have an objective in mind, I cannot annotate blindly because I’ll just highlight the entire book from start to finish. Quickly touching upon, other people annotations, I simply do not find much use in them, I never even consider looking at them. I think this is for two reasons. The first reason is that I don’t think that anybody thinks the way I do so I do not think I will find anything useful in their annotations. The second reason has to do with my subconscious, being that because I know I annotate in my own language and in poor handwriting, I just assume everyone else does as well, so I do not think I could possibly understand their annotations if I wanted to. Lastly, when it comes to digital archives or PDFs, i approach annotating the same way I approach physical materials, I only annotate the second time around, when I am looking for something specific. I do however really enjoy the use of the search tool; makes finding words and making connections just so much easier, instead of having to re-read everything. All that being said, regardless of whether it be a new or used copy, or a physical book or an online file, annotation is not my cup of tea, and would not do it unless i absolutely had to.

 

My Thoughts on Annotation

I have never had much inclination towards writing in the margins of physical texts. While I have occasionally found annotations helpful to my understanding of some written works, adding them in myself feels like damaging the book. If I find something interesting or inspirational in a passage that I’m reading, I typically write it down somewhere else at length rather than adding my commentary into the pages of the book itself. I have not been required to annotate books in previous classes, though I have received assignments to make notes on photocopied pages, which I find less objectionable.

When reading a book, the thought never occurs to me to start making notes off in the margins, let alone dogearing pages; it seems unnecessary and disrespectful of the materials, and it’s perfectly easy to leave a bookmark in a place you want to return to later. This attitude may have risen from my habits earlier in life, which were quite different from those I have now; as a kid, I tended to be incautious with books, often writing or drawing in them, breaking the spine when opening them, eating on them, and carrying them around into places where they would be likely to get damaged. I ended up causing the premature deterioration of a lot of books that I would rather have intact today, and I still regret it. (I understand that not everyone who makes annotations is careless with books, I’m just explaining the formation of my own attitude towards treating books with care.)

Footnotes have proven useful to me in the past, though mainly in the case of books written in a foreign and/or archaic language. Notes made by translators and interpreters over the years are useful when trying to understand something written in a time and place very different from our own. However, in most cases these have been selected from a wider set of commentaries by the publisher as the most likely to enhance the reader’s comprehension of the text, and are formatted in a way that isn’t too distracting from the main text.

When reading a text to which annotations have been added by hand, one of the things that bothers me most is when text is frequently highlighted or underlined, which makes it difficult to read without noticing the annotations. While this might come in handy when attempting to abbreviate longer writings with a more informative tone, it is needlessly distracting in most other works.

Annotations to digital texts are a different matter. Many digital formats allow readers to make comments in a manner that is unobtrusive, but easy to view to those who are interested. They have the additional advantage of allowing for responses to people’s remarks, both for the writer of the original text (if they’re around to clarify) and for other commentators.

In conclusion, while I generally don’t go in for marginalia, I won’t discourage it as long as it is done in a way that doesn’t distract from the work itself.

Reading, Watching, Talking, but not Writing.

Books have always been my getaway. My safe place if you will. I have never really enjoyed reading books for school because it required that I slow down and actually think about what I was reading. I like watching the movie that plays in my head while I am reading. It is hardly enjoyable to pause the movie every 30 seconds to take notes. Hence I mostly audibly annotate. I do the same thing with my math homework. If I have a question about something, then I will just ask it. Or yell at the words in front of me. Of course, no one will answer and I will probably forget that I asked it. However, reading is a conversation between characters and the omnipresent reader. Thus it is important that the reader responds to the events. I simply don’t have the patience to write it down before moving on to what happens next.

I don’t like writing in books for the same reason that I strongly dislike it when people dog-ear pages (especially in books that don’t belong to them). I find it distracting and detrimental to the longevity of the story that lies within the binding. I would rather have a book that is falling apart with all of the pages intact. A book missing pages or having words that cannot be read is worse than having no book at all. But a book with a broken binding has been loved. That being said, I did render my copy of Hamlet quite difficult to read in some parts with the abundance of annotations within it. And the colors of the annotations.

I tend to color code everything. Including my annotations. I prefer pen because it won’t rub off the page and there are many more color options for it. If I use many colors, then I include a key somewhere as to what everything means. As far as content goes, I don’t usually annotate for me. So I tailor what I write to my intended audience. If it will be seen by my peers, I will steer towards the stereotypical expectations for annotations. For teachers, I try to come off as more insightful making connections across different forms of media or even within the text itself. If it is just for me, then the page will likely be blank. I will either go back and take separate notes or put post-it notes in. Color-coded based on their reason for being on the page of course.

We have reached a point where technology is preferred over paper. But I have to say that there is nothing like the feeling of a book in my hands. There is also a sense of connection that comes from actually holding the characters, their choices and the consequences of those choices in your hands. Like the Portkeys in the Harry Potter books, you aren’t going anywhere unless you are touching it ;D

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Just My Thoughts

When I was a kid, I despised the idea of writing in books. I had a strong sense of the value of a physical book and thought that writing in them desecrated their intended purpose. I never thought about what valuable things you could put in the blank space in a novel because my experience stemmed from whatever mess elementary school kids added to their library books. I equated writing in a book to basically the same thing as spilling a drink or rubbing cheeto-stained fingers on it. I think I only ever wrote something in one of my books and I felt extremely guilty.

When reading works in high school I had no problem marking up the print of a poem. I understood that that was just a piece of paper. I circled keywords, I boxed keywords, and I underlined catching parts. I just never touched books. I remember my grades outrage when our tenth grade English teacher asked us to use post-its to mark up our thoughts. She treated it very strictly so I understood why people were upset. She was definitely looking for quantity to prove something over quality. I always had a lot of post-its and I appreciated that the post-its meant I didn’t have to ruin the beautiful, sacred books.

It wasn’t until later in high school that I started to critically examine the idea that a physical book wasn’t something you should mark up. I was always also really affronted when I saw those cool pieces of art made by carving up old books. I expressed this idea to a friend and she pointed out that the actual physical book didn’t really matter so much as the words in it, and those could always be reproduced. The value of a book was unscathed by using it to create something new like a sculpture.

I also started annotating without the strict requirement of the teacher later on. I used to be annoyed about the post-its because I thought I would remember all my thoughts about a book, and when I realized that was not true I wanted the mark up my work. I bought my own post-its, color-coded to denote specific themes that I usually cemented as I went along. Each post-it was pretty big so I normally divided them in half before jotting something quick down on the post-it. This was really where I developed my commentary style. I was reading a book I really hated in senior year, and I felt this gave me free license to talk trash. The main character was so painfully obnoxious that I would put down post-its just to call him out on his conceited, hyper-intellectual behavior. Eventually, it got to the point where I was cursing him out, and speaking directly to the author, and wondering how much of the protagonist’s personality was fiction and how much was him. The book was The World According to Garp, by the way.

Now that I mostly own the works I’m reading, I feel at liberty to mark them up according to my will. I still use color-coded post-its to denote themes in a work, but now they’re the tiny translucent ones and I just write my brief thoughts in the margin. I am still hugely inconsistent about what my markings mean. Some words I circle, some words I box, some lines I underline in a straight line, some lines I underline with a squiggly line. Generally, if I notice a word repeated that I feel is significant or two different words with the same feeling I will draw a line directly connecting them. My comments in the margin remain really informal. Sometimes I yell at the main character, sometimes I just write “haha” after a good joke. Sometimes I write really small and try to fit in an actually smart reaction I had to the work.

No matter what though, this lets the text becomes a live conversation between me and the author, which is gratifying and fun to look back at. It’s nice to believe that a work is not finished until you’ve read it and value your own thoughts on the matter in the same way you value the text.

Arrogance

I have never willingly written in a book. In high school, I spent many a free period arguing with English teachers about their childish requirements to write our “thoughts” and “feelings” about a text directly in the margins. I insisted that the same goal could be achieved by writing on a separate sheet of paper, while keeping the text squeaky-clean. Unfortunately, I would typically be forced to cave on behalf of my grade, with the final words of the teacher being “do it or else you won’t pass the assignment, because I said so.” But, my forced marginalia would be a reflection of my reluctancy- out of spite I would mock and dutifully criticize every line I could, my notes often filling the entire margins. Sometimes, I would write small enough so that on a page my marginalia contained more words than the text itself.

There is no good reason for marginalia. In fact, marginalia is bad. Let’s start with an analogy:

I’m in the Met. A certain painting strikes me in some way, and I want to express my opinion. To do this, I wouldn’t saunter on up to the painting and scribble on the white wall next to it. This would distract from the painting itself, as others could not see the work of art independent from my ugly scrawls. It also borders on vandalism. Sure, this isn’t quite the same as writing in a book, since books are mass-produced and owned by individuals, but the idea holds true. Whenever you write in a book, you take away from the original text because someone reading after you cannot block out your writing. There is a sort of purity in a clean book- a sort of truth. You see exactly what the author wanted you to see.

If you have a used book that you plan to return or pass on, the amount of arrogance or inconsideration (depending on intention) it takes to write marginalia is mind-boggling. If you think your writing adds something to the text that others after you should see, you are narcissistic. People read a book to read the book, not your writing. Frankly, no one cares what you have to say. I read Shakespeare to read Shakespeare, not some random note from some random guy pointing out that the way in which Shakespeare writes a line strikes him as “funny.” If you are simply writing notes without much thought as to who else will have the book after you, you are insensitive. Marginalia is disrespectful to people who read a text after you.

Marginalia is also disrespectful to the author. The author put out a work exactly how he wanted others to see it. Do you know how much time it takes to write a book? The effort it takes to make every line as good as you can? A book is a work of art like that painting in the Met. You wouldn’t taint the painting by writing next to it, so why do so many people taint books?

Marginalia is vandalism.

 

Some ‘side notes’…

For a book that is solely yours and will never be read by anyone else, knock yourself out with marginalia. In my opinion, you’ll only clutter things up more (both in the text and in your mind), but I’m in no position to stop you. However, if there is any chance whatsoever of someone reading the book after you, you should not write marginalia.

Highlighting, unlike marginalia, has its place in used/public books as well as personal books. It is a great way to condense textbooks and other scholarly texts, and can often help others. In a typical used book such as a novel, however, highlighting is not appropriate for reasons similar to marginalia; it is distracting, and no one else cares what you found interesting enough to highlight.

Digital marginalia that can appear by clicking a button is a great idea. This maintains the original text, keeps from distraction, and if someone doesn’t want to see your annotations, they just don’t press the button.

 

If you’re wondering whether or not you should write something in the margins of a book- just don’t.

Write? Write.

Growing up, you could always find me with my nose in a book. Yet, it never occurred to me to write in those books; I never had a reason to use the margins to annotate and analyze anything I was reading, and quite frankly I didn’t want to.  As someone who constantly overanalyzes everything, I enjoyed the fact that books were the one thing I didn’t feel I had to analyze.  This began to change in middle school, when analyzing books so unfortunately became part of my grade.

From middle school onward, most of my English classes seemed to revolve around annotating different works of literature, whether it be a poem, a piece of fiction, a nonfiction article, or in one somewhat odd case, a nutrition facts label. When my teacher taught my class about annotating, we learned the GRAM method.  With the GRAM method, I also learned a strong dislike for marginalia.  For each new page of writing, I was taught to “Give a statement,” “Restate an idea,” “Ask a question,” and “Make a connection.” All this mundane annotating took place on photocopied pieces of each work, in pencil, and was always turned in for a grade.

Now that I am no longer “forced” to annotate what I read, I realize that all that practice writing marginalia was not for nothing.  While I do not annotate works of fiction any longer, I do dog ear pages throughout the books I read that contain information I may want to refer to later in the book.  In regard to readings for class, I do my fair share of marking up the text.  I’ll print myself a copy of the text and proceed to highlight key themes, draw arrows connecting ideas to supporting evidence, and ironically, I still use the GRAM method in the margins, although they now go much more in depth than the superficial GRAMS I use to do for a grade.  These annotations I keep solely for myself, mainly to keep up the façade that I still strongly dislike annotating (not really).  In reality, I think everyone should have their own annotations because each work can be interpreted differently by different people.