Every part of your text does one of these three things

Image credit: CC0 Public Domain.

The act of writing always involves making a commitment. It is hard for any of us to admit we’ve fallen short somehow in text we have already committed to screen or paper, often at great cost in time and energy. ‘What I have written, I have written’, said Pontius Pilate. And the same mix of lethargy, fatalism, over-identification and resentment at demands for an edit can inhibit all of us in seeing what might be improved in a draft.

Various psychological or mechanical moves can help us to edit better. Creating a separate phase of the authoring process for editing, not trying to mix it in with text production itself, is vital. Without this your corrections will be minor or ‘surface level’ only. Make a habit of leaving newly written text alone for a few hours or days. Distance and a degree of forgetting too will loosen your ties to what is already there. Printing new text out double-spaced with large margins often works to change perceptions from a screen-based view. The plentiful white space makes it easier to strike out what’s there, and then handwrite in new wordings or additions. Always making a 10 per cent cut in every page can also encourage you to be more ambitious in editing. Force yourself to eliminate 30 words on every page of double-sided text, with no exceptions.

These tactics work best in combating infelicities and stylistic looseness. But they rarely help with more fundamentally upgrading an argument. Often people approach each bit of text as a new and separate task, struggling to appreciate where its problems lie, without a regular repertoire of editing judgements or criteria in mind. This is where the ‘Build, Blur, Corrode’ (BBC) test can be helpful. It offers a standard set of evaluations to be applied to every sentence, then every paragraph, and every page.

  • A Build section of text actively advances the argument being made. It makes a new point, takes a previous point further, develops a new angle, offers fresh evidence or explains important detail — so as to advance readers’ understanding.
  • A Blur piece of text does not clearly advance the argument, perhaps because it is repeating something already said, connecting back to an earlier point, or woffling around unimportant detail. In academic papers there are often lengthy sections of ‘throat-clearing’ about intentions or methodological difficulties, or ‘ritual’ genuflections to previous work.
  • Corrosive text is a liability. It might be theoretically incorrect, factually wrong, unevidenced or a hostage to fortune in some other way. On the other hand it could be completely ‘correct’ but none the less misplaced — for instance, an intrusion or digression that left where it is obscures or fragments the main line argument; or a correct example cited to strengthen a point for which it is actually tangential or does not fit. In academic work a sentence or paragraph or exhibit (like a chart or table) can also be corrosive because it is inappropriate, pitched at the wrong level. It might seem naive or inexpert, use the wrong specialist vocabulary, or be stylistically bombastic or overdone. Finally, other elements too can be corrosive — a badly labelled chart or table, an incomprehensible or low-value diagram, a typology that does little work — all of these can undermine your text’s reception and give an impression of sloppiness or lack of care.

Once you have been through a page or a section, deciding if each sentence or paragraph or page builds, blurs or corrodes your argument, what should happen next? I suggest

  • Eliminate or radically upgrade all the corrosive material. Often it is better to cut out a problem sentence or paragraph altogether than to leave it in. Creating a ‘Bits’ file for each chapter or paper you are writing can help here. Moving all the problematic passages into the Bits file is psychologically easier than sending them to the rubbish bin in one go. The confidence that you can think again, and restore a gem mistakenly lost, will help you cut more fully. Remember too that you can also get rid of ‘corrode’ text by upgrading it, by framing points in a more sophisticated way, using more professionally sophisticated concepts and vocabulary, offering stronger evidence or better argumentative ‘tokens’, improving examples or analysis, and so on. But go it must, one way or another.
  • Expand the ‘build’ material, or focus the whole text more on these passages. Sometimes word limits lead to over-compression of original insights or under-stating key advances. Cutting elsewhere can give more space to better make the strong points in your argument.
  • Minimize the ‘blur’ material, or keep it within tight limits. Be realistic here: in creative non-fiction and research work you cannot eliminate all the blur. You need some signposting, organizers and linking text; some repetition and argument recursions; some reminders for readers; some connecting woffle or lower key exposition; some routine text that readers and reviewers expect. But you can seek to cut down such ‘blur’ passages to what is really needed, and to ensure that they do the key job of steering readers from one ‘build’ point to the next.

If you’d like to know more about these ideas, my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003) has advice on becoming a better author, stylist and self-editor.