6g- Reviewing and Revising Your Essay

So, what is the dif­fer­ence between revis­ing aca­d­e­m­ic prose and re-pre­sent­ing ethno­graph­ic writ­ing?  The short answer is, noth­ing real­ly.  There real­ly isn’t a dif­fer­ence, except in your own per­spec­tive, except in terms of the ways that you might think dif­fer­ent­ly about these two activ­i­ties.  Stu­dents often under­stand the revis­ing of aca­d­e­m­ic prose as an activ­i­ty in “cor­rec­tion,” in try­ing to fig­ure out what the instruc­tor wants, in mak­ing their piece more direct, con­crete, con­cise and for­mal.  Hon­est­ly, there is truth to this per­spec­tive.  Revi­sion does entail work­ing on clar­i­ty of writ­ing, fol­low­ing the con­ven­tions of Edit­ed Amer­i­can Eng­lish, being able to direct­ly state an argu­ment and sup­port that argu­ment with iden­ti­fi­able evi­dence.  You must par­tic­i­pate in this lev­el of revi­sion, but you must also imag­ine mov­ing beyond what you have already writ­ten to an under­stand­ing of where or why or how you can fur­ther explain your ideas. You need to strive to make your rhetor­i­cal deci­sions con­scious, to con­sid­er why you chose the quo­ta­tions you have used, the voice you present, the metaphors you create.

Writ­ing isn’t about mas­tery of a sub­ject mat­ter.  We become bet­ter at writ­ing when we prac­tice writ­ing.  We become bet­ter at writ­ing with sup­port­ive and earnest feed­back about our writ­ing.  We become bet­ter at writ­ing when we are com­fort­able with and under­stand the feed­back that we receive.

One of the most pop­u­lar strate­gies for solic­it­ing that feed­back and encour­ag­ing stu­dent revi­sion of work is peer review.  Despite any mytholo­gies about the iso­lat­ed, insu­lar writ­ing genius, most writ­ers write in com­mu­ni­ty.  Aca­d­e­mics, nov­el­ists, poets, and journalists—just to name a few—all engage in peer review of their work.  Some­times the review is self-solicit­ed, some­times it is required by a pub­lish­er.  The fact is that peer review is a cru­cial aspect of the writ­ing world and many instruc­tors will invoke this strat­e­gy pre­cise­ly because it reflects the real­i­ty of their own expe­ri­ence as writ­ers. So, no mat­ter what you write, seek a review, solic­it a response, and that you revise based upon the com­ments you receive.

But what if the com­ments are stu­pid, you ask?  What if you can’t be sure that the feed­back you get will be help­ful or “cor­rect.”  The dif­fer­ence between use­ful and point­less feed­back will hinge upon you and the ques­tions you ask of your reader(s). Only you know the goal of your piece of writ­ing, there­fore you need to make clear this goal in the form of a ques­tion.  In gen­er­al, it is good to pro­vide your read­er with no more than a few dif­fer­ent ques­tions.  If you have more ques­tions for the read­er, wait to ask anoth­er set fol­low­ing a new draft, or pro­vide dif­fer­ent ques­tions to dif­fer­ent read­ers.  With a few ques­tions on which to focus, the read­er can con­cen­trate on sub­stan­tive feed­back and feel secure that you are look­ing for cri­tique and not just look­ing for copy­edit­ing.  Spe­cif­ic ques­tions help you to con­scious­ly decide what you’d like to know and invite a read­er to help you get it.

After get­ting feed­back and see­ing your work and writ­ing again in the light oth­er people’s com­ments, you must spend the time re-work­ing and re-writ­ing. Here are some final sug­ges­tions to help you write an essay that will engage and res­onate with the read­er, a piece that can be under­stood as ethno­graph­ic writing:

On a glob­al level:

  1. High­light Com­plex­i­ty: Don’t be afraid to try and explore MANY facets of your observation/focus, mak­ing sure NOT to con­struct an argu­ment based stereo­typ­i­cal or one-dimen­sion­al log­ic. Instead, explain that the real­i­ty you observed and are explain­ing is rel­a­tive to many dif­fer­ent factors.
  2. Reveal Reflex­iv­i­ty: Remem­ber to include your­self as an inte­gral ele­ment of this research project. Explain tran­si­tions YOU have made dur­ing the process of your research. You were there. You should write to acknowl­edge how you under­stand the real­i­ty of your research site. You are an author­i­ty on how you under­stand this site–write from that authority.

On an orga­ni­za­tion­al level:

  1. Cre­ate head­ings for dif­fer­ent parts of your essay; write it in sec­tions. Use sub­ject head­ings to break your prose into read­able bits and to allow for jux­ta­po­si­tion of bits of text to engage the read­er. Revise in such a way that you make sure that every bit you see has a guid­ing idea, an expla­na­tion, an exam­ple and some idea devel­op­ment.  The “first…second…third….” sec­tions of your focus statement.
  2. Select and use effec­tive pri­ma­ry source exam­ples that sup­port your focus and make clear what you found mean­ing­ful and why and use quotes or para­phras­es sec­ondary sources, where appro­pri­ate, to expand your own analy­ses and observations.

On a sen­tence level:

  1. Use active present-tense verbs. One of the quick­est ways to make your prose appear smarter, tighter and more engag­ing is to edit the verbs, seek­ing not only to make sure that they agree (the usu­al sort of cor­rect­ness edit­ing of a com­po­si­tion course) but to scan for every time you write “is” and write in past tense.  Rewrite your essay so that if you’re speak­ing about some action, you write about it in present tense—you should always write in present tense about the ideas in an arti­cle or book.  To add imme­di­a­cy to the action, you not only want to write in present tense, but min­i­mize use of the gerund (“ing” words) and the verb “to be,” oth­er­wise known as “is”.  To say that “John is walk­ing,” is far less active and engag­ing than the sen­tence, “John walks.”
  2. Edit and proof­read your essay care­ful­ly. Don’t let sen­tence lev­el errors and spelling and punc­tu­a­tion mis­takes ruin your beau­ti­ful paper.