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It’s a Deep Subject

posted: 3.13.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Your intrepid co-bloggers have, for about the past year, and especially the past couple months, been consumed with revising Writing about Writing for its second edition. This past week we finished its new material, and the 2e is much closer to our ideal book.

I thought I’d talk here about why that would be—what’s the difference between an ideal and what can actually be written? Why don’t the two simply correspond? Why don’t we “get it right the first time”? Or at least the second time? Several reasons:

1. We’re trying to hit a moving target. Every time we teach a WAW class, we learn more about how to do it well. Every new teacher using a WAW approach brings new considerations and ideas. We happen on approaches, readings, or ideas that make us happier. (For example, we’re learning now about threshold concepts, which the second edition is built to account for.)

2. We can only see so far. I am fond of the “driving with headlights” metaphor for how writing works. When you drive in the dark, your headlights won’t let you see all the way to your destination, but you can see a couple hundred yards ahead. So you drive as far as you can see (like, in a first draft or first edition), and it is that driving, writing that first take, that brings you to where you now see something different–the next 200 yards. And you drive that and now see what’s next. And so on.

3. Writing is almost always a compromise in response to constraints. For example, a book is shaped by length limitations and by the perennial writer’s problem of needing to be able to say five things at once, cramming a multi-dimensional subject into the one-dimensional (time) linearity of print. The book’s first edition is one compromise; we think we have a better compromise in the second edition.

4. We have to limit risk. Both your humble correspondents and their publisher have limited tolerance for abject failure. Writing about Writing, we think, breaks new ground as a textbook—it even bends genres between reader and rhetoric. Such a book creates real risks—what if we write something so wildly different it’s unrecognizable and no one can figure out how to use it? So we take a few risks at a time, and the risks that work out in one version give us a platform for taking more risks in the next one.

5. We’re studying a nearly infinite subject. Our WAW textbook-writing experience replicates our WAW teaching experience: there are a lot of good ways to do things and a vast range of ways to explain them. It’s the nature of the subject: there isn’t one right way to talk about it, or one correct set of ideas to study, or one ideal order to talk about them in. This is writing we’re talking about!

It will be several months before the new edition appears—it isn’t a light makeover, but, we think, a powerfully improved approach to a WAW textbook, both in terms of what readings are included and the ways they’re thematized and organized. It isn’t the sort of new edition that changes just enough to inconvenience users; it’s markedly more complete and more usable. And certainly for Elizabeth and me as writers, it has once again expanded our own sense of what it means to write.

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Categories: Douglas Downs
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