You Can’t Edit A Blank Page

You Can’t Edit A Blank Page

One of the lies I was told about Cambridge before I started was that although the terms were extremely intense, they were short, and therefore I would have plenty of time to recover in the holidays before I had to do it all again.

It’s true that the terms aren’t long, compared to many universities and definitely compared to school. We have eight weeks of teaching at a time, and then substantial breaks. But there is no time to recover, because there’s always so much work to be done. After all, the university refers to these breaks as ‘vacation’ rather than ‘holiday’ because although you’re forced to vacate your room, you’re not actually given the chance to relax much.

The immediate pre-term period is the most stressful, in my experience, because that’s when deadlines loom and my total lack of motivation at any early point comes back to bite me. I mean, in my own defense, it’s extremely difficult to write an essay when you don’t have access to the books you need because they’re in the library in Cambridge and you’re stuck in south-east London, but you’d think that by now I’d have learned to just borrow everything I could possibly need and take it home with me, so that I don’t spend my first week back in Cambridge in absolute hell. Apparently not.

Taking more books home would just mean trying to fit more books on my undersized desk and suffering even more than usual. (I need my workspace to be … a lot bigger than it is at home.)

My dissertation, a 10,000-word essay on a topic that I actually find super fascinating and inspiring, is due in two weeks. I’m not nervous about getting that finished, because it’s pretty much done; the only thing that concerns me is having to do all the formatting and bibliography and not screwing that up, since that’s a slow and boring process that involves grappling with the incomprehensible ASNaC stylesheet.

However, I have a French coursework essay due next Friday which is worth 50% of my grade for this paper. It’s called a ‘long essay’, but it’s only 4,000 words, which I know from past experience never feels like enough. I mean, supposedly this is around the length of two supervision essays, but I once wrote a supervision essay that was 4,600 words because I got carried away talking about queer werewolves, so this is a difficult word limit for me.

This evening, I finally finished writing the first draft of it. It felt like pulling teeth. I’ve been struggling to get my thoughts on paper, to find quotes to support any of my ideas, to formulate a vaguely academic way of saying any of it. It currently stands at 3,750 terrible words, and I’m absolutely certain it’ll take more than 250 words to fix the complete mess that is this essay, which will then mean I have to edit again to make it shorter.

I wrote the first thousand words of it yesterday, the rest today, and I’ve been reminding myself that actually, essays and novels aren’t that different.

The last time I wrote one of these French coursework essays, one of the pieces of advice I wrote to myself in the margin while editing came straight from my experience writing fiction:

In this particular instance, it was a Hozier joke that I didn’t really have the wordcount to leave in, and these days I’m conscious that my exam feedback from first year said needs to take this more seriously, so I try and cut the jokes out before I submit work — even though I really like them and they’re often my favourite parts of essays.

Today, though, it was the writing stage that needed novel-writing advice, and it was a phrase often repeated to those struggling with first drafts: you can’t edit a blank page.

I never expect the first drafts of my novels to be perfect. They’re always full of plot holes and pacing issues and inconsistencies and characters whose names I forget halfway through and can’t be bothered to look up, even leaving aside awkward turns of phrase and typos and all the small things that are easier to spot and easier to fix, too. But for some reason I always expect the first drafts of my essays to be coherent and insightful — possibly because with the average supervision essay, there’s no time to edit it and I have to just hope for the best.

This essay? Is neither coherent nor particularly insightful, I don’t think. But I was finding it seriously hard to edit an essay I hadn’t written yet, and hopefully now that I’ve got something on paper, I’ll be able to see more clearly how to wiggle things around to make it make sense.

I think it was Chuck Wendig who said, “Writing is when you make the words. Editing is when you make them not shit.” (It sounds like a Chuck Wendig kind of thing to say.) I think that’s approriate here. Making the words not shit is going to be my goal with this essay over the next few days, but it’s going to be easier said than done, especially as my brain is screaming with the number of other things I should be doing. (I have another essay due in week one of term! I still need to tweak and polish my dissertation! I was meant to make a revision timetable and I haven’t! I still haven’t unpacked all my kitchen equipment and I don’t know where my colander is! I can’t focus on anything ever because !!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Writing’s something I’m good at. Even essays. This one may feel harder than most, but I need to remember that I have years of fiction and nonfiction and formal and informal writing under my belt to draw on — and I’ve read a whole lot of advice that I usually ignore but which it turns out is often relevant. So as I try and face the next couple of weeks, hectic as they are, it’s going to be writing advice I turn to more than study skills or similar, because that’s what got me this far.

I made the words. Now I have to make them not shit. But first, I think I’m going to get some sleep.

Nellie being majestic in a flowerbed, because it’s not a first-week-back blog post without Nellie pictures.

2 thoughts on “You Can’t Edit A Blank Page

  1. I just find this so relatable. I had to write the results section of my research paper two weeks ago, which really felt like pulling teeth, and CITATIONS ARE DEMENTING. I want my first drafts to be wonderful, because the outlines are so clean and sensible, but it just doesn’t work out that way. Jokes are my favourite parts of essays, too. And conclusions, because that’s when you remember that no-one really cares about the dissolution of dichotomy in Hamlet, but they do care about why it matters and you have to remember why it matters too. Good luck with all the essays!

    1. I dunno, I find conclusions pretty hard. Especially with my dissertation because it’s not really making an argument as much as saying, “Here are two texts. They do a thing, differently.”

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