Monday, June 03, 2013

Invisible Revisions

Imagine an essay manuscript: Version A. Monday morning, I read through Version A. I'm not satisfied. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I revise and revise -- cutting some ideas, adding others, tweaking the phrasing, trying to perfect the manuscript. Wednesday night I have the new version, Version B. My labor is complete. I set it aside.

Three weeks later, I re-read the manuscript -- Version B, of course. It lacks something. The ideas I had made more complex seem now too complex. They lack vigor. Conversely, what I had simplified for Version B now seems flat and cartoonish. The new sentences are clumsy, the old ones better. My first instincts had been right, my second thoughts poor. I change everything back to the way it was, one piece at a time, thoughtfully. Now I have Version C -- word-for-word identical with Version A.

To your eyes, Version A and Version C look the same, but I know them to be vastly different. What was simplistic in Version A is now, in Version C, elegantly simple. What I overlooked in Version A, Version C instead subtly finesses. What was rough prose in Version A is now artfully casual. Every sentence of Version C is deeper and more powerful than in Version A. A journal would rightly reject Version A but rightly accept Version C.

15 comments:

Daryl said...

You need to read "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" by Borges.

Nick Byrd said...

I worry that students just inferred the following: "I should always turn in my first draft."

Anonymous said...

I suspect that when you submit version C to a journal, some anonymous reviewer will recommend rejection, with the following comment: "This essay reads like a dumbed-down version of Schwitzgebel's far more thoughtful and elegant prose. I suggest the author read some of Schwitzgebel's published work and try to write more like him."

TayLoR MuRPHy said...

This also happens, I am sure, when reviewers or graders know who the author is.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Daryl! I wrote this post with that story on my mind.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Taylor: Yes. One question is whether appropriately or inappropriately so.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Still waiting for that report!

Nick: The problem is, I'll just think it's Version A.

Scott Bakker said...

Every once in awhile someone will send out a literary classic to various publishers with a different title and byline, then gather all the rejection letters for some kind of gotchya piece. I remember reading some research to the effect that 'social proof' bias has the biggest impact on how we assess writing...

The apparent paradoxicality turns on the material identity of the writing. If we could view the greater machinations the writing sparks as perspicuously as we could the writing, the paradox would entirely evaporate: we would see that the C mechanism (brain plus writing) is indeed much different than the A mechanism.

Time and again it all comes down to medial neglect, Eric!

Callan S. said...

Depends whether the A/C perspective shift helps enable writing anything at all, instead of being unable to shift and having no other recourse, to think both A and B suck and it's best to go off and play video games. Thus not producing anything?

Speaking of video games...

Bill Haines said...

You need to read "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" by Borges.

Anonymous said...

Of course he should, Bill, but which version?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: LOL.

Michel Clasquin-Johnson said...

I recently had a slightly different problem. I wrote version A, then saw the severe conceptual flaws in it and wrote and submitted Version B. The reviewer saw the unquestionable merit of my argument, but, being a person of impeccable taste and insight, suggested a few changes. I won't say that the published version C is word-for-word identical to A. But it's close. Really close.

On a related note, I once wrote an article comparing a Mark Twain story to a Star Trek Movie. It was roundly rejected. One reviewer said "Great work on Star Trek, doesn't know Mark Twain from a hole in the ground" The other reviewer opined that I had made a brilliant analysis of the Twain story, but that I obviously didn't know the first thing about Star Trek! It is one of my most treasured memories.

Oh, what happened to the article? it lay in a drawer until I met Editor B, who was desperate for submissions ...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

:-)

Callan S. said...

Michel, I am jealous of your memory!