Pleasures & Perils of Writing Non-Fiction, Post #8

In Post #2, I said a non-fiction writer’s process has four overlapping phases. Let’s move along to Phase Four:

4. CARRY OUT THE ACTUAL WRITING OF THE PIECE: By “writing” I’m including initial drafting, sending drafts to colleagues for comment, re-drafting, submitting to editing, finalizing and, let’s not forget, giving credit to the sources of your information.

But first, a digression. A decade ago, I purchased a copy of “Émile, or On Education,” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. At the time, I was deep into writing “The Aptitude Myth,” and I was confident that “Émile” would be central to the historical story I was piecing together.

OMG! What a meandering, interminable tome “Émile” turned out to be! I struggled through maybe a third of it. Fortunately, its philosophical impact is captured by its first sentence:

“Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man.”

So here was I, trying to write a book in which I expressed myself straightforwardly in each sentence and paragraph, and at no more length than necessary to plainly get my thought across. I was shocked! How in the world did Rousseau, already a famous author when he wrote “Émile,” manage to write THIS!

I envisioned Rousseau writing “Émile.” It’s roughly 1760. He’s sitting at a rococo desk, ink well open, quill pen in hand, scratching down each sentence. Let’s suppose he realizes, “I could have expressed that sentence more clearly.” Rewriting it is not an attractive option. He’d need to draw a line through the former words, then write the new ones — but where? In the margin? In tiny letters scrunched between lines? And what if he later had an even better idea?

What we don’t know is how coherent and concise were Rousseau’s thoughts to begin with. What we do know is that, even if he DID recognize that a word-string could be tightened up, it was not easy to do that.

Being someone who is naturally inclined to write, I am deeply grateful that I have been granted by fate the opportunity to do so during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I’m alluding to the wide availability of computers, and especially of word-processing programs such as Word and WordPerfect. (I first used a Wang word processor during the late 1980s.)

Whatever you write using a word-processing program can be effortlessly improved, with no limit on the number of improvements. Think; twitch your fingers; improved! Repeat at will.

To me, this is a Gift. Maybe I appreciate it more because earlier in my life, I used a typewriter. OK, not as laborious as pen and ink. Still, what you typed was what you got; improvements weren’t simple. If you had to present a clean manuscript, you’d need to retype the page. (Remember White-Out?)

One more thing: If you write a lot, you’ll know that it is impossible, all by yourself, to read and flawlessly correct your manuscripts for typos, left-out words, etc. Why? Because you are too familiar with what you’ve just written. Everyone needs an editor, at least a friend who will read your draft with fresh eyes.

I’ve discovered that my Word program — Word version #2104, part of Microsoft Office 365 — includes a feature called “Read Aloud,” part of the “Review” option. When I think I have finished a draft, I ask this feature to read it to me. I find that HEARING my draft read aloud to me enables me to catch more mistakes than reading it. “Read Aloud” doesn’t replace an editor, but it’s a welcome improvement.

Educator, independent scholar. I write books for Americans with insights re how parents & teachers in other societies deal with young children & their learning.