Why writing is never fixed or final

I am working on the third edition of my first research methods book. Books like this, if they sell enough copies, are regularly updated into new editions. There are a few reasons for this. One is that ideas develop and the world changes, which means updates are needed. Another is that a new book usually has a comparatively small word count to help keep the price down; when it is proven to sell well, there is a business case for an increased word count and a slightly higher price. A third is that authors and readers think of more topics which could usefully be included.

The second edition of this book had 12 chapters; the third will have 16. I only have around 12,000 new words to play with, but fortunately some of the new chapters are chapters which were already rather long and still need new material, so have been split into two. There are only two completely new chapters, and one of those also has a chunk of content which I have moved over from another long chapter in the previous version. So, while there will be around 12,000 words of new content, only one of the four new chapters has to be written from scratch.

I regularly teach creative academic writing (aka academic writing it’s all creative), mostly to doctoral students who are faced with the terrifying task of writing a book. It’s called a thesis or a dissertation, depending on which country you are in, which makes it sound different from writing a book. But it’s not really different. Even a shorter thesis or dissertation of 40–50,000 words is equivalent in length to a Mills & Boon novel. An 80,000-word thesis or dissertation is equivalent to a standard paperback, and 100,000 words would be a larger paperback. Nobody tells doctoral students that they have to write a book – but, in effect, that is exactly what they have to do. Most theses and dissertations have chapters, contents, acknowledgements and other such book-like features. As the saying almost goes, if it looks like a book and quacks like a book it is probably a book.

Students often think writing a book is a similar process to reading: start with ‘Chapter One’ and then it’s one word after another until you get to ‘The End’. Nope. It is always difficult to convey the process of writing a book to someone who hasn’t written one, because describing is not the same as doing, and the only way to really understand how it works is to write one yourself. Which is a really difficult task, even if you have written several already. All I can do is to tell my students, in as many ways as I can, that most of us start in the middle even if we think we are starting at the beginning; it is fine to write fragments, or lists, or mind-maps; all of your work will go through at least three drafts; nothing is fixed, even when it’s published. I watch the level of comprehension on people’s faces vary from ‘utterly bemused’ to ‘penny dropped’. I know it’s pretty much impossible to learn about a process without any relevant experience, and I throw out blobs of wisdom hoping some of them will stick. (Some do. I once had a tweet from a former student, 18 months after I taught their class, saying ‘I just realised what you meant when you said…’ – it was lovely to know one of my blobs had landed after all that time.)

Perhaps the part students have most difficulty with is understanding that writing is never fixed or final. It looks so fixed, when you make a mark on a page; it seems indelible. But it’s not. You can move, change, edit, delete, add… Even published work isn’t fixed or final. This published blog post can be changed if I see a need for change. And, as new editions of books show, even published books are not final.

Once you understand this, it is a useful counter to perfectionism. In fact, it is not surprising that perfectionism is an enemy of writing, because writing can hardly ever be perfect (maybe a few shorter poems). Writers need to put down any perfectionism they may be holding, and simply be willing to do the best they can today. We also need to accept that this day’s ‘best’ is rarely the same as the next day’s ‘best’. When you look again at something you wrote last month or last year or last decade, it can make you cringe and wonder what on earth you were thinking. Which does not mean you are, or were, a bad writer; it means you have learned new things since then.

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