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by Claire Aitchison

Writing      (V) To form letters, words, or symbols on a surface with an instrument.

Reviewing  (V) To examine or assess something with the possibility or intention of instituting change

Editing        (V) To prepare written material for publication by correcting, condensing, or modifying it.     www.thefreedictionary.com

When working with scholars on their writing I have found that sometimes it can be useful to draw distinctions between writing, reviewing and editing. In the act of writing we generally move between these tasks automatically and unconsciously. Each of these activities is a key skill for producing text, but their inappropriate application can be counter-productive, especially for novice writers. Time spent on editing too early in the writing process can be at best time wasted, and at worst can contribute to writer’s block. I’ve found that a greater awareness of these components of writing practice can help us to support doctoral students to become more productive writers.

I use this simple 3-step activity to help identify and separate these writing tasks:

1.            Writing    6 minutes ‘free writing’ à la Peter Elbow http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Elbow

In this timed activity, I ask the writers to write without stopping for 6 minutes, and to do so without care, oblivious to spelling mistakes, poor expression and so on. It is essential that writers switch off their internal marker/editor/reviewer selves, and simply put their ideas as words on the page. (I usually give a writing prompt such as: Today I am writing about…).

2.            Reviewing

I ask the writers to read over their text without interfering with it in any way. Then I ask them to record at least one positive comment and at least one comment identifying a change or aspect for improvement.

3.            Editing

I then ask the writers to go back over their writing, pen in hand (metaphorically speaking or otherwise) and edit their work.

Finally we discuss the difference between these tasks, our relative confidence and competence with each of them, their different purposes and how they impact on the progression of the text. Such discussions are often fruitful for identifying why we may be stalled in our writing and for pointing out strategies for more productive behaviours.

It’s easy to understand why some of us who have spent years marking, reviewing and critiquing the work of others may automatically default to ‘editor/ marker’ when we sit down to write. But there are times when this activity may need to be corralled or banished altogether.

Different stages of writing require different tasks. For example, when fleshing out new thinking, it can be useful to actively turn off our internal critic and stop ourselves from editing and reviewing, focusing only on putting words onto the page. Reviewing is good to bring to the text after periods of writing, particularly to new writing that has been left to sit for a while.  Editing, like housework, is a job that permanently beckons and feels like it’s never quite done. Editing is an end-on task whose function is to get the text ready for show.  But productive editing can also be done en route, when we’re feeling ‘brain dead’ and need a break from writing, at points that make sense for the author, or following self-reviewing activities.

I’ve tried this activity with doctoral students and academics in writing retreats and writing circles where there are opportunities to practise and reflect collectively on writing. Perhaps others have thoughts or experiences they wish to share about writing, reviewing and editing practices that can help or hinder the job of getting writing done. We’d love to hear from you.