Lost and Found in Revisions

Melinda Beck for The Chronicle Review

March 01, 2017

In some ways, editing my book has felt similar to the year I spent driving around the country for dissertation research — often lost.

Back then, I was a New Yorker living in Texas, and I didn’t have much driving experience. To find my way to different archives, I relied on a used GPS that would cut off in the middle of a long drive, announcing somewhere on I-10 that it was "recalculating." Similarly, when I first began revising, I knew where I was starting (the dissertation) and where I needed to end up (the book), but the map to help me get there kept going blank.

Early on I assumed that most writers had a moment — walking to the store, going for a run, or driving to campus — when they finally, triumphantly figured out what their book was supposed to be about. So in my first phase of revising, I waited for an epiphany. In the second, longer phase, I turned off that metaphorical GPS, and devised my own plan to edit my way to an argument.

I’ve been reckoning with this book manuscript since 2013, when I moved to England and started a permanent academic job. That first round of reckoning began by letting the manuscript sit in a drawer while I handled my first semester of teaching. Even though I wasn’t focused on the book, teaching forced me to think in a peripheral way about the longer historical narrative I was telling. That epiphany I kept waiting for during this period was probably because I couldn’t admit how much editing I needed to do.

I knew that writing a book would involve calling upon external readers, but what I hadn't counted on was how much time I'd have to spend inside the crowded space of my own head.
Sometime after my first year of teaching, I made peace with the fact that my epiphany was never going to arrive — and I got back to work. Between the spring of 2014 and the spring of 2016, I cut a lot of words from the dissertation. I read and revised each chapter. And I picked two chapters to turn into articles because I hoped that peer reviewers’ reader reports would provide helpful directions for the book’s argument. I also sent chapters to friends, colleagues, and my potential editor while revising, and of course, talked the subject to death over coffee and drinks.

I sent my book manuscript out for review in the spring of 2016 and received readers’ reports from the publisher last summer. Many of their points reflected the fact that I’d written a dissertation on food but — somewhere along the revision process — made a decision to turn it into a book about hunger.

The editor asked me to write up a response with my proposed changes for the manuscript. I spent a few days going through the reports, using the "highlighter" tool in Word to mark important comments and queries. In my response, I made a case for a book that explored 18th-century ideas about hunger prevention, and included a plan to explain the relationship between 18th-century food (my original topic) and hunger.

As the press mulled over my response and, eventually, drafted a contract, I sat down with the manuscript and made a comprehensive editing plan. I started a Notebook of Revision Notes. Each chapter gets a few pages with the following set of notebook headings:

  • Chapter says it’s about.
  • Chapter is really about.
  • Chapter needs to be about.
  • To be added.

The "needs to be about" section is the one that gets changed the most as I go through each chapter for closer editing. These classifications have allowed me to identify chapters that don’t do what they promise and to keep track of what I’ve accomplished so far. They’ve also made it easier to identify which pieces of the book still need recalculating to bring the argument together.

As of this writing, I’m about halfway through revising my chapters. As I edit each one, I do it with my Notebook of Revision Notes alongside me. I mark up each chapter by hand — crossing out text, inserting sentences in the margins, and rearranging others to make my argument about hunger clear. Then I reread my notebook notes, and sit down to the computer to incorporate all of my changes. Having recently started commuting, I’ve found that the train ride is a really good time for adding in handwritten changes to a computer document, because there are few distractions. Once the changes are in place, I spend an additional few days reassessing the chapter on-screen, reading additional scholarship, and making new changes to shore up the argument.

I knew that writing a book would involve calling upon external readers, but what I hadn’t counted on was how much time I’d have to spend inside the crowded space of my own head. Figuring out my book has been a slow conversation with different versions of the person I was at various points in time when I thought I knew what my project was about.

I keep meeting the various version of my old self in my documents. In my stack of primary source notes, I’ve found blank pages on which I wrote things like "HUZZAH!" I left myself nice messages at the end of chapters. In some cases, I clearly hoped that a future version of myself would know how to fix a particularly bad sentence.

Such small discoveries have kept me motivated, but I’ve also taken more concrete steps to stay on track. I applied for a sabbatical so that last semester, I could make significant progress on edits, and I also asked my department to schedule a spring seminar where I could workshop a new introduction for my book.

Throughout this long slog, I’ve become better at planning the process.

When I was a graduate student making those cross-country road trips, I had no idea what the road looked like for each segment of the drive. Those drives — much like the revision process — involved some detours, some bumper-to-bumper traffic, and a fair amount of swearing at the view in front of me. But now that I have a better sense of how I got here and where I’m going, I wanted to write about it because I think it can be helpful to be transparent about the work that goes into making scholarship publishable.

I’m not going to conclude with a trite metaphor about how it’s the journey, or the process, that matters. As an academic, I’ll be evaluated based on the book I produce.

But I couldn’t edit the book until I’d been honest with myself about the journey’s different steps and made a conscious decision to plan them out in more detail. I got a bit lost sitting and waiting for my epiphany, when I should have been trying to break up the editing into more manageable segments. Now that I’ve recalculated and rerouted my trip, I feel more confident in my ability to finish this long expedition.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. lecturer in early modern American history on the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton. Her first book is No Useless Mouth: Hunger and the Revolutionary Atlantic, under contract with Cornell University Press.