I am in the midst of revising a book about writing, which has me simultaneously thinking about writing in the context of what I’m saying in the book and reflecting on the writing I am doing as the book is being written.
This has surfaced a desire to get a little Zen on y’all regarding a minor epiphany I’ve had while making my way through the revision process following receiving feedback from my editor and some trusted readers.
When it comes to writing, what matters is the writing.
What I mean is that when we are writing, the only thing that matters is the process. The best possible route to the best possible outcome is to ignore that the outcome even exists. There is no due date for the manuscript. There is no publishing date. There is no title for the book. There is no money that will come when I finish revising the manuscript. The book itself does not exist.
I’m not kidding about this. I’m not writing a book. I’m just writing.
I need these reminders because the project is at the phase where it is very tempting to allow the fact that I have already written the book suffice, when in reality there is more writing to do.
There is a draft, longer than even required by the publisher for the final product. The draft is good. With the usual editing and polish, it could probably be published as is and no one would be shaking their heads wondering why a half-done book wound up on the shelves. I want to emphasize this point: I have already written a book.
But working on the revision reveals that even though a book already exists, there is more writing to be done. My revision method involves having the draft open alongside a bunch of notes I’ve taken consolidating some of the feedback I’ve received and then retyping the book from scratch in a new document, sometimes (even often) retyping pretty much verbatim what was in the previous draft but also allowing my sensibilities to steer a different course as they call to me. I know there is more writing to be done, because more writing keeps happening. For hundreds of words at a time, I am not referring to the book that already exists as I write.
Sure, sometimes I’ll cut and paste a paragraph or two from the original, but even as I do this, I wonder if I am prioritizing arriving at the object (the book) over the process (the writing), and I end up rewriting what I’ve cut and pasted.
As I work, I have some notion that this process is making the book better than it would have been without doing this work, but truthfully, how much better? And how would anyone other than me and my editor know it’s better, considering no one else will ever see the original draft? Let’s be clear, the better draft is unlikely to lead to more book sales, because a book’s quality is not dispositive—or sometimes even relevant to book sales. The publisher isn’t going to be able to charge more for my better book. The satisfaction of making a better book is almost entirely personal, a sense that I am edging closer to whatever I intended to say when I decided I had this book inside me. When it comes down to it, all I’m doing is prolonging the amount of work I’m putting into something without altering the tangible professional and pecuniary benefits I will receive from it.
I’m doing this because I honestly dig this stuff. Revision is not necessarily pleasant on an hour-by-hour or day-to-day basis, but I find it deeply satisfying as a whole. The number of areas in my life where I’ve decided that good enough suffices even when I know something could be better are beyond counting. This is one area where I’m invested in a way that makes me want to maximize my own potential.
The great challenge I’ve experienced in teaching writing is in trying to get students to embrace these intrinsic rewards that come with deep engagement driven by one’s own fascinations. Unfortunately, the system we all work within places much greater value not on the doing but the having done—the object, not the process. If I tell a student that doing certain things may result in an A rather than a B, they are likely to leap into action. If I tell them what they have is an A, but it could be even better, and the best part of pursuing that goal is that they will recognize the ways they are making it better, they look at me like I’m kidding myself and them.
(This is why I turned to alternative grading that rewards process rather than product.)
The reward system for academics works similarly. The most important criterion for a dissertation or an academic article or conference presentation is that it is done, not that it has provided a journey toward self-knowledge or deep engagement, nor, in most cases, that it provides others the necessary fodder for their own journeys toward increased knowledge. While that does happen, those things are immaterial in a system of rewards geared toward outputs.
When I see news of prominent academics engaging in plagiarism or data fabrication or any other kind of obvious violation of professional practices, I think what we’re seeing is not carelessness or deceit so much as the consequence of a system that primarily, and perhaps exclusively, values outputs.
Large language models like ChatGPT are marvels of output. They will output stuff until the cows come home and then output some more. It is important to recognize that this output is untethered from thought or feeling. It is without process, or rather, the function of a purely mechanical process entirely unlike what happens when humans write.
Despite this untethering, lots of people inside education see great promise in these outputs as a way to enhance the potential of students to learn, but the more I use these tools—yes, there are ways they are helpful—the more I’m convinced that if and when they are used to avoid process, they will do damage to student learning.
Speed and efficiency are not educational values. When it comes to writing, what matters is the writing. When it comes to learning, what matters is the learning. We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of privileging speedier outcomes over the experience of the journey.