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The Diary of a PhD Student: The Dreaded First Edit

Before I go ahead and open heart into this blog post, I feel that I should add a small disclaimer here where I praise the bones of my two supervisors who have, throughout my degree so far, been life-savers for myself and my project. They have taken time and given thought and I’m absurdly grateful to both of them for what they’ve already done, and what they will continue to do over the next 18 months.

That being said, nothing that my supervisors can do will silence the panicked process that I have now come to accept as simply being: The way I edit things.

One Monday I had a joint supervision session with both supervisors as a follow-up to my first draft, which they had both read and scrutinised ahead of this meeting. My second supervisor had not only read the whole manuscript but had also annotated the whole thing, giving me a coversheet with comprehensive notes about the whole book and specific comments scribbled on the pages that followed. It was wonderful, it really was. They both talked through issues with me – none of which were things I disagreed with – and, after a decent chunk of time away from the book, I actually left this session feeling – wait for it – quite excited (!) by the prospect of returning to my project. I would be writing again, and I would be working towards a second draft which would, will, be much cleaner than the first, and I even felt in a good frame of mind to tackle this ‘butchery’ that my supervisors had warned me was an inevitable part of the process.

‘You’ll go a year without writing sometimes, and you’ll hate it, but then when you do write again you’re so focussed because you know what the book is missing so you can just sit and write.’ I’m paraphrasing, but this was the basic idea that I left with.

I saw a friend on Tuesday, relayed the meeting to him, and then said, ‘All in all, I feel quite calm about the whole thing.’

He leaned forehead and pressed the back of his hand against my forehead.

‘Who are you?’

‘Oh, I know this it won’t last,’ I replied. ‘I’m just saying, at the minute I feel quite calm.’

And I was right, too. It didn’t last.

The first ‘wobble’ appeared some time Thursday afternoon when I took the marked up manuscript out the folder and started to skim through it. This lasted about a minute and a half – I’m probably being generous with my timing there – before I put the manuscript back inside the folder, returned to my desk, and stared at the wall for another minute and a half – again, this might be generous – before, in no uncertain terms, thinking to myself, ‘How the f- am I ever going to fix this?’

But it’s okay because this, I have realised, is part of my process. I am calm, I am panicked, and then I am prepared – although I haven’t quite hit this last one yet, I am determined to push it into action at some point today (if you hear howls of anguish in the far distance, assume that it’s me). In a self-indulgent sense, this is the point of this blog post. I am getting thoughts out of my head, in a hopefully constructive manner, in the further hope that it will clear out some space for all of those annotations – some of which will be as simple as ‘wrong word’ or ‘phrasing it out’; some of which might even be ‘nice’ or ‘lovely’, if I only I took the time to have a decent look through them.

In a bid to find a learning curve here, I think an unexpected lesson that I’m starting to extract from doing a PhD is that writing is not the only part of creativity that has a proper process. Editing – calm, panic, prepared – also does. And while it may not be 100% effective, 100% of the time, it seems to have worked so far. I have to have faith, I suppose, that later this afternoon when I take that draft out of the folder again, a second wave of calm-meets-preparedness will take over. If not, there’s always tomorrow.


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