I am revising the introduction to the Big Honking Translation. It was originally written by one of my collaborators, but our editors had many suggestions for changes and improvements. I volunteered to do the revisions, but now, regarding them, I’m in the state of mind with which I am well familiar, where I feel like there’s this mass of material that I am only going to make (temporarily) worse by pulling it apart, and I have lots of good bits that I want to add, and I can’t see how to unpack and re-pack the whole mess. I have printed out my outline and the paragraphs I wrote and showed my writing group, plus a few more notes. Sometimes shifting to paper helps.
I think my biggest problem is that I need a very general introduction to the introduction, in which I lay out the major issues before dealing with them in more detail later, and that sort of big-picture thinking is always hard for me, even though I understand that it is what is needed here, and even though an editor has made many helpful and inspiring comments. So maybe I need to make a list-and-gist outline cum rough draft, deliberately messy, in which I collect ideas, sentences, and quotations from the original introduction, from the editor, and from my work, just to gather all the bits that belong in a given paragraph in the same place. Once everything is gathered together, massage the collection till it turns into reasonable prose. Or I could take my own advice and think of the introduction as a series of five-paragraph essays: the intro-to-the-intro; date, author, audience; sources and influences; themes and issues (maybe a double mini-essay); style and aesthetic qualities. The plot summary and manuscript description don’t need much work. The intro-to-the-intro should of course refer to the following sections, so readers know what’s coming. The third option (not so far from the second) would be to work on the inner sections and then write the intro-to-the-intro last, once it’s clear what ideas it needs to pick up and announce.
I don’t like being deliberately messy. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it makes me uneasy. I like writing actual prose. I like knowing what needs to be in a paragraph. That’s why I made the outline I have. Is it not detailed enough? Or did I wander in the wrong direction already as I made it, not even when I started writing (as so often happens) but in the thinking process? The first paragraph starts out well. I think it’s just the last two sentences that get overly specific for this point in the piece, and that have sent me in the wrong direction. One problem here is that I am not deeply familiar with the conventions of the introduction to a text. I know more or less what an essay/article should look like, even though the structure always shifts from where I started. Though related, this is a different genre. Another problem is that I like to write for extremely specialized audiences (talking to Ralph and Tony), whereas in this piece I need to talk to students and scholars who may be interested in this literature but don’t have a lot of background. The problem is not style, as I generally write plainly and avoid jargon, but a question of filling in details and underlying assumptions that I expect Ralph and Tony already know. I may need to write this intro more as my teacher-self than as my scholar-self.
Come to think of it, although I worked on the intro-to-the-intro thinking it could serve as a guide to the rest, really I started there because I was due to give the writing group something and at the time it made sense to begin at the beginning. In terms of what needs to happen now, and given my tendency to get over-detailed, I may be better off working first on the bits where I can develop details more fully (even if some of them need to get cut later), and then using those revised sections as a guide to what needs to happen in the opening paragraphs.
OK. Onward into the middle of the thicket, and then work back out once the center holds.