Other than as an assignment for courses taken long ago, I had never written a book review. Or rather, I had never written a review for the purposes of publication. So when I volunteered my services for the Journal of Secularism and Nonreligion, I wasn’t entirely sure what the experience, or outcome, would be. This post is a short story about that, with a specific emphasis on three aspects of that process that stand out in my memory.
I am no stranger to editing, and I hold no envy for those who do it.
I am also, by my own admission, what I call an ’emotional writer.’ This doesn’t mean that I get ’emotionally attached’ to my writing, or that my feelings get hurt when my writing is evaluated or edited. Rather, my writing is ’emotional’ in the sense that for me the time and place when and where the writing gets done play a large part in how I ‘do’ the writing itself.
In this way, I’ve always been keenly interested in how writers write. I love hearing about the process, how they establish a place to write, how they do it, whether they type or write by hand, what bizarre and personal little rituals they do. I love that kind of stuff. I also think it tells us something quite unique and specific about the character (perhaps even identity) of that person.
For example, Hemingway was notorious for writing while standing, as well as designing the writing process in such a way as to be inspired or influenced by his surroundings. Legend tells us that a number of his novels, such as The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bells Toll were written in sections, in different countries, to convey a certain mood.
Likewise, my Thesis has been focused on certain novels by Ian McEwan, and I found myself giddily excited a few years back to find this video of him describing his writing process (with, interestingly, an embarrassed curiosity as to why people would be interested in that sort of thing).
See also this description:
When I wrote my review of Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of the Species, the writing process was divided into two parts: reading and writing. It took a week or so to read the book, make notes, re-read sections, and formulate the structure of the review. I made a list of important passages, as well as compiled an outline of the text itself, isolating what I thought was Spencer’s lead argument, and the basic criticisms and compliments I thought I should point out. When I wrote the review, I created a number of drafts, making sure to return to the text to ensure my consensus was well designed.
A few weeks after submitting the draft I received the first round of edits and suggested changes. This was an interesting experience. Aside from my supervisor’s interaction with the Thesis, as well as suggestions and critiques made by lecturers over the years, I’d yet to have any sort of editorial suggestions made about something I had written for publication.
At first I found myself feeling defensive about the suggestions. ‘Why,’ I thought arrogantly, ‘would there be suggestions?!’ ‘It’s perfect!’ I then reminded myself to grow up a bit. In fact, and in retrospect, the editorial process was quite rewarding. The individuals involved made very distinct arguments about structure and style, and in the end I think they truly helped in making the final draft feel much more coherent. However, there was one suggestion that kept appearing that I thought interesting, and it leads to my next aspect.
For whatever reason, I have found myself over the years Capitalising words or terms that really don’t need it. This occurs most often with research fields, like ‘Religious Studies’ or ‘Ethical Criticism.’ I’m usually quite open to amending this in my writing. However, where I will stand-fast on capitalisation is in the title of things.
Throughout my research, and even throughout this blog, I have, and will, capitalise the terms ‘Atheism’ and ‘Atheist.’ As well, depending on the context, I will do the same with ‘Theism’ or ‘Theist.’ While the latter is done in direct reference to the former, it has become something that comes up time and again when people evaluate my writing. My reasoning for capitalising the ‘A’ in Atheism is quite simple to explain. In my research of the concept itself, I have adopted a particular methodology in order to study Atheism. While I will likely discuss this in vivid detail in the near future, I can summarise this methodology here as follows:
rather than contribute to the present discourse on defining the term, and in that way avoid the precarious notion of stipulating what Atheism might mean to those individuals who identify themselves as ‘Atheists,’ I approach the term in a discursive manner. What this means is that I am more interested in how individuals use the term, how it is constructed, what ‘agency’ they give to it, and how that then dictates the way it is given meaning. I think of the term as an ’empty signifier,’ that is then ‘defined’ by the individual filling it with their particular meaning. What this also means is that the term itself transmutes from a ‘defined thing’ into an ‘identity.’ In this way, just as we might capitalise terms like ‘Christian,’ ‘British,’ ‘American,’ or ‘Buddhist,’ so ‘Atheist’ receives the same treatment. This likewise removes it from the category of ‘descriptive terminology’ like ‘blonde’ or ‘short.’ This does not mean, however, that I use the term in an apologetic or promotional manner. That is, for me, capitalising the term ‘Atheism’ does not mean that I am making the argument that it is equal to ‘Christian’ in that ‘Atheist’ signifies the title of an individual who belongs to the ‘religion’ Atheism. While that is an extremely interesting conversation I might take up (and likely will at some point), it is not my justification here.
This brings me to my final aspect. With the final draft submitted, and with my use of the capitalised ‘A’ in ‘Atheism’ accepted, I awaited final approval from the copy editors.
Now, as I have stated, the editorial process was a very rewarding experience, and I am truly indebted to those individuals involved. The copy-edited alterations are another thing entirely. Interestingly, a colleague was going through a similar experience around the same time. For her, the final draft that she had submitted for a chapter in an encyclopaedia came back with a number of ‘re-written’ sections, including her lead argument, thus altogether changing what she had intended to say. While my experience was in no way this drastic, it did offer an intriguing insight to the process itself.
For me, the changes that I found were mostly structure-based. Sentences were re-written, and arguments were restructured. Nothing was so drastic as my friend had found. Still, it was a bit jarring to see something I had worked on re-designed. A similar thing happened years ago on a group project I participated in on a course about American politics in the 1960s. The four of us involved had each elected to write about a thousand words of a group essay, which we then sent off to our group leader, who compiled it all together. After we got the paper back a few weeks later, we all noticed that our group leader had re-written each of our contributions. While the grade we received was not as high as we had hoped, my greatest issue with this was that the work that was evaluated under my name was not, at that point, ‘my work.’
I felt a similar feeling with the copy-editor’s re-writes. While my experiences with the editing process at the start were quite humbling about the benefits of other’s suggestions about my writing, this seemed different. After all, since I was being critical of Spencer’s work, I felt it should be my writing, and wholly my writing, that did that. Otherwise, I thought, it wouldn’t be fair to him. Fortunately, when I returned the final draft with my original writing, there was no argument and the published version appeared as I had wished. Which brings me to a conclusive point.
Writing this book review came at a very useful time for me. I am quickly approaching the point where I need to submit the Thesis, and after roughly four years of working on one piece of writing, it was good to have a bit of a distraction (even though the topic was still on Atheism). However, writing this review was not just a distraction from the Thesis, it was also a healthy reminder of some important things.
- Now that I am reaching the end of the writing process, it is proving, perhaps for no other reason than anxiety, more and more difficult to accept criticisms about the writing. My experience with editing the review helped with that. It reminded me that another perspective is not only useful, but important.
- Likewise, defending my capitalisation of ‘Atheism’ was a reminder of the methodology I had adopted for the Thesis, and seeing it written out as simplistically as possible in a brief defence helped me clarify my reasoning within the Thesis.
- Lastly, seeing the copy-editor’s re-writes, and defending my original draft, was a reminder that the Thesis is my work. While there have been a number of individuals who have played a major and important role in helping me get it done, when I defend it, it will be my writing and no one else’s. Defending it as such, I would argue, is quite important.
In the end, then, writing this review helped me in a number of important ways, from distracting me from the anxieties of finishing and submitting the Thesis, to reminding me of the importance of taking advice, clarifying my argument, and defending my finished product. For these reasons, I think it is perfectly fair to say: ‘thank God for that.’