Book Review: William Germano's "On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts"

Catherine Cocks Discussion

Book review by Jenny Tan, associate editor, University of Pennsylvania Press

William Germano, On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021).

In his latest book, William Germano—a veteran publisher, teacher, and author—tackles what for many scholars is the most intimidating and uncertain part of academic writing. But On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts is about more than just revision; the book explores what it means to write, and why and how we do it. Germano takes readers through the iterative process of writing and revision, offering guiding principles and advice alongside personal anecdotes and reflections to motivate scholarly authors and help them conceptualize the task at hand.

Revision can’t be boiled down to a sequence of methodical steps to be applied to a draft. Nor can it be conceptually demarcated from the greater process of writing, and of thinking. Germano reminds us, “Writing is thinking—and for scholars, thinking means writing” (p. 25), and, “Revising is a similar process—writing as thinking as writing—but done with a heightened self-consciousness that keeps its eye on the unknown, unknowable recipient of the text” (p. 27). This is reflected in how On Revision approaches its subject and establishes its scope, with as much to say to authors embarking on a new piece of writing as to those working on an already written draft. 

After orienting us in the work ahead for an author of a draft in need of revision (offering, for instance, a list of “Some Principles to Rewrite By,” p. 25) in the first half of the book, Germano organizes the rest of On Revision into chapters addressing what he calls the “three A’s”: argument, architecture, and audience. The book offers these as points of focus to help authors zero in on what they are trying to do, and gauge whether their writing is achieving it. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Build an Architecture,” Germano poses “Questions a Writer-Architect Asks” (pp. 117-21; e.g., “Why does my text have the shape it does? What happens on page 1 and why? Where is the crucial thought most clearly expressed?”), warns against “writerly evasions” (such as recycling an article or seminar paper without considering the different demands of these forms and their implications for structure), and provides techniques and exercises for authors to apply to their own writing (my favorite of which is the “Writing W,” a systematic approach to drafting in a non-linear order). 

As much a meditation on writing as a manual, On Revision is an intensely personal take on an intensely personal process. Germano’s voice is present and deeply felt throughout; some passages convey the impression of the encouragement of a friend or mentor, as much pep talk as advice. This approach has much to recommend it, but not without some potential downsides. I expect this particular take on writing will speak to some readers more than others. Since the book’s format doesn’t lend itself easily to consultation by someone looking to mine it for its concrete tips and techniques, those looking for a handbook that they can dip in and out of as needed will be disappointed. And because the book’s parts are not readily extractable from its whole, any feelings of readerly alienation may not easily be set aside.

For instance, the value that the book places on scholars’ objectivity and impartiality (pp. 63-64, 106-7) will likely not land with readers who find such an ideal neither achievable nor desirable—especially those who understand their scholarship and their politics to be inextricable from one another, and from their own subjectivity and experiential knowledge of minoritization, marginalization, and oppression. This is not a point of minor difference, but a lens through which the book’s vision is refracted, both overtly in its prescriptions and implicitly in its explanations—such as the example of an academic approach to “Black Lives Matter” vs “All Lives Matter” in a sociolinguistics conference paper, to illustrate how one’s writerly voice can be “calibrated” for a specialist audience (pp. 160-61). It’s worth reflecting on the implications of this notion of objectivity in a rapidly shifting academic climate.

Those for whom the book’s perspective resonates, however, as well as readers who have enjoyed Germano’s previous offerings—From Dissertation to Book and Getting It Published are both authoritative references in the field of academic writing—should find much insight in this one as well.

Jenny Tan is Associate Editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, acquiring books in the social sciences, in particular anthropology and politics. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Medieval Studies from UC Berkeley in 2019.

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