Self-Revising on the Sea

December 20, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


I had the calming roar of the ocean all night, yet slept like crap. I think it’s from sleeping in a place that’s unfamiliar…also I stayed on Twitter a little too long before bad, which I try never to do. At any rate, I woke up feeling happy but practically jetlagged (haven’t been on a plane in weeks, btw). Gorgeous day. Did some Texas National Security Review editing work, then had a solid hour and a half of solitude to work on Chapter 3, plus a few minutes here and there throughout the day.

A #NukeYourDarlings well-wisher said he once wrote 80,000 words in less than three months, but then took a year and a half to revise it into something intelligible. That’s a problem, and underscores an important point — it’s not enough to get the words on paper. It’s a useful reminder that makes me wonder if only leaving a couple weeks at the end of this project for revisions is enough.

One tendency I have that might be different from others is that I generally try do self-revising as I go. It’s rare that I spend all day doing only one of the essential tasks of a book project — editing, researching, reading, and writing. I toggle through each of these pretty much every day, even if I focus more on one than the others. Sometimes, to ease the burden of writing, I’ll take a break from the act of raw creation to pound on the words I’ve already written, either by sculpting sentences here and there, or going fishing for research resources about the thing I’m editing.

I have around 13,000 words right now and, because of this iterative pounding I give my words as I write, I’d say they’re about 80 percent there. Some changes will be necessary but not an overhaul. I’m hoping that this saves me editing and revision time on the back end. Time will tell.

I managed 487 words today. The purpose of the current chapter is to convey how North Korea thinks about coercion (its “theory of victory”), the role it assigns to its nuclear arsenal, and the risks of war that arise specifically because of its nuclear weapons. But I have to do it in a way that’s accessible to people who aren’t nuclear scholars, and that still says something meaningful even to the Wizards of Armageddon. I’ve pretty much cornered the market on writing about North Korea’s theory of victory (offensive, reputational) in past work, but here I need to do so in a way that simplifies strategic studies jargon as much as possible.

I’m also struggling with how to explain North Korea’s nuclear strategy in a way that’s accurate, logical, and policy relevant. Not there yet. I am starting to wonder if the history of how North Korea got the bomb and its motivations for doing so should be packaged in this analytical chapter. Maybe the first half of the chapter should be history and motivations on North Korea going nuclear and the second half should cover North Korea’s theory of victory and risks of conflict.

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.

Image: Brocken Inaglory, CC