This is a dressmaking analogy. When you are cutting and fitting the pieces of fabric together to make a garment, you use a lot of dressmakers pins. Pins help you fit things, connect pieces, make sure you don’t lose anything before you sew it all up. Pins are amazingly versatile and useful. The pins work together with other temporary strategies to help you construct your garment, cut out paper patterns, tailor’s chalk, basting (long loose temporary stitching to hold pieces together). After you have completed the sewing however, you need to take the pins out. You don’t want a garment that is covered in chalk lines, loose threads and bits of crinkling paper. Leaving the pins in would make the dress stiff, and it would catch on other fabric as you try to move around. It might even prick the wearer.
Taking the pins out is a boring stage of the process for me. I’ve finished making the garment, which can take weeks of work, and I’m excited to finally move on to wearing the clothes. Instead, I need to sit down and carefully, consciously, steadily remove each pin, and then put the pin away in its box. It’s slow, and it feels like I’m undoing all the careful work I put in to pin each piece correctly. But I also know it needs to be done. Finding a hidden pin you forgot to remove when trying on clothes is a very unpleasant experience I don’t want to repeat!
Okay, so how does this relate to writing?
This week I’ve been reading over the final version of a 100,000 word academic monograph my co-author and I have been putting together for nearly a decade. It combines four, already published, journal articles, and new material. Some of the article chapters have new material interpolated in. Some of the new chapters were half written by one author and half written by another.
This means that the chapters include a lot of ‘pins’–phrases that help us keep the chapters connected to one another and to our main argument while we are still constructing the book. ‘As we argued in the previous section’ or ‘see Chapter 2 for more on this’ are pins that hold different parts of the book together.
We also have individual adjectives that we reuse over and over again that help us orient our discussion, words like ‘new’, or ‘collaborative’ or ‘accessible’. These can turn up three or four times in a particularly complex paragraph, to make sure it stays on message, and identifying what material is relevant and what is a diversion that can be cut.
As I say over and over again, you only need to signpost if your writing is changing direction or coming to a stop. While you are writing a book, there are a thousand places where you are making decisions: does this section go here or there? do we pursue this line of argument or that? If you are writing with another author, or even collaborating with your future self, it can be very helpful to have these little signposts, as they come in and make their own micro-decisions about how each sentence and paragraph will come together and fit into the whole project.
However, at the end of the project, the decisions have been made. The writing is done. The argument is established. The reader is not writing the book with you, they just need to follow along. Because the authors have already placed this word before that, this paragraph and then the next in order, there is less scope for wandering off track.
So that’s when you might realise that you have signposted every sentence in a paragraph with a little reminder to ‘keep going forward for 400 metres’, ‘keep going forward for 400 metres’. That’s when you know it’s not a signpost, it’s a pin, and the reading experience will be much smoother if you take them out.
In one or two places, these temporary pins are actually essential signposts, and then they should be replaced by permanent stitching: a connecting sentence, key word, or restatement of the argument is a great idea at the beginning and end of each section, for example.
But the rest of them? They are just pins, and it’s time to go slowly and carefully through the text, finding the pins, steadily taking them out, and putting them away in the pin box. They are useful tools, and I’ll find a way to use them again next time I am drafting and redrafting a book project.
With the pins out, the text can finally move. It’s ready for the next steps. Most handmade clothes need washing and ironing before they can be worn out into the world, and most books need multiple steps through the publication process before they can be used by readers. But taking the pins out means the book is nearly ready to send to its first readers, the editors and reviewers, and that’s an exciting achievement!
Once upon a time, authors used pins to attach slips of paper to their manuscripts as a way of editing their work, before computers were a thing. The idea of pins to structure your writing is therefore both metaphorical and literal.