Editing and Revising Written Work: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Editing and Revising Written Work: How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

There are as many different approaches to revising and editing written work as there are writers. Everyone has their own approach. And, quite likely, different styles are more compatible with different fields of study. It does not matter what the approach is, but for maximum productivity and efficiency it is good to have a consistent process that you use for all written work. An organized process tends to lead to more creative outcomes.

Here is the description of my process as an illustration. This is certainly not the best method for everyone and I am always trying to improve it for me, but this is what I have now.

Before any process can take place, developing the goals for the process is important. Here are the primary goals of my writing process:

  • To be as efficient and rapid in the production of written material as possible
  • To be as clear and transparent as possible. An important part of transparent science is to have clear writing. And I know, but do not care, that jargon heavy articles have a higher probability of getting accepted in journals. I want to be clear always.
  • To establish a strong and compelling narrative. Even the most intensely data-driven scientific manuscript must have a well-developed narrative and tell the story completely.
  1. Concept Formation: The first phase is to link all the concepts involved in the paper and determine how they are connected. I tend to draw this out on paper and it usually looks like an incoherent mess of lines connecting circles with concepts written in. The purpose here is to identify the major concepts that are being communicated in the paper and determine the relationships among those concepts.
  2. Outline: The primary purpose of the outline is to sequence all the components of the concept formation. In Concept formation, many of the concepts have equal weight and are presented simultaneously. Obviously, writing must take place in sequential order. A detailed outline is helpful. I like to try to write the most detailed outline possible. In the best of all worlds, the outline includes all the headings (in APA style) and includes paragraphs. Sometimes it is difficult to include paragraphs in such a detailed outline, but the more detail in the outline the more quickly and efficiently the writing proceeds.
  3. Zero Draft: The goal of the zero draft is to have the entire text written out as quickly as possible. I dictate the zero draft using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Although it takes practice to be able to dictate in an efficient style consistent with written language, the speed of writing is a major advantage. I type at a pedestrian 55 words per minute, but can dictate at about 140 words a minute. I find that the speed results in improved quality of expression of the ideas for the zero draft. This draft is where the narrative becomes clearer and easier to evaluate. Anytime you end up deviating from the outline in the zero draft, it is important to check to ensure that you are describing the intended paper accurately. The primary purpose is to write as quickly as possible and put a little bit of muscle on the bones.
    1. Troubleshooting: If you become stuck in developing the zero draft, the first step is to write topic sentences for each paragraph. Usually that begins to make the writing flow. If I am really stuck, then I write the closing sentence for each paragraph as well.
    2. Advanced Troubleshooting: If the writing is still not flowing, then it is time to go back and revisit the concept formation and outline. A paper that is not flowing well typically has symptoms of a paper that is not well thought out.
  4. First Draft: This draft results in a fully formed document with all the pieces in place. after you are completed with this draft, it is acceptable to share with co-authors and colleagues without too much embarrassment. Each section should have a coherent beginning, middle, and end, the narrative needs to be well-developed, tables written, and rough figures installed. The first draft is also where I ensure that I am not saying anything outrageous and that all statements are supported by the extant literature or the data from the study. Humble conclusions are preferred to extreme conclusions that are mostly bullshit. This may be the most time-consuming element of the process.
  5. Paragraph Draft: Each paragraph is considered to ensure that there is a topic sentence, a closing sentence, and supporting sentences. Any citations that have not been included in previous drafts are installed here.
  6. Sentence Draft: This is a close-editing draft that considers grammar, word choice, and clarity of each sentence.
  7. Flow Draft: Most of the drafts consider the flow from section to section, paragraph to paragraph, and sentence to sentence. Usually the flow is fairly good by this stage and all of the words contribute to the narrative. But focusing on the support of the narrative by making all the transitions as smooth, clear, and productive as possible is the goal of this draft. This is typically the stage where words are cut. I find that the word count is typically reduced by about 10% during this draft as I remove all sentences and words that do not serve the flow of the narrative.
  8. Formatting: Most of the papers that I end up writing are written in APA style. As an editor, I find that about 80% of papers have significant and systematic deviations from APA style. Appropriate formatting is a marker of competence. It sends a message that care and effort were taken into the development of the document. This is where level of heading, tables and figures, title page formatting, and the other meticulous details are covered. It is also worth checking citation and reference format because there are frequent errors in the details of reference formatting in common reference management systems.
  9. One of the advantages of using Dragon is that you can have the program read back the document to you. Most translation software, Adobe, and other programs also have this capability. I find that typos, unclear sentences, and grammatical clunkers are more apparent when you listen to the text being read than when you read. It is a nice finishing pass on any project.

The type of writing also influences how much of this process is implemented. Grant proposals and refereed journal submission go through this entire process. Invited papers, book chapters, and books are edited professionally; but not quite as closely. This is because those works are not being evaluated initially and there is typically available copy editing. So the sentence draft and flow draft are usually undertaken very quickly. And products like blog posts usually only get a zero draft and a first draft before they are posted.

For the most part, the process is consistent. There are always challenges because writing is hard. Writing is extremely helpful to overall thinking. I have had a few papers that I thought were describing well-designed studies. However, once I got past the concept formation and outlining stage, I realize that I was fooling myself and the research was poorly designed. The clearest writing does not lie. You do not want to lie to your audience and you do not want to lie to yourself. A strong process with the goal of producing clear and productive scholarly output leads to improved quality and quantity of written documents.





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