Tag Archives: Revision

Best Laid Plans

I’ve talked a lot in this space about the importance of extensive revision. Today I’d like to go a bit deeper into one of the tensions that can emerge during that revision process. As I go through a piece of writing with a student, we often find significant discrepancies between the plan articulated at the outset and the subsequent text. Obviously, such discrepancies are common, especially if we are liberal in our use of explicit signposting in our early drafts. But this observation leads to an interesting question: when the plan and the actual text start to diverge, what should we do?

Let’s take a generic example. Imagine an introductory passage of this sort:

Our discussion of this issue will revolve around three key themes. We will begin by discussing X. This treatment of X will lead us into a consideration of the importance of Y. The obvious tension between X and Y will necessitate a discussion of a third theme, Z.

This piece of writing will now head into a discussion of X. Everything will run smoothly until X doesn’t in fact lead into a consideration of Y. Instead, it may lead into a discussion of W. This introduction of W then leads away from the notion of a tension between X and Y and necessitates a discussion of the way W and X affect of our central issue. Once editing begins, we’ll have to choose between our roadmap and our actual text.

Depending on the state of our editing abilities, we will either register this disjunction consciously or just feel a general discomfort with the text. If you tend to fall in the latter camp, try something like the reverse outline to help you figure out what might be triggering your discomfort.

Once you have sorted out that a discrepancy exists, the next step isn’t necessarily clear. Should the plan be changed to reflect the ideas that emerged through the writing or should the text itself be changed to reflect the original plan? Since each case will be different, I have no across-the-board answer to this question. However, I do think it is worth giving some thought to a general understanding of the way this tension manifests itself in our writing. For some writers, the writing itself is generally more significant than the plan. This emphasis on allowing ideas to emerge through writing is in line with my general emphasis on writing as a form of thinking. But there are some writers whose writing process simply takes them too far afield; given a free hand, these writers can end up so far from where they started that the text can no longer fulfil its intended function.

If you are such a writer, you  may wish to approach the reconciliation of plan and text somewhat differently. In fact, you may wish to take steps to avoid a dramatic discrepancy. One technique is to transform the original plan into a series of in-text directions to yourself. Once you have laid out that business about X, Y, and Z, write yourself a few brief sentences (or sub-heads) that will serve as a reminder to remain within certain parameters as you write. It isn’t that you shouldn’t stray, but if straying is your natural mode of writing, you may be struggling with scattered texts. If that is the case, it can be helpful to put  some tangible reminders of the original plan in place. In other words, take steps to make it harder for you to take unanticipated directions in your text.

The key here is coming to an understanding of your own writing practices: do your drafts naturally evolve beyond your early planning or do they need that early planning to keep them on track? Once you have a sense of that, you can decide how to position yourself in relation to the provisional plans that guide your early drafts.

Letting Go

In two different contexts recently, I had reason to discuss the challenge of deleting material from our own writing. In both cases, I noticed that students appeared to identify strongly with what I was saying: there was a great deal of nodding and grimacing. For lots of writers, writing is so hard that throwing away ‘perfectly good writing’—i.e., writing that is both finished and marginally coherent—is difficult to do. This attachment to our own writing often means that there are elements in a draft that are left in just because we can’t bear to part with them or can’t bear to see a document shrink instead of grow. But it can be very hard to take a draft to the next level when we haven’t expunged the parts that aren’t working. Editing, especially at the early stages, requires a great willingness to jettison material. However, if you found it hard to put the words on paper in the first place, deleting them can be genuinely painful.

One response to this pain—one that, admittedly, gets me some sceptical, easy-for-you-to-say looks from my students—is to think more broadly about the purposes of writing. We don’t write just to satisfy a certain word count or page limit: at a deeper level, we write to sort out what we need to say. That beautiful paragraph you agonized over may have been written for you, not for your reader: you needed to formulate those ideas in proper sentences to understand them properly but the reader may be satisfied with nothing more than a brief mention of what you sorted out. Accepting this broader purpose of writing can lessen our attachment to particular sentences and paragraphs.

If we do come to the realization that a certain passage is no longer serving a purpose in our text, we still need to decide what to do with it. The delete key is too extreme a response for most of us. It’s like a game of Love It or Hate It: faced with a stark binary choice, many of us choose to ‘love’ our first drafts. My solution is to create a place to put all the things that I am not sure of, a place where I can save bits of text that have outlived their usefulness. Saving them means that I might have the chance to use them in some other context. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve ever gone back to these old writing fragments, but knowing that they are there gives me to the courage to be a more ruthless editor. Having a good system for managing subsequent drafts is also a good way of increasing your editorial resolve (the ProfHacker blog has a great post on version control that may help you with this). In the end, your writing will thank you for developing the habit of letting go.

This ability to let go can also help with writing efficiency. If we are somewhat steely during our early structural edits—if you don’t know how to start that process, try a reverse outline—we can avoid unnecessary fine editing of material that we might have to remove later. Indeed, the sunk cost of premature fine editing is one of the things that causes us to hang on to text that we no longer need. Having devoted time to improving a particular passage, rather than to thinking about how it serves the broader text, we can find ourselves unwilling to remove that passage.

In sum, remaining alert to the potential benefits of removing passages from our texts can help us to avoid wasted editorial efforts and can leave us with a document that is ultimately stronger and more cohesive. Finally, this brief post from the GradHacker blog talks in a similar vein about the need to delete the stuff that isn’t working for us.

Links: Punctuating, Footnoting, Trying

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Here is something from the Wall Street Journal on the future of punctuation. In this article, Henry Hitchings argues that punctuation usage has never been stable; to my way of thinking, such historical perspective is always more useful than lamentations for a prelapsarian state of linguistic consistency. But what I was particularly interested in was his suggestion that the current trend in punctuation is toward the representation of spoken English. He uses the dash as the ultimate grammatical expression of the way spoken sentences flow into one another. The semicolon, by contrast, isn’t something that we can render in speech: it is entirely an aspect of writing. If you do not regularly use the semicolon, consider whether this has anything to do with the way that you punctuate your sentences according to the patterns of spoken language. (On a related note, here is something fun from The New Yorker’s book blog on the interrobang and other non-standard punctuation marks.)

Here is something from Alexandra Horowitz in the New York Times on the future of the footnote. Horowitz concludes with the following spirited defense of digression: “Surely the purpose of a book is not to present a methodically linear narrative, never wavering from its course, with no superfluous commentary set off by commas. In my mind, footnotes are simply another punctuative style: a subspecies of parenthesis that tells the reader: ‘I’ve got something else here you might like! (Read it later.)’ What better thing? You get to follow the slipstreams in the author’s thinking at your own leisure.” What is fascinating to me is her matter-of-fact tone. She doesn’t appear to think that what she is saying could be considered controversial; instead she throws out the whole idea of linearity with an apparent lack of compunction. A footnote becomes another species of punctuation, another way of indicating that we have things to say that cannot be expected to fit into a linear narrative. Despite my background in academic philosophy—where the footnote is treated with the greatest respect—I was still surprised to hear such a wholehearted abandonment of linearity. (This is an important issue for me since ‘methodically linear’ may very well be what gets written on my tombstone.) Not that I am arguing against the footnote, of course, but I am suggesting that writers have to be responsible for the effect that their interruptions may have on the reader. We all need to develop an awareness of how others may read us in order to make useful decisions about how to interrupt ourselves, be it with parentheses, commas, dashes, or even footnotes.

Lastly, here is something from The Writing Resource blog on the use of ‘try and’; in this post, Erin Brenner gives a good historical and stylistic explanation, concluding that this usage is fine. I found this helpful since I’ve always wondered if the formulation was unacceptably colloquial. The Professor is In blog recently spoke about a related topic, characterizing the use of ‘try’ as an excess of academic caution. That caution, as we all know, is something that can be particularly strong in graduate students. I think there is also a simpler explanation for the use of ‘try’: we use the language of anticipation early in the writing process. When we are drafting a paper, it is easy to write, ‘In this paper, I try to show …’. For most of us, it is harder to write in a first draft, ‘In this paper, I show …’. By the end, however, we have inevitably shown something, even if not exactly the thing we had ‘tried’ to show. We ultimately need to remove the language that indicates an aspirational state of mind. There are places in which the language of ‘trying’ is perfectly accurate, of course, but it is still a good idea to watch for unnecessary uses of this formulation. Since this turn of phrase so often reflects our state of mind as we begin a piece of writing, it can often be removed once we have actually done what we set out to do. By making that change, we offer the reader the most developed version of our prose rather than an earlier, more provisional version.

Links: Editing Yourself, Blogging Your Reflections, Dancing Your PhD

Here is some advice from a professional editor about the types of editing we should be doing for ourselves. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s new writing blog, Lingua Franca, Carol Saller offers some tips for self-editing (my approach to this topic can be found here). I particularly liked her reminder that we do a lot of damage through editing itself. Not that we shouldn’t edit—obviously!—but we should be aware that we create a different class of errors through editing than we do through writing. We need to know what our typical writing errors are, but we also need to be aware of the sort of problems we may be inadvertently creating when ostensibly improving our writing through editing. Saller mentions the various ‘cut and paste’ errors that result from moving text around (for instance, repetition and non sequiturs). I would add two more. At the sentence level, be very careful with forms of agreement—for instance, subject and verb or noun and pronoun—when making changes. At a broader level, make sure that all changes are reflected in the language that we use to refer to our own text; for instance, if we decide to reorder a set of points, we must be sure to go back and change the sentence where those points were first introduced. In general, we need to think—especially in late-stage editing—about all the connections that exist in our text. Some sentences stand alone and can be changed solely according to their own demands. But many more sentences stand in relation to others; in those cases, we must be cognizant of how local changes can have a broader impact.

Writing in The University of Venus blog, Lee Skallerup Bessette recently offered her thoughts on the formal demands of a blog post. She offers an interesting breakdown of the general types of academic blog posts and then defends the value of posts that are reflective rather than definitive.

The fourth annual Dance Your PhD contest is coming to a close. I believe the winner will be announced today! If you have never watched these wonderful (and wonderfully odd) videos, you are in for a treat. I’m amazed every year at how they manage to illustrate complex scientific concepts in manner both effervescent and earnest.

Finally, we have reached another day of note. A few weeks ago, you may recall, I looked into the phenomenon of national days of any-old-thing. But today is different: it is the official National Day on Writing. It’s official because the United States Senate passed Resolution S.298 saying so. I hope you won’t let this special day go by without some quiet time alone with your thoughts and a writing instrument of some kind!

Links: Drafts and Formatting, Teaching and Productivity, Writing and Relativism

Here is something from the new Lingua Franca blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education on excessive formatting in manuscripts. The author, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, is making an important point about manuscripts: editors don’t want complex formatting. All that formatting just has to be stripped out, a process which is time-consuming and which can, potentially, lead to inadvertent changes to the material. As a writing instructor, my interest—as I have mentioned before—is keeping drafts free of fancy formatting and thus keeping them easy to revise. As I write this, I realize that enthusiastic formatting may be more than just a random phenomenon, at least in my writing process. I’m pretty sure I turn to formatting for comfort when writing is going badly; the less confidence I have in what I am writing, the more likely I am to start messing around with fonts and footers and subheads. That way, even if my work sounds terrible, at least it will look like a real paper. Needless to say, this is a counterproductive strategy. Not only does the premature formatting add nothing, it may well act as an impediment to digging into a draft and making substantive changes.

Here is a report from Newswise on some new research on STEM students who supplement research with teaching. The research suggests that time spent teaching may actually improve students’ abilities “to generate testable hypotheses and design experiments around those hypotheses”. The researchers suggest that this improvement may simply come from the process of explaining complex issues to students and from having to look at research problems from multiple perspectives. The findings make intuitive sense, so it is interesting that teaching and other activities are so often seen as distractions for graduate students rather than as valuable professional development.

Finally, here are some remarks from William Zinsser on the cultural dimensions of learning to write in English. His audience is journalism students, but the ideas may also be of interest to academic writers more generally. Most multilingual graduate students will benefit from having a good working understanding of how academic writing in English may differ from academic writing in their other language(s). Of course, no writing teacher will want to reify the cultural differences in academic writing. But students themselves—through alert reading and sensitive comparisons—can come to a valuable understanding of different practices of academic writing. I think that some relativism about ‘good academic writing’ is of value to students who may otherwise feel that there are universal standards of academic writing that are simply oblique to them.

Bad News, Good News

During one-on-one writing consultations, I often find myself using the following phrase with students: ‘bad news, good news’. Of course, it is more natural to say ‘good news, bad news’, but I like to start with the bad news. I don’t do so to be discouraging, but rather to emphasize that the first impression given by their writing is problematic. Real readers—the ones who read your writing out of inclination rather than obligation—won’t necessarily last long enough to discover the good news: the ‘bad news’ is often what readers notice first. Novice writers who are accustomed to the dynamics of undergraduate writing may imagine that readers are routinely willing and able to distinguish valuable content from difficult writing. It’s true that some readers—particularly the ones who are paid to read your writing—will work through the hard parts to get to the interesting ideas. But we get fewer and fewer of those readers as we move through our careers, and, increasingly, we must submit our writing (to grant competitions or for publication or in support of job applications) to people who are not obliged to read our writing and who may in fact be looking for weaknesses as a way to differentiate among many qualified applicants. All of which is to say, first impressions matter.

First impressions can be influenced by simple things such as standard spelling, grammar, font, formatting, etc. But first impressions can also be influenced by a confusing structure. In such cases, I often write things like ‘transition?’ or ‘placement?’ in the margins. Those queries are then expanded in person: ‘Do you think this is what your reader is expecting you to discuss here?’. Since the message usually sounds a bit dire (‘as it stands, this piece of writing is pretty hard to understand’), I like to follow it up with the good news. The good news is that structural problems are often curable, especially if diagnosed in time. I mention time because structural decisions do become harder to reverse the longer they are allowed to stand. By curable I mean that fixing structural problems won’t necessarily require the hard work of rewriting every sentence. Some sentence-level work will inevitably be necessary at some point, but improving placement and transitions, even without that sentence-level work, can make a huge difference to your writing.

So what does this mean to you at home, where there is nobody to offer you these diagnoses? It means that reverse outlines should always be an early part of your revision process; I find them an invaluable way to transition from the drafting to the revision stage, but others may find this strategy to be helpful at various points in the writing process. It also means maintaining a strong sense of efficacy when confronted by real structural problems early in a draft. When editing yourself, use good editing strategies so that your ‘bad news’ isn’t just an inchoate sense that a piece of writing isn’t any good. By forcing yourself to engage in large-scale structural edits (rather than just playing around with individual sentences), you will see that much of your writing can be saved. Figuring out how to use what you’ve got to achieve your goals and meet your reader’s expectations means that you will be making real progress while still evaluating your existing draft with a necessarily stern eye.

Structural Lists

This post will be the last one for a few weeks. Explorations of Style will return in the first week or two of August. If you have any ideas for topics that you would like to see addressed in future posts, please feel free to leave your questions in the comments below. Have a great summer!

If you can stand it, I am going to talk about using lists one more time. (Then I’m going to stop before I have to relaunch this blog as Explorations of Lists.) As I said in the first post on lists, they are an inevitable by-product of the complexity of academic material. Consider this example, which we have seen before, of a simple list:

Today’s educational leaders must  face increasing demands for public accountability, work long hours to improve student achievement, provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

After reading that passage, my expectation would be that these seven points will not be important in what follows. That is, the author wanted the audience to know a bunch of things about educational leaders but isn’t planning to devote any more time to those individual points. You can easily imagine that the next sentence would build on the overall point of the previous one without dealing in the specifics (for example, ‘Given the complexity of this role, educational leaders often …’).

Lists, however, aren’t just ways of describing detailed material. They can also be ways of structuring our writing. That is, lists can do more than just list stuff; lists can also establish crucial information that will be used to structure later parts of the text. The key to these ‘structural lists’ is that the reader is getting useful guidance on how to read the text. Contrast these four (deliberately simplified) lists:

Blood is composed of erythrocytes, leucocytes, and blood platelets.
Blood is composed of three types of cells: erythrocytes, leucocytes, and blood platelets.
Blood is composed of three types of cells: one, erythrocytes; two, leucocytes; and, three, blood platelets.
This section discusses the three types of blood cells: one, erythrocytes; two, leucocytes; and, three, blood platelets.
In the first sentence, we see simple information about blood composition. We can’t tell, from this sentence alone, whether this is a passing reference or whether we are likely to hear more about these three components of blood. The second sentence places more emphasis on the fact that there are three types of cells; even if we don’t hear much more about each individual type, we may see further discussion of the fact that a tripartite division exists. The third sentence–with its use of numbering–is telling the reader to pay particular attention to these three things. If they are not discussed in what follows or if they are discussed in a different order, the reader will be disappointed. Incidentally, this sentence structure would also easily accommodate additional information; for instance, it would be easy to provide a definition, explanation, or example of each type. The fourth example goes beyond an implicit indication of the importance of the division; its use of metadiscourse tells the reader explicitly that this division into three types of cells will be used to organize the rest of the section. Generally, sentences like the fourth one are written retrospectively, during the editing process; when we are creating a first draft, we frequently discuss a series of things without necessarily grasping the internal structure. Once we start to revise and thus begin to perceive (or develop) that internal structure, we can add in useful structural lists that tell the reader what to expect.
Let me end by addressing one question that often arises in this context. Once you have created a structural list, you must be careful about creating sub-lists. In other words, once you have said that three things are coming, you must be very clear about any subsequent use of numbering. If the individual items on your first list can themselves be broken down into a number of parts, your readers need to be able to understand at all times which list they are in the midst of. Consider this generic example:
This issue has three key elements: X, Y, and Z. We will begin with a discussion of X. Scholarly research into X usually takes three distinct forms. First, X is seen as …. Second, X is seen as …. Third, X is seen as …. The second element of this issue is Y.
In this example, the final sentence is designed to tell readers that they are back in the main list. If, instead, this last sentence had begun with a ‘second’, it would have followed awkwardly on from the ‘third’ that immediately preceded it. In my experience, however, it is common for writers to neglect to tell readers whether they are reading an element of the broader list or a subpart of one of those elements of the broader list. Since creating lists, as I keep saying, is an inevitable and valuable feature of academic writing, we all need to be sure that we are making the divisions and subdivisions in our writing crystal clear to our readers.

Lists: Backwards and Forwards

The last post was about writing effective lists. In that post, I talked about two important aspects of lists. At the simplest level, we should be able to use parallelism to make sure our lists are easy to read. At a more sophisticated level, we should be able to look at our own lists analytically to see if we can deepen our understanding of the ideas we are trying to convey. Apparently, I have a lot to say about lists since I now realize that I have two more points I wish to make. Today I would like to discuss the first of those points: how to improve ‘backwards’ lists. These are lists that list first and explain themselves last. Here is an example:

Effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support were all issues identified by the focus group.

As a reader, you aren’t aware that you are reading a list of issues until you get close to the end. At that point, you might have to double back to fully grasp the sentence. Or you might even have had trouble the first time through since the structure of the sentence isn’t self-evident. Here is a revision:

The focus group identified three issues: effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support.

This simple revision—and certainly more could be done to improve this sentence—has two obvious benefits. One, it starts with a clear subject and a strong verb (‘The focus group identified’), and, two, it notifies the reader that a list is coming. It is valuable to have a strategy for dealing with backwards lists because they are a natural reflection of how we think; we often figure out what the ‘issues’ themselves are before we know to characterize them as issues. It seems plausible to me that we will write ‘x, y, and z all matter in some way’ before we can write ‘the significant issues are x, y, and z’.  We just need to remember to switch these backwards lists around; once they have done their initial work in allowing us to understand the list we are trying to construct, we can rework them in a way that suits the needs of the reader.

This strategy is also helpful in dealing with transitions between sentences. If you find yourself using a lot of additive transition words (for instance, ‘also’, ‘in addition’, ‘moreover’), it may be helpful to go back and see how the various points relate to one another. When we analyze the internal relationships in our writing, we will find many different sorts of relationships, most of which will benefit from being made more explicit. One of those relationships could be that of a list. Since I don’t have room here for an elaborate example, let’s look at a version of the sentence we used last week:

Today’s educational leaders must provide instructional leadership. In addition, they must demonstrate moral leadership and support their staff. Long hours on the part of educators are necessary to improve student achievement. Also, they must exercise fiscal prudence.

A quick analysis of this passage would show the writer that these four sentences all concern things an educational leader must do. It would then be easy to reword to reflect that commonality:

Today’s educational leaders have multiple responsibilities: providing instructional leadership, demonstrating moral leadership, exercising fiscal prudence, supporting their staff, and working long hours to improve student achievement.

While this example was simple (and slightly exaggerated for effect), it does show how implicit lists can be identified in our writing after the fact. Once we have so identified them, we can turn them into explicit lists. And an explicit list is, of course, a list that the reader experiences ‘forwards’: first the announcement of the list and then the list items themselves.

The final point I want to make about lists—how we can use them to guide the reader through our text—is too long to tackle in this post. So come back next time when I’ll talk about how the internal organization of a list communicates structural information to the reader.

Writing Effective Lists

At this time of year, I spend a lot of time meeting with students. In the next few blog posts, I plan to address some of the issues that come up over and over again in these sessions. I will start by talking about lists. I did discuss lists briefly in an earlier post on colons, but now I can treat the topic more fully. At the most basic level, lists are important because academic writing is full of them. But they aren’t just prevalent, they are also significant because they are used to convey both content and structural information. Here is an example to consider:

Today’s educational leaders face increasing demands for public accountability, working long hours to improve student achievement, providing instructional leadership, demonstrating moral leadership, exercising fiscal prudence, supporting their staff, and need to navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

The first step is to identify the shared root of the list, the part that must work with each list item. In this case, the shared part of the sentence is ‘Today’s educational leaders face …’.

Today’s educational leaders face (1) increasing demands for public accountability, (2) working long hours to improve student achievement, (3) providing instructional leadership, (4) demonstrating moral leadership, (5) exercising fiscal prudence, (6) supporting their staff, and (7) need to navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

The first thing we see is that educational leaders face increasing demands. So far, so good. But do they also face working, providing, demonstrating, exercising, and supporting? Probably not. There is nothing grammatically incorrect about those formulations, but they are awkward and presumably not exactly what the author intended. The final item is, in fact, grammatically incorrect. We cannot say ‘Today’s educational leaders face need to …’. And changing the final phrase from ‘need to navigate’ to ‘navigating’ would give us parallelism but would not solve the broader problem with the list.

The simplest solution will come from looking at the list items to see what they all have in common; we can readily see that each list item is something that educational leaders must do. By choosing a more general verb for the shared part of the list, we will then be able to accommodate a wider assortment of terms in our list. Here is a new version of our sentence:

Today’s educational leaders must  face increasing demands for public accountability, work long hours to improve student achievement, provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

This sentence is fine, but there may be more we can do. When analyzing list items, we need to consider that establishing parallelism may not be enough; we also need to consider that the ideas themselves may not actually be parallel. In this sentence, I would be inclined to separate out the things that educational leaders must do from the things that make those tasks even more challenging. We might say something like this:

Today’s educational leaders must provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and work long hours to improve student achievement. These responsibilities are further complicated by low teacher morale, a litigious environment, and increasing demands for public accountability.

By breaking up a list and grouping similar items together, we can often get more clarity about what we are trying to say. During the drafting process, it is easy to create lists out of what are actually dissimilar items; during the revision process, we can take another look and reorganize the list according to an enhanced understanding of our own communicative aims. (Note that in these two lists, I have placed the most complex list item last; lists are easier to read when the most grammatically complex items are put at the end of the list.)

A second issue with lists–one which we will have to look at in the next post–is the purpose of the list within a text. The example that we have been looking at today provides a bunch of information quickly. The sentence sounds as though the author simply needed to provide some necessary background without wanting to engage in any further discussion of these points. After reading this sentence, my expectation would be that these particular points would not be important in the rest of the text. Next week we will look at the way we use lists to accomplish a very different task: to anticipate and announce the structure of our texts.

Remembering to Edit

The hardest thing about editing may be that we often forget to do it. Not in an ‘oh no, I forgot to edit my paper and went to the mall instead’ way, but in an ‘oh no, I read the whole paper but stopped editing on the middle of page two’ way. Our own writing is notoriously difficult to edit. We are so familiar with our ideas and our choice of words, and familiarity often lulls us into an easy reading rhythm that isn’t sufficiently attuned to the editing task. However, if we have accepted that we must commit to extensive revision, we need ways to overcome these natural difficulties. Here are some editing strategies that help us to edit and not just read:

  1. Let time elapse.The most obvious technique will be to leave time before editing a draft. Your own work is the hardest to edit, of course, because you know what you are trying to say. Professional or peer editors can be guided to some extent by their own confusion. You have to devise ways of making sure that you are seeing the work from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with your project. Letting time elapse is the surest way of accomplishing this goal. When I discuss this strategy in class, students often appear highly sceptical, even amused. While they don’t usually say much, I imagine them to be thinking, ‘Sure, this sounds great and I know that I should be doing this, but I’m not and I never will, so what else you got?’. I do persevere with this pie-in-the-sky advice because it does actually become more realistic as graduate study progresses; during the thesis writing process, ‘letting time elapse’ is inevitable for even the most last-minute person. As you move ahead with later chapters, make sure you go back and work through earlier material with fresh eyes and without a looming deadline. But since we often do edit under time pressure, here are some other strategies that will work even when time is tight.
  2. Read your work aloud. Since your work will sound foreign to you as it is read aloud, this practice will help you to cultivate a different sort of awareness of your own writing.
  3. Read paragraphs out of order. This practice will help to prevent you from neglecting the writing itself in favour of focusing on the underlying ideas. Looking at paragraphs in isolation can also help focus your attention on paragraph cohesion.
  4. Stop at the end of each paragraph. By stopping at the end of each paragraph, you can confirm for yourself that you have actually edited that paragraph.
  5. Edit in stages. It is very difficult to edit with more than one problem in mind. Plan to edit your document a number of times, targeting specific issues each time. Choose a logical order, starting with the broadest issues and moving to finer issues.

Do you have other ways of concentrating your mind on the editing task? Feel free to share your successful editing strategies in the comments below.