WRITING VS. REVISING AND EDITING

 

“If you try to write and edit at the same time you will do neither well” (Sides, 1991).  If you have been writing for at least 90 minutes each day since the start of our break writing activities, you should have quite a bit written.

Soon you can stop writing and begin revising then editing what you’ve written. (I suggest not counting your revising and editing as writing, and on days you revise/edit, be sure to write at least 90 minutes on another chapter or section. Write at least 90 minutes each day, and it really will become a habit that you either won’t or can’t break. This is how prolific writers get it done. Not HOW much each day but definitely each day – write.)

How do you most effectively revise/edit? For me, I move myself from the writing mode at the computer by printing my written work, and then with a pencil, I begin to read and revise. I only start to revise and edit once the writing is complete. I never leave blank passages or incomplete paragraph. I put something there – even if it’s crappy – so I will have something to revise and edit.

What works for you? Perhaps you can revise/edit on the computer screen. It certainly saves paper. (My dissertation was pre-computer days and I typed it on a typewriter. And in my first days as a new assistant professor we hand-wrote our manuscripts and gave to the secretaries to type. When we wanted to make changes, we often determined how much to revise by whether we would need to re-type the entire manuscript or whether we could make the changes and re-type only that one page rather than subsequent pages.  I’m sure the final products suffered!) So my most effective way to edit and revise may be a throwback to how much we relied on paper in our writing and editing processes. I also think I edit this way because I like to see several pages – the entire manuscript if I need to – spread out before me as I consider whether to move entire paragraphs or pages within the manuscript. It’s also possible that I like to edit this way because this is also the way I like to read – the paper copy, the printed page. If you prefer reading journal articles, newspapers, and books on the screen, then you may prefer to edit on the screen, too.

There are at least four levels or types of revising/editing you should do:

(1) Examine your writing at a big-picture level – the thesis, conceptualization, persuasive arguments – that form the substance of your writing. This level examines both your thinking and your ability to convey your ideas. One effective strategy at this step is to set aside your manuscript or chapter and think about it as if you were just now starting to outline and write.  Because once you have completed this first draft of your chapter, you have more thoroughly thought through your work than at any time before. And the process of writing has caused you to think more deeply or differently about your work. So if you were just starting to write now, knowing what you do now, would you start with the same outline and structure your thoughts and arguments in the same way? Or now, once all your ideas are in words and sentences and paragraphs and sections and chapters, would you structure them differently? What new sections would you add? Which parts aren’t necessary to develop your argument and ideas? It’s now much easier to organize words and sentences and paragraphs than it was to organize your ideas to start writing. So do another outline and compare it to your original manuscript. If the outline is the same, then this confirms a good structure and organization to your work. If it’s different, then decide which is better. Move sections you’ve already written to fit the new, improved outline. This is a good way to think about the work in its entirety – the big-picture level.

(2) Examine your organization and transitions. Do you need to work on flow – is it logical to move from this section to that one to this one next? Would more headings or headings of various levels help with these transitions?

(3) Word craft your writing – an almost word by word examination of what you wrote: What’s the best word to use here? More adjectives? Fewer adjectives? Make the writing tighter. Stronger. You can show more confidence – or less confidence – in the argument and ideas by using the right words. Revise word by word at this level.

(4) Now read for typos and punctuation. Someone once suggested a very good way to do this last step: Read your manuscript backwards, word by word. So for the first edition of a textbook I wrote with a colleague, I read 1200 manuscript pages word by word backwards. When you’re not reading for understanding of the ideas and flow of the material, you can focus only on typos when you read a word at a time without its context. I don’t recommend this backward reading for everything you write as a graduate student or faculty member…just some things.

If you have never read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, I encourage you to do so. Who doesn’t recall their suggestion to make your writing more concise and stronger with the perfectly worded advice: “Omit needless words” (p. 23)? They also offer these tips:

·         Choose a suitable design and hold onto it.

·         Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

·         Use the active voice.

·         Put statements in positive form.

·         Use definite, specific, concrete examples.

·         Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

·         Express coordinated ideas in similar form.

·         Keep related words together.

·         In summaries, keep to one tense.

·         Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end (Strunk & White, 2000, pp. 15-33).

Excellent examples and explanations accompany these suggestions. It’s a quick read – 85 pages – and under $10 for the paperback. Keep and read this book every few years. (Another excellent book that offers similar writing suggestions is Roy Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. See his list of “50 tools not rules” Poytner.org.

How do you revise and edit most effectively? As you’ve no doubt discovered, there are no secrets or magical tricks to good writing. There are tips and strategies – but you have to determine what works for you. Then use those strategies…every day.

Clark, R. (2006). Writing tools: 50 essential strategies for every writer. New York: Little, Brown and Company. Retrieved on January 20, 2012, from Poytner.org.

Sides, C. (1991). How to write and present technical information.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Strunk, W., & White, E.B. (2000). The elements of style. New York; Longman.

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Some of the information in the BreakWriting postings is drawn from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please tell me so I can clarify and correct (Graduate Mentor).

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