Write with the plan for heavy editing
I distinctly remember receiving comments back from my advisor on the very first draft of my first PhD manuscript, and being a bit shocked at how many comments/edits there were (I think that I even emailed him a link to this excellent PhD comic). I often think about this when I find myself making many comments or edits on the drafts of students and colleagues. But, as I’ve grown in experience with the writing process, I’ve also come to embrace this heavy editing process (including in my own drafts) because I know that the resulting edits are better than what I could have written by myself as a first draft. As a result, I have found that already planning for major edits when forming the first draft of a text can substantially improve my whole writing experience. Not only does it open my mind to edits that ultimately will improve the final text, but having the editing process in mind can also make the whole writing process much less stressful. Here are some reasons why:
Don’t get hung up on small details: Some writers I know can agonise for hours or days over single sentences. Planning ahead for major edits can help to let go of small details in favour of moving onto the next steps. This can help save time, and thereby provide more time for later edits. Because most sentences will be worked over several times, and some maybe even cut altogether, it’s often best to try to just accept that it is what it is, and move on (for now).
Keep the big-picture flow in mind: As part of maintaining clarity across scales of writing, it’s important that sentences flow freely from one to the next, contributing to a paragraph that builds on the previous and flows into the next, and so on. When writing an initial draft, it is often best to try and position the right pieces in the right place. Focusing on writing a perfect sentence can take all of one’s attention away from focusing on what the sentence should actually achieve. Start by working on sentences in terms of what they’re supposed to “do” in plain language, as it’s easier to build a flow of ideas when not worrying about getting the lofty technical language just right. It’s always easier to put the fine detail back in, or make really nice sentences‚ once the ideas flow together.
Start with correct statements: Part of making writing readable is succinctness. However, long sentences can be hard to avoid if they require multiple parts to make a point, and writing succinctly risks writing sentences that do not conveying the correct information. I’ve found it helpful by first writing out a statement correctly—even if it forms a very long sentence—is really critical to clear writing. From there, it can later be edited for readability, taking the time to ensure that the message isn’t lost in the edits. For example, consider if a sentence that contains multiple mid-sentence citations can be split into separate sentences, or would that lose the overall message being conveyed.
Embrace the red pen
Receiving a heavily-edited manuscript can stimulate feelings of failure. I’m sure we’ve all had thoughts such as ‘my supervisor thinks I’m a rubbish scientist’. Having been on the other side for a while now, trust me: receiving a heavily-edited manuscript is not a signal of the quality of the original writing. Rather, it means that the person who edited it is invested in the work, so there must be plenty of good there. Seeing the improvements others makes to a piece of text can also give the impression that you’ll never be able to write as well as everyone else. This last point, especially, warrants some dissection. First, we often send work to be edited by people who we think are good writers, so we expect them to improve the writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is substantially easier to write well from existing text than by starting from scratch. Producing great writing is easy when we have a good platform to start from. There are few reasons for this: (i) It is easier to see where weaknesses exist, so that by editing we’re by-definition producing stronger text; and (ii) there is less of the psychological barrier that comes with getting words onto paper, so actually more of the raw time spent ‘writing’ is being effectively being used towards conveying meaning well. Finally, for many (myself included), the best way to learn scientific writing is to go through the iterative process of refining text with skilled writers.
Start writing early
One pattern that I’ve found matches quite strongly with academic output is when researchers start writing. As I noted in post II from this series, a good way to become a better writer is to start putting together the logical pieces for the manuscript early. What I often did in my PhD and postdoc is to write a first draft of the introduction before I’ve started the research (sometimes even before collecting the data). What this achieved was make sure that all the ideas were logically in place in my mind. As a result, this clarified both the design of the study and whether it was worthwhile going ahead with it in the first place. While not all of the introductions turned into papers, I didn’t see this as a waste of time—rather the practice made me a better writer.
Writing also helps reveal gaps, making writing early particularly beneficial. Identifying a gap while data collection is still ongoing is much better than discovering one as the paper is just about to be submitted. One example of this is a paper that a PhD student in my group (Danai) recently published. We first identified an interesting pattern in the behaviour of groups very early in the data collection. After the first field season, in early 2017, we had sufficient data to start doing some coarse statistical tests. We knew it would be important to go back to the field to collect more data, but as the results were looking promising, I encouraged Danai to start drafting a manuscript based on what she’d observed. After the next field trip, she updated the manuscript with the new data she’d collected. Each time, working on the manuscript highlighted some important gaps that hadn’t previously been obvious to us. One gap—describing the social system of our study species—even resulted in us putting together a completely different paper before we could publish the one we were working on. Others represented simple data to collect that we hadn’t thought of but that would answer some obvious questions brought up by an interested reader. Eventually, numerous trips to the field later, and more than 2.5 years after the first draft, the manuscript was ready to be submitted. The reward was a paper that the reviewers enjoyed reading and which, as a result, went smoothly through the review process (in fact it got minor revisions first time).
Another major advantage of writing early is that it allows some breaks away from the manuscript. In Danai’s example, she had entire field seasons to focus on other things. These gaps allow us to return to the manuscript feeling enthusiastic and with what we call ‘a fresh pair of eyes’. Fresh eyes allowed us to read the entire manuscript without necessarily remembering all of the finer details, thereby helping with focusing on the bigger scales (i.e. the overall flow). It also achieves some other things—often when we write we become attached to particular words, sentences, paragraphs, or even entire sections of our text. Taking time away to focus on other things can bring some perspective when returning to these sections, and make it easier to let go of clunky or unnecessary passages. (The same is true when writing with the mindset that the words will later be edited).
Save time and be more productive
The main prerequisite to publishing (given a set of results or an idea is available) is to have a complete manuscript. Getting the words onto paper fast, no matter how rough those words are, should ultimately save time in the publication process, thereby increasing overall productivity. There are plenty of ideas out there on how to help with this, including writing a paragraph per day every day or writing papers while the study is still ongoing (see above). Paragraphs can even start as bullet points that are shared with co-authors for initial discussion. The sooner the main ideas are down on paper, the sooner the writing process can switch from writing to editing. If the text is pretty rough, maybe try and work through it a few times before sending it to others for comments. There are also strategies for editing effectively. Perhaps the most important is to edit with a particular scale in mind—edit the text for grammar or for the narrative, but not for both at the same time. In my group, we use several strategies during the editing process that I think are particularly effective, and I’ll cover these in the following two posts.