Writing is an essential part of working out your ideas. You do not really understand something until you are able to convey it to someone else. Moreover, you should not expect to work out your ideas in one attempt—everyone needs to revise!
In the first Draft
of a report or paper or in your preparatory notes you are inventing the problem and delineating the main points. You are getting your thoughts out so as to arrive at a working set of words. Once you have this much of a paper you can (re)organize those points, and, after (re)writing the paper, you can better identify the weaknesses in it.
Revision begins with a commitment to do more than make cosmetic changes
in wording and fine-tuning your word use. To this end, print out your Draft—that allows you to view it as a whole and have margins in which to experiment with new wording and orderings. More broadly, you have to allow yourself to re-envision
the paper. How well does each paragraph connect with the previous one and to the paper as a whole? If the answer is not very well, the Draft needs major restructuring. Try shifting sections around; incorporate new insights as they arise. Also ask yourself: Is what I have written true? Have I written about what I set out to write? If not, why not? Have I changed my mind? Re-envisioning requires some distance from your draft. Spend some hours or a day away from it, nominally doing something else but remaining preoccupied with your paper, letting it digest. Whenever and wherever the ideas come to you jot down notes so you can try them out when you return to your writing table.
Next, fill the holes
. What transitions and links are weak or missing? (Words such as “surely,” “it seems,” “logically,” and so on are common signs of connections that have not
been made.) Long sentences with many loosely linked ideas are cues that you need to divide the sentence and develop each idea separately. What are your blind spots? Are you avoiding admitting to yourself that you need to do more research? Think about the holes in your information and your argument: Can you fill them? Have you provided examples? Have you anticipated counter-arguments?
Perhaps you feel that you know the meaning of what you have written and there is nothing to change. If so, then read it to others (see Responses
). Do they follow what you mean? Frustratingly, they may not. You may even feel they are being thick or difficult in not understanding you. Perhaps they are. Nevertheless, if you clarify your writing so that thick and difficult readers can follow it, you will probably improve the reading experience for others who could already understand you.
Revision should be proactive
. Do not wait for your advisors to slog their way through a rough Draft and identify expository problems for you. To be proactive, ask yourself before starting each sentence, paragraph or section: What am I trying to say? What words or phrases express that idea best? After writing a paragraph or section, look back to check that it is about what you said it would be about.
Take responsibility for what you are saying. Check whether you are using a passive construction to avoid getting clear about what group or person your statement actually refers to. (The issue here is not to avoid the passive voice, which is useful for variety and can be less awkward at times. The issue is not to use it to avoid thinking through an issue.)
You should also be prepared to delete
as well as to add. It may be difficult to overcome your investment in what you have already written, but deletion is an important part of revision.
The aim of writing is not to explain everything for all time, but to achieve some temporary closure. If you cannot fill a hole at this point in time, make clear those places where you—or the field in general—need to do further work. In a few weeks or months you may know more, but the appropriate standard is whether you have finished with the paper for the moment.
After such self-scrutiny and revision you should know pretty well what it is you want to say. Fine-tuning of vocabulary
to achieve the desired connotations should then be much easier. Watch out for gobbledegook and jargon. Clean this out as much as possible and use plain English.
Finally, even when typing the final draft you should be thinking and not merely transcribing, remaining open to opportunities to rewrite and even restructure your paper so you are saying what you want to as well as you can.