Some years ago I attended a workshop on academic writing at the University of Edinburgh. To be honest with you, I do not remember much about it. But at some point the instructor said something that really resonated with me.
She said that writing happens in two main stages – drafting and editing – and that it is imperative that one should approach each separately.
Now, this may sound pretty obvious to you, but for me it was a revelation. I had never realized the importance of such a distinction, even though – with hindsight – this is exactly what my PhD supervisor used to do every time we were writing something together.
In truth, writing has never come easily to me. Being a perfectionist, I would like to produce the perfect draft in one go. Sadly, this is the worse possible recipe for major frustration. So, over the years, I have had to remind myself about keeping the two stages separate.
So, how does it work? and why can this improve your writing?
Here is the answer.
In the drafting stage, all you have to do is to fix concepts to the paper. Put down your thoughts, ideas, and key concepts. Do not worry about their proper layout or whether something should actually come before or after. Do not bother too much about style. In fact, do not even worry about grammar, or punctuation. Make sure you draft something as quickly as possible, almost without interrupting the flow of thoughts in your mind.
At this stage, your main focus should remain on the message you want to convey. To use the analogy with cookery from my previous post, this is when you mix all your ingredients together (it is not the time to put the decoration on your cake!).
Then, once you feel you have committed most of your content to the page, move away from your piece. Literally. Save it and store it. Hide your printout in a drawer and forget about it for a day or two.
When the time has passed, retrieve your script and critically review what you have written. This is the editing stage. Here – first and foremost – remember that “the structure is king”. Make sure that the content flows in the right logical order and strive for clarity.
This is often achieved by going from the general to the specific. At this point, you can still retain most of what you have written in its original form (again no worries about style, grammar, or punctuation. Yet!). If you need to re-arrange any material, just cut and paste entire blocks of text until you are satisfied that the order in which they appear makes sense.
Now, you can proceed to the next level down: editing individual sections, paragraphs, and sentences. This is the time to experiment with better ways of expressing a concept; refining the language; getting rid of the clutter. Probably, you will need to iterate this process a number of times before producing a text that flows and is stylistically pleasing to the reader.
Some people find editing boring, but in fact this is where elegant writing is crafted. It is in the final polishing of style that mastery is achieved. Keep this in mind and you may find editing a very rewarding aspect of your writing.
So, why do you need to keep the two stages separate? Well, if you are anything like me, chances are you will start writing something (just a sentence or two), read it, realize you do not like it, and start it all over again.
Some people call it zig-zag writing: going back and forth on the same line without actually achieving much. It is a surefire way to spend hours after hours trying to compose something, only to realize that the page is still mostly blank at the end of the day. Frustrating, isn’t it?
So then, every time you sit down to write up, resist the temptation to achieve something good the first time round. And remember: (almost) anything you read that has been published will have undergone far more editing and polishing that the authors themselves are willing to admit. And most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself expecting your first draft to be the polished final one.
Mastering good academic writing takes time. And effort.
The good news?
It can be learned.
PS Want to find out more about ways to improve your writing? I am preparing an on-line course fully packed with advice, tips, and strategies for mastering scientific academic writing. Email me to register your interest and I will get in touch once the course goes live.