Getting into the weeds of writing

by Luis P. Prieto, - 6 minutes read - 1091 words

Do you feel like the prose of your papers is burdensome and rambling, even after lots of outlining and feedback? Do you often get feedback from co-authors about it being ambiguous, aimless or vague? Do you keep making the same writing mistakes again and again? The final step in drafting a paper (generating final prose and editing it sentence-by-sentence for clarity) is laborious and often overlooked. In this short post, I point you to a set of proofreading/editing tips from another blog, and share with you one tip to help you detect those pesky errors and make your prose more punchy.

Lately, I have been fortunate enough to read and revise a lot of my doctoral students’ writing, in the form of journal paper drafts or dissertation kappas (we are getting to the end of a research study or the whole PhD, yay!). Yet, with my reviewer hat on, I cannot help but notice the same errors again and again: long rambling sentences, incomplete ones, disconnected statements that leave you wondering where the argument is going… errors that these capable writers (I have read way better texts from them) should have seen. How can they not notice? Of course, if I look at drafts I have shared with my own co-authors, I can also notice the same kind of mistakes. Why was I so careless?

The key is the last(-ish1) step of writing a paper (or dissertation chapter) draft: editing our prose paragraph-by-paragraph and sentence-by-sentence for correctness, clarity and conciseness. If you are wondering what this looks like, check out this video from Stanford’s scientific writing course (the whole course is very recommendable if you are new to scientific writing).

Why should we do this? Aren’t the ideas and evidence in our paper the important things? Yes… and no. Enough of these errors will make the reader fail to understand your ideas – and the apparent negligence will put reviewers against you, so that they may consider the work immature and reject it just on that basis!

This prose drafting/editing step is what I call “getting into the weeds” of writing. This is probably the least fun part of the whole paper writing process, and many researchers (myself included) struggle with it. If that’s your case, read on.

Beyond structuring your ideas: getting into the weeds of writing (scientific) prose

In my own experience writing papers, once I have made a detailed outline and agreed it is good with my co-authors, all I want is to get the paper done, fast (yes, this is avoidance working on me). So, I write whatever comes to mind first, and send the result to co-authors, sometimes without a deep re-read, in the hope that they will fix any big errors. The result: a very “drafty” draft. Of course, co-authors will mostly write back with high-level feedback (since they are not proofreaders!), so the quality of the prose, even when I finally submit, is far from optimal.

My writing approach puts a lot of emphasis on structuring ideas through several iterations of outlining. This is great for maturing the paper’s ideas… but the method doesn’t help much once you are writing the final text made of sentences and paragraphs, and trying to put them together in a way that flows elegantly.

The solution: Do a deep re-read and editing pass focusing on the paragraph/sentence level, before sending the draft to others (and submitting it!). Stay with the discomfort of knowing that your first draft is not very good, and spend time fixing it carefully. This is where a recent post by the Thesis Whisperer becomes tremendously helpful. In that post, Prof. Mewburn offers 6 pieces of really good advice on common mistakes we all do when writing complex scientific prose and how to fix them, with clear examples.

If I had to choose one tip…

The Thesis Whisperer post is a bit long but worth every minute you spend reading it (and making notes, to really internalize it). I will not reproduce here all those tips and advice but, for those impatient among you, I will just share the one trick I think would be most useful for most PhD students I know:

When you are editing your first, “drafty draft”, read your text aloud. Seriously. Do it.

This will feel ridiculous at first (especially if you are in a room with other people – hint: go somewhere else). I’ll spare you the theory for why this is useful (which involves subvocalisation and anxiety due to lack of oxygen)2. Yet, it does work. There are so many errors that we gloss over because our brains don’t read every word in the page (rather, it parses chunks of text). Usually, we just recite in our minds (very fast) the ideas we know think we know are written there. Reading aloud forces us to slow down, notice excessively long sentences, wrongly-placed pauses and many other issues that a bit more of attention will make glaringly obvious.

Aside from six very good pieces of editing advice, the original post also has good recommendations for books to level up you writing, includig Mewburn’s own3. If you have the time, go on and read some of them (at least, the short ones4). Spending time on becoming a better writer is probably the best investment we can make as researchers and knowledge workers (it will spill over to so many other things, from writing funding grants to thank-you notes for your granny).

I’ll say it again one last time: Read. Wour drafts. Aloud.

And practice. Once you have practiced this a lot and fixed many of your habitual mistakes, you will catch them even earlier, when you are drafting. This will make subsequent editing passes less laborious. There’s gains to be made! And we only learn to write by writing.

Did you try the read-aloud trick when editing your papers? Did it help you find more mistakes? Do you have any other favorite drafting/editing tips? Share them with us in the comments section below!

Header image by Craiyon

  1. Of course, there are later steps, like double-checking the completeness of references, the legibility of figures, drafting additional documents needed for submission, etc. – but these are more mechanical. ↩︎

  2. Elbow, P. (2011). Vernacular eloquence: What speech can bring to writing. Oxford University Press. ↩︎

  3. Mewburn, I., Firth, K., & Lehmann, S. (2018). How to Fix Your Academic Writing Trouble: A Practical Guide. McGraw-Hill Education (UK). ↩︎

  4. Sword, H. (2016). The writer’s diet: A guide to fit prose. University of Chicago Press. ↩︎

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Luis P. Prieto

Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.

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