Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Writers' Lab: A drastic revision strategy for improving your paper's story and organization

Today, I once more have the pleasure of hosting Nicole K.S. Barker in the writers' lab. Nicole is a Ph.D. student at Laval University in Qu├ębec, Canada, working with Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Boreal Avian Modelling Project. While technically a Forestry student, she classifies her research as "applied ecological modelling". 

Within her Ph.D. she is investigating various methods for quantifying patterns in waterfowl populations over space in time. 
Alongside her research, she continually searches for ways to improve her writing, productivity, and R programming skills, and has found social media to be instrumental in this regard. You can read more about Nicole on her blog or Twitter

It seems like revising a piece of writing should be easy. You’ve completed the hard part in actually writing a draft, so it should be simple to fix the grammar and simply be done with it. However, depending on how long it took to write your paper and how much your thinking changed over that duration, you may find some hidden challenges.

If your vision, objectives, or "pitch" differed during the outlining or drafting stages from where it ended up, you’ll have a somewhat disjointed piece of work or section of work. I find that this happens most often for introduction sections. For example, it might not set up your paper’s objectives correctly, or perhaps it provides all of the details but not in an easy-to-follow story.

I recently adopted a new strategy, and now I recommend it to everyone I know. It’s based on chapter 3 of a book by Michael Jay Katz called From Research to Manuscript: A Guide to Scientific Writing. Any time I read a disjointed section of a paper, I remind people about this strategy. I also use it myself for all sections of a manuscript, from methods, to results, to discussion and introduction (keep in mind I’m in the sciences, but this strategy should be relevant for all types of papers, essays, and other writing).

The general procedure is somewhat drastic. It involves start from scratch – yes, a blank page! – once you have already written a draft. It can be intimidating and even discouraging to start from a blank page after spending the time to write a draft, but I guarantee it will lead to a better organized paper.

Steps: Within this new blank document, identify the main idea of each of your paragraphs and write it in sentence form. Ensure that these main sentences tell a story before you add any other detail. Fill in sentences one at a time from your rough draft to the correct paragraph in your new document in a coherent order. Edit each sentence for grammar and wordiness, but keep it in bullet point form. Once you have copied over all sentences and edited for coherence, you can change the sentences to paragraph form instead of point form. Ensure that each sentence flows into the next. Your “main idea” sentences become the topic sentences of each of your paragraphs. Katz’s book leads the reader through a detailed example of what this process looks like, and it’s quite illuminating.

Advantages: Starting from a blank page frees your thinking from the confines of your rough draft. Starting with main message of each paragraph ensures that your work has a flow and tells a story from start to finish. Reworking each sentence individually focuses your energy instead of breezing over individual sentences’ awkwardness or wordiness as can happen when reading a paper as a whole.

Disadvantages: It can be time consuming because you’re starting over. However, keep in mind that much of the work in your rough draft will be kept in this draft – it’s just moved around or reworked.

Let Eva or me know if you’ve tried this method or if you use another strategy for drastic revisions.

1 comment:

  1. Just so recognizable! It's the way I have been writing news paper pieces and press releases all my life :) It is not absolutely necessary to start over again on a blank sheet. After some practice you can do the exercise in your head after your first draft or even during the writing.