Are you like me? After doing my “starting to write” ritual, I often enter into what I call a “flow moment.” Words seem to pour out of me, often leading to paths I hadn’t even consciously planned. Sometimes I can barely type fast enough to keep up with my brain’s output. All is good, in fact, often it is great!
But (there’s always a ‘but,’ isn’t there?) when I reread what I’ve written, be it the next day or the next week or the next month, it happens. You know, the crash, where those same words now seem awkward, not well-chosen, even horrible. I wonder, “How could I have ever thought this was good writing?”
That emotional roller-coaster is part and parcel of the writing process for most of us. What matters though, is how we process those low moments. Do we succumb to them, leading to procrastination or worse yet, abandoning the writing project totally? Or can we find healthy, productive ways to sift through our own words, so that our writing project comes to fruition? So let’s talk about some ways to edit your own writing.
Learn How to Work Around Your Issues
There are certain words that I consistently misspell when I am in the flow of writing. Individual becomes (inddividual) and sentence (sentnece)—those are just 2 of my common typos. When I would see them misspelled, it would irk me. So I began to use the “autocorrect” feature in Word. Now, even if I mistyped them, when I go to edit, they have been already fixed for me. For me, that helps my editing mood.
Consider using autocorrect for other tasks too, such as a text expander. When I wrote my book about television talk shows, I created two-letter codes for the names of each talk show host. That way, I could just type “PD” and the auto-correct would expand to “Phil Donahue.” It made writing just a bit easier. Are there discipline-specific terms for which you could create similar text expander codes? I want to share just a few cautions, though. Be sure you make codes which you can easily memorize—and for me, that also meant to keep the project-specific codes to a manageable number. I found that if I had to have a “cheat sheet” for all the codes, that I ended up wasting time looking up the code. So I just used it for the hosts’ names and the names of each talk show (I added an ‘S’ to the name code to designate the show’s name instead). I then had just ten codes to memorize, which was comfortable for me. I know people who use numerical codes for text expansion (1=specific term; 2=another term), but that just didn’t work as well for my writing process.
I primarily struggle with two grammar issues: when to use “that” versus “which” and when to use “affect” versus “effect” as a verb. So I use Grammerly (free version) and the grammar tool in Word to identify where I may need changes. Using these at the beginning of my editing session (before I print) can build my confidence.
Time Can Be Your Friend…Or Your Enemy
I have found that setting aside a manuscript for no more than 2 weeks and then revisiting it can help me to examine my writing more dispassionately. That amount of time is a gift; I can edit without having that rush of “it’s wonderful, don’t change a word of it” feeling. But, if I wait longer, my anxiety builds to such a point that it becomes easier to postpone the editing. Quickly two weeks becomes a month, becomes three months, and so on. What happens then, is I tend to start all over, confident that “this time” the writing will be better…only it rarely is.
What You Wrote v What You Think You Wrote
Has this happened to you? You know what you think you wrote, but that’s different than what is actually on the page? I have found that if I read my manuscript out loud, and listen for where I stumble on the words, that I can locate “clunky phrasing” or a skipped a word—errors I might have missed just by reading the text to myself. So find time to read your manuscript aloud, with a pen in hand to circle awkward phrases. [If you are reading from a screen instead of printing the document, select a highlighting color to use. Highlight and then keep on reading.] Then come back to those confusing spots after you are done.
Just Keep Writing
Remember, you need to tell a good story. What is the plot? Who are the cast of characters? What did they (or you, as the researcher) do and why? Even if the story you are telling is highly abstract and scientific, tell the story of what you (and perhaps your research team) did and why it was important. Begin to look at its structure – do the sections and paragraphs flow together or is there a better way to organize it?
No one’s first draft is great, so don’t feel greatness should be your goal! Rather, your responsibility to yourself is to keep writing. If you don’t have time right then to make the changes, write a memo to yourself that walks through your manuscript, explaining your analysis of each section, maybe even each sentence and changes you want to make. Make this more detailed than you might think you’ll need, because if you don’t touch the manuscript for a week or two, things might seem more fuzzy than they do right now.
Create A “Better First Draft”
Now it’s time to get to work. Use all the changes you have been thinking about to strengthen your manuscript. Your goal is to create a better first draft (but still think about it as a first draft or a “work in progress”). Keep at it until you have made it through the entire manuscript. Change word order, reorganize paragraphs—whatever it takes to tell your story in a more coherent, captivating manner. When you’re done, save it and print a copy. It’s time to share it with someone else.
Use a “First Reader”
I first heard this term when I read On Writing, by Stephen King. He used the term primarily to refer to the first person he trusted to read a manuscript—his wife, Tabitha. This is a person whom you trust to tell you the truth—the good, the confusing, the completely awful, because you believe this first reader is as committed as you are to improving the manuscript.
My first reader is my husband, Frank. He is an academic, a physicist by training. He is far more taciturn than I am, and so is his discipline compared to mine (sociology). To this day, we joke about how, when I “hit a wall” writing my dissertation, he offered to edit the document. At the time, it was well over 200 pages in length. He was sure he could edit it to under 75 pages. Problem was—I was sure he could too! I also knew the document wouldn’t feel “mine” then. It would have lost the disciplinary and personal tone that matters to me, even now. We’ve also learned that I cannot be in the room when he’s editing my work. I’ll wonder what word he just lined through, etc. He’ll edit in his office and then bring it to me and we’ll go through it together. Frank is a fantastic editor—suggesting different words and asking a lot of “why” questions: Why do I think this sentence is needed? Why use this term rather than another one?, and so on.
I find that Frank is less adept at developmental editing my writing—helping me to see a different way of looking at the data or finding a better way to tell the story I want to tell. Primarily this is because he isn’t a sociologist. So if I still feel the “better first draft” isn’t flowing well, I’ll print out the manuscript and map out other ways of organizing the text. I don’t use mind mapping software, but I know many writers who do. I will also consider sending the manuscript out to one or two sociology friends for their thoughts about structure and organization. While I am waiting to hear back, I’ll work on creating tables and figures for this project or beginning to draft another manuscript.
So what are your techniques to get past those first raw “words on the page”? How do you move from that to a draft you could share with others?
Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.
Additional Resources To Consider
Word’s autocorrect feature: https://www.dummies.com/software/microsoft-office/word/how-to-use-autocorrect-in-word-2016/
Word’s grammar checking feature: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/check-spelling-and-grammar-in-office-5cdeced7-d81d-47de-9096-efd0ee909227