“Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.” – James Scott Bell
Here on the APAGS blog we’ve previously offered some tips on how to become a better scientific writer, addressing ways to make it easier to put words onto paper (and finish your thesis/dissertation/manuscript!). But good writing mostly happens in between drafts one and two … or 19 and 20, as editing your own work effectively is consequential to getting your point across. So to pay homage to the skill that is fine-tuning, below I’ve assembled some tips to help you become a better editor. Hopefully they will help you transform your original ideas into digestible content.
Edit as if you were another person
You will always be your best editor when you can look at your writing from the vantage point of your audience. First, this helps remove the emotional baggage from reviewing your own piece, whether this involves feeling as if you are not good enough or – just as dangerous – as if you are Nobel Prize worthy. While we always want to feel invested in our work, and proud of the pieces we put forth, much about writing effectively has less to do about you, and everything to do about your reader. So try forgetting for a moment that you wrote what’s in front of you and ask yourself: what is the author trying to convey here? Answering this question time and again will help you identify areas that are either not clear enough or need reframing.
Print out your draft
I’m not usually an advocate for printing many things on paper these days, but when editing your writing you may consider making an exception. Seeing words on paper simply has a different effect on a reader versus seeing them on a screen. Plenty has been written about this topic, enough to ensure me that I’m not the only one that feels this way. So if your stuck in your writing and unsure how to move it forward, print out what you have thus far and read it away from your computer. Annotate edits in the margins (for old time’s sake). Another tip is that if you have multiple pages already complete, start with printing just page one and go from there. Often you’ll notice that there is something to attend to early on and you’ll need to change it right away before moving forward. So save your paper (and toner) and go one page at a time.
See things in a new light
This was a tip told to me by a professor and, funny enough, it works. If you are multiple times through a writing piece and need to edit further, shake things up a bit by printing out the draft in a different colored paper. Try light pastels like yellow, green, blue or pink (nothing neon or dark). Literally seeing the words on a different colored background will help trick your brain into seeing this as new material, which will help you spot the areas for improvement that you’ve been glossing over for too long.
Delete the adjectives
When everything else fails, do as Atticus Finch told Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Delete the adjectives and you’ll get the facts”. The goal of the majority of our academic writing is to explain clearly a theory or new piece of scientific evidence. Adjectives and adverbs, while elegant, rarely help in this process. Nevertheless, it is common for us to sprinkle them throughout our writing. Deleting the adjectives tightens this up and is always an easy first place to start when editing your work.
Jacklynn Fitzgerald currently serves as the APAGS Member-at-Large for Research and Academic Affairs and is a 5th year graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience program. Jacklynn’s research investigates the impact of psychological trauma on neural functioning in domains of affect and affect regulation using fMRI and EEG methods. Outside of the lab she considers ways training in psychological science can be improved, and is committed to advancing under-represented students in the sciences, particularly women. She can be contacted here.