“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.
“You can always find a distraction if you’re looking for one.” – Tom Kite
For those of you currently immersed in a large writing project (dissertation, anyone?), taking a day or afternoon to write from home can be a good way to maximize productivity by eliminating time spent on commute, meetings, and putting on real pants. However, as we all know, the promise of accomplishing much when writing from home is easily thwarted by the black hole known as YouTube (there are literally hours of must-see Beyoncé music videos), or the immense desire to clean your refrigerator in the middle of the afternoon. In addition, the invisible tug of e-mail doesn’t go away just because you’re away from the office. Because we’ve all been there, I’ve compiled a few tips below to help you steer clear of these distractions so you can spend more time writing (and finishing) your project.
1. Create a writing space
In your office it’s much easier to get down to work because this space was designed and organized specifically for such an endeavor. The area of your desk where the computer sits is where you write, but this space is separate from the couch where you read articles, from the table where you meet with students, and from the conference room where you attend meetings. These spaces provide expectations (and tools) for the work that will be done there, but their boundaries are harder to establish at home. As a consequence, tasks can easily bleed together and make it more difficult to carve out time for writing when away from the office. Help yourself out by dedicating a room, corner of a room, or even a corner of your kitchen table just for writing. Acknowledge that when in that space, you’re committed to writing rather than checking e-mail, answering the phone, or grading papers. Clear clutter out of the area and add in items that help you write, such pen and paper for making notes on the fly, ear-plugs or headphones, and your favorite chewing gum or mints. You may even consider putting out a specific candle or incense and burn it only when writing to more fully distinguish this space.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway
Being confident in your ability to formulate thoughts into words that end up as coherent text on paper is a necessary skill for succeeding in your graduate career, to say nothing of life beyond. Yet many students view good writing not as a skill—that is, something that can be learned—but as a blessing gifted to the fortunate few: like winning the lottery or having nice hair.
But as your incoming APAGS Member-at-Large, Research/Academic Focus , I’m here to tell you that writing is a skill, and becoming a better writer takes little more than practice, dedication, and time. As communicating ideas through writing is an essential aspect of psychological science, I’ve assembled some tips for how to become a better scientific writer below. They may not make academic life effortless, but they do a pretty good job at stopping the bleeding.
- Write what you mean…
Seems pretty simple, right? More often than not though we find ourselves knee-deep in word-muck at the end of our third paragraph, unable to decipher which variable we hypothesized to predict what outcome. At the outset, it is very easy to get wrapped up in jargon so write exactly what you mean, even if it sounds (at first blush) like a kindergartner wrote your introduction. You can always go back through your writing a second time to polish it up, but the single most important thing in writing is to manifest readable content.