Zen and the art of revising (paper writing for PhD students pt 14)

[Previously in this series on how to write a scientific paper: how (and why) to write a crappy first draft

How to write a scientific paper, book cover

“If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word ‘damn’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.”—William Allen White

If you have followed the advice in the last chapter, you should now be the proud owner of a crappy first draft of your scientific paper—a draft that serves as raw material, a draft that is for your eyes only, a draft that was written quickly and without too much care.

Now it is time for you to put on another hat and play a different role. It is time to look at your draft critically and to examine each and every sentence and paragraph ruthlessly so that you can cut out everything that doesn’t carry its own weight.

Before that, however, it might be a good idea to take some distance unless you are in a big hurry because a fresh pair of eyes can better spot what needs to be done.

How to revise your paper’s first draft? The process of editing and revising a scientific paper is iterative and it can take many rounds: my most-cited paper was at version number 27 or so when it was finally submitted. This may sound a bit excessive, but hey, it worked! You don’t always need to go to that length, though–just be sure to do several rounds of revisions, first alone and then with the help of your co-authors and/or your supervisor.

Just like with writing the draft, I recommend using a top-down approach when revising—begin with addressing broader issues before homing in on the details. First, read the draft quickly, without getting stuck on sentences, words, or other nitty-gritty details. Then, go through your findings: is the story logical, clear, and exciting? Does the abstract do its job and entice the reader? Is it clear what problem the paper solves? Is it clear what the solution is? Are concepts introduced in the right order? Is the paper balanced, or are there sections that are too long or sections lacking in detail?

Is it clear that your results are backed by solid evidence? Are the figures of a high quality and free of common errors such as microscopic label fonts? Does the paper begin with a proper lede – a sequence of sentences that frame the topic of the paper and entice the reader to read the rest of the story? Does the paper end on a high note?

The answers to the above questions may result in a need to “remix” the paper: to shuffle its contents around, to reorder things, and to completely rewrite some sections. This is normal: if you feel the need, just do it. Then, repeat the top-level analysis of your draft: answer the above questions again, and see if you can think of ways to improve the text further. If the answer is yes, do it. Repeat this loop until you are happy with the outcome and satisfied with the overall structure and flow of your paper. At this stage, you may even feel like returning to your research, say, to look for new results that back up your conclusion even more strongly. If so and if there is time, great, just do it, but please do remember to stop at some point because there will always be something new just around the corner. Leave some of that for the next paper.

When the overall structure is there, you should focus on the level of paragraphs and sentences. Use the same rules as for writing the paragraphs. For each paragraph, check that its topic is made clear in the first sentence or two. Check that the paragraph doesn’t stray away from the topic. If it does, cut it into two, or revise it. For each sentence, check that its meaning is clear, that it connects with the previous sentence, and that the rules outlined in the section on sentences below are fulfilled. Split sentences that are too long. Check the grammar. Use a spell checker.

Check your notation and nomenclature, and straighten them out if necessary. Do you always use the same word for describing a concept, or do you use several names for things? Is your notation consistent, do you always use the same symbols? Do you explain every symbol used in every equation?

Check your figures. Are your axis labels large enough to be seen without a magnifying class? (I repeat, this is the most common mistake in figures produced by PhD students, for reasons unknown to me: fonts whose size is measured in micrometers). Are your axis labels clear, and is the notation consistent with your body text? Are the colour schemes you use clear and informative, and most importantly, consistent across figures? Do the figure labels explain what should be learned from the figures, instead of only describing what is being plotted?

Then, finally, when all else seems in place, do a shortening edit, with the target of removing extra clutter and superfluous words. Make every sentence shorter that can be made shorter. Remove all adjectives, unless really necessary. Remove all repetition. Remove words that exaggerate things, because you sound more confident without them. Remove every instance of the word “very”, because you never need it. Remove the words “in order” from “in order to”.

When you are ready to show your improved draft to others, you can apply a technique that my research group has borrowed from the software industry: Extreme Editing.

In the software industry, extreme programming is one of the fashionable agile techniques, and part of this technique involves programming in pairs. So edit in pairs! Or, if there are more coauthors, involve as many of them as possible. Force your PhD supervisor to reserve several hours of uninterrupted quality time; you can argue that this co-editing session takes less time than several rounds of traditional red-pencil-comments.

This is how extreme editing works: go to a meeting room with a large enough screen and open the draft on the screen. Then, go through your text together with everyone, paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence. Be critical of each word and each sentence; look for sentences that are unclear and that can be misunderstood. Try to find ways of reducing clutter and shortening sentences. Cut out fat wherever needed. In my group, we jokingly keep a tally of points scored for every removed word. The winner is the one who has most ruthlessly killed the largest number of words that just tagged along, doing no real service to the text.

In the following two posts, I will present some more tips on how to revise your draft, first on the level of meaning and structure, and then on the level of sentences.

2 thoughts on “Zen and the art of revising (paper writing for PhD students pt 14)

  1. Pingback: How (and why) to write a crappy first draft (paper writing for PhD students pt 13) – Jari Saramäki

  2. Pingback: Ten tips for revising your first draft (paper writing for PhD students, pt 15) – Jari Saramäki

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