The revision phase of scientific writing can feel overwhelming: many things need to be fixed at different levels. But where do you start? And how do you proceed? If your revision process is chaotic and you are jumping from place to place, from issue to issue, there is no wonder you feel frustrated and progress too slowly.
You have written a first draft of your scientific text and as you look at it again, you see that it is far from finished. There are chaotic passages and too long paragraphs, the sentences don’t connect well and how was it again with affect vs. effect? Yes, the manuscript needs some more work: it needs to be revised, edited and polished. As you look through all the mess, you are starting to feel uneasy and overwhelmed.
But the revision process doesn’t need to be chaotic and overwhelming! This article shows you three main principles that help you structure your revision work, making it faster and more efficient.
The theoretical part is complemented with three concrete questions from workshop participants who tried out this revision method. The suggested solutions came partly from the students — and might help you as well.
1. Focus on your reader
The first and most important principle is to keep your reader in mind when you revise.
Specifying your audience goes hand-in-hand with journal selection: both should be settled at latest when you start revising because both (should) influence the final shape and style of your manuscript.
Who is your reader and what are their interests? What do they know well and where do they need more background info?
In general, you can imagine your reader as a bright PhD student from your (broader) field, who is not (yet) familiar with your specific topic. Sometimes you have to consider special group interests, for example, when you are writing mainly for practicioners. Or for researchers from other fields. Or when your theoretical work should impact experimentators…
2. Separate drafting and revising
The second principle of efficient revising is to separate revising from text creation.
Drafting and revising texts are two distinct activities with opposite requirements on your mind: drafting requires you to get fully engaged and vividly (re-)experience what you are writing about, while revising needs you to get detached from your writing to spot errors, gaps and imperfections.
Separating the two processing enables you to proceed faster, produce better text, and suffer less during the work.
So draft first, and revise later — ideally next day or even later. This allows you to see your text with fresh eyes, with more distance, so you can evaluate the ideas and recognize problems more easily.
3. Revise in stages: Content -> Structure -> Language
The third principle of efficient revising is to proceed in stages from “higher-order concerns” towards “lower-order concerns”.
First, check the content of your text: is the main idea clear? Is all relevant information included? Second, have a look at the macrostructure: does every section of your text fulfill its function? Third, work on the microstructure of your text and improve the text flow by considering the structure of paragraphs and sentences. Fourth, turn to the language: is it clear, concise and precise? And finally, check the grammar, spelling and punctuation.
For shorter texts, you can combine some of the revision steps. For example, content & macrostructure can be checked together even in a research article manuscript. On the other hand, microstructure & language are usually much more work-intensive — but can be still revised together in a conference abstract.
Such revising in stages enables you to organize your revisions logically and minimize chaos and frustration. It is disheartening when you need to completely rewrite or discard some text you have already polished and perfectionized. That’s why you should first assess the content & structure before fiddling around with individual sentences and words. Moreover, this step-wise revision process provides you with clear directions for your revisions, thus you won’t feel so overwhelmed by the work and (hopefully) won’t procrastinate (so much). 😉
As a gift for you, I prepared a revision checklist with detailed instruction that guides you through the process of step-wise revision. Get your copy of the checklist and start revising effectively!
Problems & solutions
After discussing theoretically the main principles of efficient revising, let’s turn to some practical issues. I got the following three questions at a recent workshop. It was our second meeting — since the first meeting two months ago, the participants were practicing this revision method, and these issues emerged from their own practice.
Question 1: When I am revising for microstructure & language, I experienced that it is good to proceed one paragraph at a time. However, when I try to do this, I still can’t help but jump through the text, fixing random things that pop in my attention. This distracts me and disturbs the revision process. How can I make myself stick to a single paragraph?
Even when you try to focus on a single text feature or a single paragraph while revising, there is other text all around that needs to be fixed as well, and this can be indeed distracting. Therefore:
- Create a list to collect the issues that need to be fixed. If you spot an unrelated issue while revising, just note it down on the list. Later, you can sort the list and work off one item after another.
- Highlight the paragraph you are working on in bright color if you revise on computer. If you work with printed text, you can cover the previous and following paragraph with some paper. This helps you to keep your attention focused on a single paragraph.
Question 2: How do I know whether the text I revised is better than the previous version?
When you work intensely on a text revision, you can easily get so deeply involved with the text that you can’t judge whether the changes you are making are actually improving the text. When you get to this point, it is ineffective to continue with the revision. Instead, try some of these tips:
- Let the text rest (for a week or at least few days). When you then return back, you will have gained some distance to better evaluate the revision.
- Ask for feedback from a peer who is not directly involved with the project, thus, has a fresh outside perspective. Be specific with your feedback request: what is the precise issue you need help with? Is it a certain text feature (e.g.: “Are my sentences too long?”) or maybe a section that does not work well (e.g.: “Can you understand this paragraph?”)? You can also show your peer two versions of your text and ask what they like more (and why).
- Check the structure of paragraphs and sentences and see whether your text is following the “rules” of good writing. It is easier to judge a text when you have objective criteria.
- Read the text out loud and mark places where you get stuck and the flow is interrupted. These are places that need to be improved.
Question 3: When I am revising, I spend too much time at a single paragraph. This feels unproductive, I am progressing too slowly.
The revision process is often slow and tedious when you try to polish your text too early. Are you still writing the first draft? Then try to avoid concurrent rewriting, as described above. Here are further tips that help you to speed up your revisions:
- Identify the problem. Why is it taking so long? Is the story of the manuscript not yet clear? Do you need to read more to really understand the matter, to figure out what you need to say? Find the problem and fix it before you continue with the revision.
- Set a time limit. The revision work follows the law of diminishing returns: after a certain time, you are probably only marginally (if at all – see Question 2) improving the text with your changes. Setting a time limit helps to focus your efforts. You can start with 20min per paragraph and adapt the time if needed.
- Ask for help or (peer) feedback if you feel stuck. There is no point in wasting time and running in circles.
- Work with placeholders. Your early drafts don’t need to be complete: when you are missing some information or can’t remember a right phrase for what you need, insert a placeholder, or a reminder question, to fix the issue later.
- Learn to tolerate imperfection. It is unproductive to polish the language too early in the manuscript writing process. Learn to move on to the next topic, next part of the text, knowing that you will return later to improve all the details.
What are your strategies for revising scientific texts? And which problems do you usually encounter? Share your experience in the comments, so that your peers can benefit from your advice and help you find solutions to your challenges.