@lertitia I struggle with trying to perfect my writing when I sit down to edit. And I know I tinker and rewrite more than I should. Any tips? #askdreditor
— Joel Rodgers (@nefariouscarrot) February 14, 2019
Dr. Editor’s response:
My best tip is to put your work aside for six weeks before hitting the editing stage. However, given the tendency of deadlines to leap up unannounced in one’s calendar – that’s not just me, right? – a six-week rest is not always possible.
When you find yourself needing to edit without having left your manuscript to mature in a drawer, give yourself a new lens through which to look at your work. Employ some of the internet’s best robots to identify patterns in your writing, and then revise one kind of problematic writing structure at a time. Combining robot vision (or, more accurately, some free online algorithms) with the benefits that temporal distance can provide will help you to quit tinkering and begin revising with purpose.
Lens 1: Count Wordsworth
The good Count will give you quite a bit of data about your writing, from the number of “to be” verbs you’ve used (tip: cut ‘em) to the number of different words you’ve used. My favourite of the Count’s dataset: the average number of words per sentence (20.46 for this article).
If you copy and paste the full text of an article from one of the top journals in your field into the Count’s text box, you can compare your average sentence length to the average sentence length of some of your field’s highest-cited people. I did a quick scan of some recent articles in ELH: English Literary History and found an average sentence length of 22.98 words per sentence. A more thorough study than mine has found that the Journal of the American Medical Association averages 19.0 words per sentence. Strive to match your average sentence length to that of some of the best writers in your field.
Lens 2: Hemingway App
The website Hemingway App has a confusing name because it isn’t an app: it’s a website. The idea behind this algorithm is that it will help you to write like Hemingway – in short, simple, uncluttered sentences.
For academic writers, however, a Hemingwayesque writing style is neither achievable nor necessarily desirable. If you cut and paste your copy into Hemingway App’s text box, you’ll likely find that most of your content is highlighted in red – the site’s danger signal that your sentences are too long. Ignore the red; you’ll address sentence length with the next robot.
Nonetheless, Hemingway App is a useful resource because it accurately identifies passive voice constructions, highlighting the offending verb in green. The passive voice is our way of naming sentences in which the person or body performing the action isn’t in the subject position in a sentence. “The book was written” is a passive voice construction; “Hemingway wrote the book” is in the active voice.
The passive voice isn’t always bad or wrong – sometimes it doesn’t matter who did the thing – but it can be unnecessarily wordy, and it is a problem when we need to know who is responsible for the action being described. I always run grant application drafts through Hemingway App to make sure that my author is describing their contributions to completed work, pilot studies, or proposed team-based projects.
Lens 3: The Writer’s Diet
The Writer’s Diet relies on a problematic metaphor: that good writing is “lean” and that poor writing is “flabby.” I hate this body-shaming metaphor. But I love this little robot. The test in The Writer’s Diet will tell you if you have an over-reliance some aspect of written expression – verbs, nouns, prepositions, adjectives or adverbs, or pronouns.
Among academic writers, nouns and prepositions are often at the root of unhelpful wordiness. These problems can be remedied by reordering the words in a sentence, or by choosing a new verb for the sentence. For instance, “the focus of the medical profession is on the prevention of diseases” (12 words, 4 nouns, 3 prepositions) can be edited down to “medical professionals focus on disease prevention” (6 words, 2 nouns, 1 preposition).
Use The Writer’s Diet to identify sentences that are longer and less efficient than they could be. Focus your editing efforts on improving those sentences only; don’t re-read your manuscript in full. When you’re finished revising the sentences that this robot pointed out to you, move along to your next lens.
Lens 4: Your Actual Brain
At some point, you’ll need to put the robots aside and use your actual human brain to review and edit your work. You can try some of the editor’s better-known tricks – printing your work in a sans serif font if you usually write in a serif; reading your work in a different room from the one you usually work in – but the best way to bring fresh eyes to your own writing is to put it aside for six weeks or more. Only after you’ve consumed a healthy quantity of other words will you be able to return to your own writing without glossing over what you’ve said.
Since you’ve had help addressing some of the mechanical issues from the above-listed algorithms with that obscure clarity of expression, you’ve left yourself with fewer concerns to address.
In this final review, look for the abstractions that can obscure your meaning, and replace or supplement them with concrete details in the form of strong verbs or illustrative examples (see this post for more information). Look as well for the flow of ideas from one sentence to the next, ensuring that your sentences don’t begin with new information (and, yes, I’ve got more info on that, too).
No robot can do this work for you. An editor can; a colleague or writing centre staff member might – but a human brain is required at this point.
Lens 5: Count Wordsworth again
Back to the Count! What’s your average sentence length now? How does that number compare to the average sentence length of some of the best writing in your discipline?
My hope is that your average sentence length is 25 words or fewer. Short sentences are clear sentences.
My final recommendation, dear letter-writer, is to avoid attempting to “perfect” your writing. I assume that you don’t expect perfection of others, so do not hold yourself to such a standard. With academic workloads being as heavy as they are, expecting perfection in any aspect of your work is the first step towards burn-out or breakdown.
Your manuscript will go through multiple rounds of review, editing, copyediting, and proofreading before it is published. Be rigorous and hold yourself to high standards, sure, but avoid striving for perfection. Brilliance, yes, but perfection – no.
My thanks to Frances Peck of West Coast Editorial Associates, for reminding me of the importance of the shitty first draft, a phrase she borrowed from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (1994).