Rewriting, Editing, and Polishing

Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. .. . Most first drafts can be cut by as much as 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

—Zinsser, 2001, p. 17

Write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Good writing is good revising, and it behooves you to conduct several rounds of review before your document is complete. In fact, the process of “rewriting is the essence of writing well” (Zinsser, 2001 p. 84). Just because all the sections of the paper have been composed does not mean that the draft is ready for submission. Almost without exception, the first draft is nowhere near completion. The next essential step is editing and revising. The authors of this chapter find that many of their students (not all) rush to finish and submit a first draft, and never spend the necessary time on second and third drafts.

This section presents some useful revision strategies and skills and you will need to develop (Rubens, 2002). The first round of revision should include an analysis of audience, purpose, and organization. Does the paper meet the expectations and organization of the intended audience? Have you clearly stated the purpose of the research? Does the information presented in the paper appear in the correct sections? These questions will help ensure that the paper meets the expectations of the audience, states a clear purpose, and is organized according to accepted conventions. The use of headings and subheadings is important because that will tip you off to when content is misplaced.

As an author, you may be exhausted after producing a draft. So, take a break and come back with fresh eyes. In addition, gain a new perspective by enlisting others as reviewers and editors. Send your first draft to several people for revisions. Pick at least one person who is unfamiliar with the technical specifics of your work—perhaps your spouse or partner—and have them read the document. If your document is written clearly and concisely, even an uninitiated reader should comprehend what you are trying to say. The readers who are familiar with your topic will provide the necessary technical revisions.

Incorporate these revisions into your draft. Manage negative feedback with grace and without defensiveness, and thank your reviewers for their time (Rudenstam & Newton, 2007). In our responses to review comments, any positive comment elicits a thank you. If you think a reviewer is incorrect (they certainly can be), use evidence and persuasion rather than emotion to make your point. A good review is invaluable and they are doing you a favor. The authors of this chapter have always marveled at the value of peer reviews, provided at no cost, simply by submitting an academic paper to a peer-reviewed journal.

As you review, it is most important to ensure that the whole manuscript tells a story or makes a tight-knit argument. Then check the flow of logic from one paragraph to the next. You will almost always find that reordering of paragraphs leads to a more logical flow. Finally check that each sentence relates to the one before and after (Gopen & Swan, 1990).

After you’ve reviewed the style and organization of your paragraphs and sentences, you should double check that you’ve cited all your sources correctly. An in-text citation, or author-date citation, acknowledges a reference immediately after it appears. Place the citation in parentheses and a period after the parenthesis (Rubens, 2002). Then, ensure all your works cited in text appear in your works cited section and vice versa. Knowing where to find your sources is important for your readers.

Sometimes it is possible that a writer can know too much about a certain topic to write about it clearly (Rubens, 2002). If this is the case, the writer makes inappropriate assumptions about audience knowledge, unless he or she can remember the needs of the intended audience (Rubens, 2002). To avoid this mistake, have a nonexpert friend or family member read your work aloud. And, read your work out loud to yourself, to gain a better sense of how the writing flows.

Your document will improve during the process of revision and rewriting. Sometimes it will take several rounds of revisions until the final product emerges. Keep in mind, however, the importance of completing a work on time (Budinski, 2001).

Reports should be completed when action is needed; proposals for funding must obviously meet any submission deadline.

The trick is to find the balance between taking enough time to put your work through several rounds of revision and submission. Academics are notorious for getting things in late. Consultants get things in on time but may sacrifice rigor or completeness. One leading planning academic (who will remain nameless) was known for submitting great reports a year or even two late, and it eventually cost him in competitions for grants and contracts. Another academic planner (who will also remain nameless) is well-known for both quality and timeliness and has had a successful consulting career, as well as a very successful academic career.

Katz suggests a succinct, step-by-step process for rewriting, editing, and polishing. Try to follow his advice as you refine your written documents (2009, pp. 25-28):

  • • Rework the entire draft, paragraph by paragraph. Create cohesion and flow within and between paragraphs.
  • • Then, cut, trim, and simplify, sentence by sentence. Fix specific types of problems—“Don’t read for overall meaning. Don’t pay attention to the global features. Instead, concentrate on sentences and words, and pick a single task each time you sit down” (p. 25).
  • • Replace passive verbs with active verbs.
  • • Replace vague descriptions with precise adjectives.
  • • Stop writing when you come to the end of your ability, and seek outside help.
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