good academic writing – it’s about revision not editing

Creative writers are accustomed to the idea that their writing must go through several drafts. However, much of the advice on offer to academic writers proceeds as if all they have to do is produce a draft which is then edited, tidied up, everything made neat and clean. I have seen many a thesis completion timetable come unstuck because doctoral researchers have not grasped the fact that by and large this is not what happens. Most of us have to do more than one draft of a piece of academic writing. In reality, very few of us write the scintillating introduction, the elegant conclusion, the persuasive argument right from the start. It takes several iterations.

A few people do of course produce brilliant prose early, and consistently. Prolific writers and those who just happen to be good with words seem to be able to gallop off a chapter or paper with relatively little effort. I do know people who can hole up in a hotel room and write a book in three weeks and then have to do little to their text other than a bit of editing. (Yes, I hate them too.) But these people are the exception, rather than the rule. I have – and twice only – been able to write a journal article that miraculously seemed to turn out well the first time round, and be accepted for publication pretty much as was. These two times are the exception, not the rule, in my writing life. I have also spent years writing some pieces because they have taken a very long time to come together in my head. If someone tells you that they have spent the weekend writing a paper and sent it off to a journal, don’t be envious. There is a strong possibility that it will be under-done, not sufficiently cooked, too raw for easy digestion by readers.

There is a strong temptation to send things off too early. Finishing a first draft usually feels like a win – even a triumph. You didn’t know that it was going to be possible to write that much and here it is – ten thousand words. You rush to email it to your supervisor or post it onto the journal website and then wait impatiently for the response. And when it comes, it suggests major revisions… Corrections beyond editing? This is a disaster. I am hopeless. The thesis/paper is doomed. I will never finish/make it into print. The supervisor/reviewer is an unfeeling monster. Not true. All it takes is revision, some of which could have been done in the first place if we hadn’t felt so darned elated that we’d actually produced a text.

But on the other hand… Some people are acutely aware that their writing isn’t going to be good enough, now in the first draft, and probably ever. All of the research on writer’s block suggests that people who aim for perfection the first time round are likely to seriously inhibit their writing. They agonise over phrases, work on a first sentence until they can’t face it any more, they take weeks to get a few pages written to their impossibly high expectations. We often see this kind of person characterised in movies – the unsuccessful writer who begins confidently on a first sentence but some hours later is surrounded by crumpled-up papers and sits despondently, staring sadly at a blank screen. Academic writers do this too.

Part of the problem seems to be that in conversations about academic writing we don’t talk enough about the inevitability of the crappy first draft and the importance of revising. We don’t suggest that it takes more than one go to reach the levels of polished prose that we admire. But really – let me reiterate – it doesn’t happen straight away. If we just read finished articles and never see work in progress – and how many of us actually do get to see the work of experienced writers along the way – then we have no idea how much revising good academic writers actually do. One of the benefits for doctoral researchers of co-writing with their supervisors is that it does give them access to the process of starting, revising and then finishing off a piece of academic work.

Academic writers can learn much from creative writers about the importance of revision. Anne Lamott, whose little book Bird by Bird I have posted about before, sums up the creative writing position on revision in this way:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere, start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy. (pp 25-26)

Lamott doesn’t talk about editing. Fixing the typos, punctuation and the grammar, attending to the language, sorting out the citations and references – these are small matters compared to the importance of drafting and redrafting for meaning and for flow of narrative or argument. The editing niceties come last. Even with a great Tiny Text, plan or outline, drafting and redrafting will be required.

If I could suggest one thing, other than their research question, that doctoral researchers should print out very large and pin above their computer screen, then it would be this Lamott quote. Revision is the name of the #acwri game. Not editing. Not editing. Not editing – Revision.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Ann Lamott, early onset satisfaction, editing, revision and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to good academic writing – it’s about revision not editing

  1. bronscott says:

    I can so relate to this! I have sent first drafts of my thesis chapters off to my supervisors thinking, well hooray, there’s that chapter done. Only to experience the “are you kidding…..??” feedback. Whilst this was a bit demoralising at first, I have learnt to ‘toughen up’, take the comments on board and go back and revise. I look back at some of the early work I submitted to my supervisors and cringe at how bad it is! On the upside, I think my first drafts on my latter chapters are much better because I’ve learnt from the mistakes I made early on. They still need revision, lots of it, but thankfully I’m not a “perfectionist” writer, so have time to go back and, as you say, revise, revise, revise!


    • Aka says:

      Really relate to this. I just think that It will be a relief to satisfy my supervisor than to my writing perfection. At the later stage, I need to satisfy peer review editor in the journal not my own writing standard.


  2. Sue Gollifer says:

    So refreshing to hear that it is all about revision and not just about making your writing “readable” and “well-written”. I can also relate to this blog as I am still working on an article that I started in the autumn during an academic writing course. As the only native English language writer in my doctoral study writing group, the feedback from my peers did not focus on “editing” but on the content of the paper. This feedback was invaluable, as was the feedback that I received when I presented the findings from my paper at two different forums. This feedback continues to shape my paper, which I believe is now near its final revision stage (when do you know when your paper is finished??? Another topic in itself!!!). I think I am a perfectionist writer, and this process has opened my eyes to include “revision” rather than “editing” only to become part of perfecting what I write.


  3. Thanks for sharing this Pat. It’s something I’ve vaguely been aware of but to see the distinction between revision and editing is invaluable. I also really like the concepts of the down draft and the up draft. I’m going to remember that.

    I “completed” my first draft of my first results chapter (exciting! Satisfying!) but now I have to face the revision process. I found that once I faced my fear of the first draft not being good enough, it was easy to do the “mind dump” and get it down on paper. Revision then has the same difficulty of “but what if my supervisors hated my first draft? What do their comments say? Uh oh.” But again, facing that head on has helped a bit. Ongoing process and all that.


  4. Reblogged this on A Hat Full of Ness and commented:
    Things it is very good to read about at the start of the writing-revising process. There’s a difference between revising and editing and multiple revisions are necessary in nearly all instances of long form writing. Those who can produce a successful text in one go with very little editing are a rarity!


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  7. Reblogged this on Cherful Chronicles and commented:
    This should keep me going as I start my research exercise!


  8. Yes! There is some sort of pervasive, subconscious thought that if you’re smart enough or a good enough writer, you can hammer out a nearly perfect first draft. If we could do away with this thought, and instead embrace revisions, we might have more well-written articles and books. Thanks for posting!


  9. jbailey2013 says:

    This is great. You also phrase it so much more nicely than I do when I tell students to vomit the words onto the page – in order to get something there and worked over later. You can see with the final point of that sentence how my analogy of vomiting begins to break down/get worse!


  10. Robin says:

    Vomit the words. I hear you jbailey. I have a sign on my office wall that says “write crappy first drafts”. If you have no words then a supervisor cannot help you. Any words are better than none. I revise and refine and refine my own work. It’s the only way to end up with something that’s worth reading, and that a decent journal is likely to publish, or a decent thesis examiner is not going to feel a desperate need to suggest revisions to.


  11. Jane S says:

    First-class, triple A, Pat. Couldn’t agree more! It’s better to write *anything* than nothing. Maybe – just maybe – creative writers have an edge in this process, but content must be up to scratch. OTOH, being inured to acidulous eds helps you feel less of an intellectual ‘failure’ when faced with academic comments.
    There is a tendency for supervisors to request to see something ‘too early’ ~ to prove research is bearing fruit? It is not a request you hear too often in the creative world ~ unless you take ten years to write a book and someone wonders if the advance has been paid in vain …
    A first draft is rarely, if ever, perfect ~ but it gives you a mass of material to work with. Better too much than too little. My study floor is metaphorically littered with ‘out takes’ that won’t make it into the final thesis, ruthlessly excised in favour of a tighter narrative.


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  14. Thanks for sharing. I can relate to that. my first draft is always a collection of thoughts. I have to then re-group to get some meaningful writing done.


  15. DJJR says:

    Among the first lessons I pass on to my students is this, supposedly from Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.”


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  18. creus says:

    Once you believe that it is really done, put it in a drawer. One week after, take the manuscript out and read it (do not worry, nothing will have changed!).
    If you still consider that your manuscript is good, pass it on to an honest colleague NOT working in your same field. If he understands what you say and what are the messages you wish to convey, buy a beer to yourself (and to your colleague) and send the manuscript out. It is probably done!.


  19. creus says:

    Some other advise:
    1.Keep a file with all versions of your manuscript and once you have the final one take a look at and compare the different versions. This is a fantastic manner to improve and to make it easier to write further papers.
    2. If, as in my case, English is not your first, native language, do not panic. Do your best. Ask for help but take into account that “scientific” language is in many ways the language that even cultivated people can write; so you better ask to a colleague. Editors of English/American journals need to do a lot more of additional editing to manuscripts sent by people who are established in English/American countries than in other sites.
    3. Do not rely on “scientifics writers”. They can know the language but on many occasions have no clue on what you say.


  20. Reblogged this on wcyeong PhD journey and commented:
    Revision, not editing. Noted! 🙂


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  24. phambichha says:

    Reblogged this on Phambichha's Blog and commented:
    Be patient with Yourself in writting process as it requires a lot of rewritting and revising !


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  27. Abri says:

    I like the quote you use in the article, I think it ties it in with the overall writing of this article.


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