I’m not a should-must-always person when it comes to academic writing. I think there are lots of ways to get scholarly authoring done and there are lots of ways for it to look and read. I always feel pretty uncomfortable when I see people writing about academic writing saying “do this”, “always do it this way”, “never do that” …
So I don’t hold for example that free writing works for everyone, anymore than I think that talking-as-writing will. I reckon that, as academic writers, we need to develop a range of strategies and resources, and work out which ones work for us, when and for what tasks. Just like any tools, academic writing strategies aren’t fit for all purposes. They do specific jobs. And after all, we are smart people aren’t we, and we can work out what works for us, even if it takes a bit of time to build up our academic writing strategy repertoire.
It’s in the spirit of this-is-just-one-approach, try-it-and-see-if-it works-for-you, that I offer this drafting strategy.
I generally start writing anything at all with a short abstract (a Tiny Text) or an extended outline, in which I clarify the basic argument to be made for the reader. This is a kind of road map for the draft. I know not everyone does this and I’m not saying you have to – but it is a strategy that works for a lot of people. With this plan in hand, it’s then time to draft.
First draft – write for the writer. That’s you.
I think of the first draft as one that I write for myself. Even though I know who I am writing for, and I haven’t dismissed the reader, I am actually the reader for the first text – or if co-writing, it’s the team who are the first readers. Because I am my reader, I can do all kinds of things that will get me through the task of getting the messy draft finished. And because it’s all digital it’s not a major issue if there are things that I write now that need to be changed later on. At this point I just need to get the argument straight, get most of the stuff down, in what seems to be roughly the right order.
What this often means is that, at this stage, I have crappy introductions and a lot of signposting. I don’t worry about word repetition or finding the right way to say something and I often link back and look forward a lot, just to keep direction and flow. This is so I can keep track of what’s going on. Because I often write in short bits of time this approach helps me not to get lost. I do try to get energy into the work, so I always write the first draft fast. I have some idiosyncratic habits when writing fast. I now know that when I do fast messy drafts I often overuse emphatics – like saying “clearly this means”, when it doesn’t at all – and I know that I will have to go back later and tone this down. But this extraneous additional stuff doesn’t really matter, because the important thing is to get the draft done.
However, sometimes I do work on the introduction and a title at this early stage because it helps me to really clarify what I want to say, or it helps me find an angle. This slower first draft work is more the case for me with journal articles than longer texts (like a book or thesis). In longer texts my first major concern is maintaining the argument and flow across breaks.
So I do different things in and with different kinds of first drafts. But the point is that I’m doing what works for me as a writer, so that I can get the stuff to the point where I can revise it.
Put it away. Leave it sit.
The next stages take longer, much longer than drafting for myself as reader. That is because what comes after the messy first draft requires a great deal of care and reflection.
Second draft – revision of draft one. Write for the reader.
Once the stuff is down and a whole, I then focus back in on what the reader needs and expects. I deliberately ask myself all the way through – what does the reader need me to say here, what conventions do they think I will meet, is this paragraph, sentence, section expressed in a way that will communicate to them?
The second draft is the point where I read particularly for structure and argument. I get rid of, or add in, what then seems to be the appropriate amount of signposting to guide the reader through the text. I erase extraneous guff which doesn’t add to the points I’m making and delete things which might lead the reader off on a tangent. I look for things I’ve left out and write them in. It’s at this point that I often write a decent introduction and conclusion, if it’s something I didn’t do the first time round. The reader will never know that they weren’t there. I also have a go at cleaning up the writing so that it has flow and some kind of ‘voice’, if I haven’t managed to achieve that in writing fast.
Put it away. Leave it sit.
Third draft – revision of second draft. Write for publication.
Next time through I worry a lot about how I can keep the reader engaged and interested. It’s not that I haven’t thought about that before, but it is the case that this is now the major focus. And it’s not that I’ve forgotten about structure and argument either, because sometimes glitches take a while to see and get straight. So I’ve always still got an eye on the basics and on flow.
But now I explicitly think about the fact that I want this piece to be published and I want it to be good. So I am now considering not only whether I have covered all of the things a reviewer might pick me up on, but I’m also concentrating on the quality of the argument and the writing. What can I do to make this paper appeal to someone who might chance on it online? What can I do to make this a paper that makes a contribution that people want to refer to, that is strong enough and written well enough to be considered worthy of engaging with over time? I had this at the front of my mind when I wrote the plan way back when – now I am looking to see if I have achieved my initial aim for the paper, and if I haven’t, what I need to do to get it there.
This third drafting phase is in part about crap detection, but it is also about trying to make the paper as elegant as possible. Here is where I can work for days on a sentence or two, on the introduction and the conclusion.. ‘So what’ and ‘Now what’ – the take-home messages – are forefront in my mind.
Put it away. Leave it sit. Then come back and edit or repeat the third draft!
Now, as I said, this drafting strategy is not a recipe. It’s not a should-must-always. It’s one approach to getting the stuff down and done by shifting the focus on the reader – so it’s plan, then writing for me, writing for the intended reader and writing for publication. You might want to try it out.
Other posts on revision
good academic writing – its about revision, not editing
cut and come again