tackling a messy first draft

You may have just produced a great wadge of material through free writing. Or perhaps you have a very messy draft of a paper, or a draft thesis chapter. Where to start to try to sort out the useful writing from the rest? What is gold and what is dross? How to get to a more refined next draft?

A revision is now in order.

We all have to redraft. Really. It’s not just you.  Even Proust revised.


So, here’s one revision strategy to try – it’s only one, there are others – but this is worth a go to see how it works for you… I call it The Number Off.

Step One:

Read through the draft and pull out the one or two sentences that seem to sum up what you are trying to say – the point you want to make.


If there isn’t a ready made sentence or two, then write a sentence which captures the argument you want to make, the single most important thing you want a reader to remember when they have finished – imagine it now – the final paper.


Print out the key sentence or two and put it/them where you can see it/them while you are at the computer – stick it above the screen, or put it next to it.


Use a post it app and cut and paste your key sentence or two into a note and place it so that you can see it while you are working on the messy draft.

Step Two

Now type out this list:

  1. provide context, provide background
  2. clarify, define, specify
  3. connect the topic to wider knowledges, referring to the literatures, policy or practice
  4. report, provide an audit trail of what you did
  5. illustrate, exemplify, support, provide evidence, prove
  6. complicate, anticipate counter argument, provide nuance
  7. extend, draw out implications

Put this list on another print out or post it – and place it somewhere close to the key sentences, as long as the list is where you can see them both while you are working on your messy draft.

Step Three

Go through your messy draft either on screen or as a print out. Examine each paragraph to see what it does in relation to the point you want to make. Ask yourself, does this paragraph provide context, clarify, provide background, illustrate, complicate or extend the point I want to make?

Write or type the appropriate number at the start of each paragraph. 1 for context, 2 for clarify and so on, whatever is appropriate.

At the end of this question and number exercise you may be left with paragraphs or chunks that do not have a number. The leftovers can now be put to one side. Leave them be in the first draft. And don’t worry about abandoning them, you can always get them again if you suddenly find you need any of them. But these surplus paragraphs have probably done their job.

Step Four

Cut and paste the sentence or two which has the point you are making onto the top of a new document.

Now cut and paste all of your numbered paragraphs, in order, 1-6, into the new document.  You now have the beginnings of a re-ordered document in which you:

  1. Introduce the topic, provide context and background, and say why it is important
  2. clarify, define, specify your terms, saying what you will and won’t do
  3. Connect the topic to wider knowledges, the relevant literatures, policy context etc
  4. Report, provide and audit trail of what you did – explain your methodology and research design and its limits
  5. illustrate, exemplify, support, provide evidence, prove – report your research results
  6. complicate, anticipate counter argument, provide nuance – discuss and perhaps theorise your results, connecting them back to the wider literatures
  7. extend, draw out implications – conclude your argument, offering answers to the the So What and Now What questions.

Step Five

You can now go through each section 1-7 putting the paragraphs into a logical order. You can shuffle them around until they make sense, inserting new paragraphs if necessary.

This new document is now a well on the way to complete redraft.


(This strategy is adapted from one given by Bruce Ballinger (2007) The curious writer. Boston: Pearson.)


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to tackling a messy first draft

  1. Kate Paine says:

    Great advice, thanks. I find it never gets easier so this is a timely reminder.


  2. Jill Firth says:

    Hi Pat Wonderful post, using it word for word editing my PhD. Two clarification questions ‘But these surplus paragraphs have probably done their job.’ – ie eventually delete if not needed?
    ‘section 1-6’ are you referring to your 7 point list?


  3. EZ says:

    I’d love to try this as I have a paper to revise right now, but I’m lost in step 4 and 5. Any chance of giving an example? Please??


    • pat thomson says:

      Oh I’d like to help but I have no time to manufacture something right now. I’ll try to explain again. You should start a new document which has your major argument at the top. Then copy and paste everything marked 1 into a section, and then everything marked 2 into the next section and so on. Then look at the order of everything marked 1 to see if any paragraphs need to be moved. You can shuffle paragraphs pretty easily so you can work within the same number groups to sort out the internal flow of the argument, and you can also see where the gaps are.
      I have a really busy few days coming up but if I get a moment I’ll see what I can do… Sorry if it wasn’t clear enough.


  4. ehaz27 says:

    Hey, I got it! Thanks!!!!


  5. Biblioteca Carlos Albizu Miranda says:
  6. Val_L says:

    Hi, how many draft you usually produce until you get to the final document? Im in my 11th draft and my supervisor still hates it. I wonder how long it takes.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: May’s Tips for Tuesday – A Woman's Thoughts About…

  8. Pingback: sift and sort – a revision strategy for a problem paper | patter

  9. Hello thank you for this! I am revising but after the last session with my supervisor my writing has come to a standstill. Will take you advise. Salam.


Leave a Reply to Kate Paine Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s