How To Edit Your Writing

When I teach creative academic writing, students sometimes ask: ‘How should I edit my writing?’ It’s a good question. There are lots of books and courses to teach you how to write; far fewer to teach you how to edit, which is a key part of the writing process.

Editing is really quite straightforward. The first step is to make a list of the editing tasks that need to be done. This list will be different every time, and for different writers, and for different pieces of work. It will also be different if you are editing your own first draft into a second draft, or if you are editing in response to reviewers’ comments.

In producing different drafts, it may help to consider that in the first draft you are telling the story for yourself, to figure it out and get it clear in your own mind. Then in the second draft you are re-telling it for other people, to help them understand the story you have to tell. When you have a complete first draft (and have celebrated your achievement and taken a break from your writing), you can read it through and make your list of editing tasks based on what you find that needs attention. My list for a journal article might look something like this:

  1. Pull out sub-headings to check that structure is OK – revise if necessary
  2. Make sure tenses are used consistently
  3. Find over-long sentences and split them up into shorter ones
  4. Check that conclusion is effective
  5. Make sure all literature cited is in reference list
  6. Make sure everything in reference list is cited

Your list might need to include different tasks. Mine doesn’t say anything about spelling because the Spelling Gods blessed me with champion spelling abilities. But it does mention consistent use of tenses and over-long sentences, because I know that in first drafts I don’t always use tenses consistently and sometimes I forget to use punctuation where I should. As an experienced writer, I can often write my editing to-do list without re-reading my work (or maybe just re-reading a bit of it), because I know my failings and what I need to do at the second draft stage.

You may also notice that the list above doesn’t include polishing tasks such as reading carefully line by line to check for errors. This is because those are end-stage tasks, for the third draft, but editing is a middle-stage task, for the second draft. The distinctions are not hard-and-fast – some people would leave tasks 5 and 6 above for the third draft, and that would be fine – but the general point is sound.

If you are working with reviewers’ feedback on a journal article, your list may include things like:

  1. Revise abstract for clarity
  2. Include work of X in literature review
  3. Expand methodology section
  4. Delete all references to Y as it is beyond the scope of the article
  5. Take a more critical analytic approach to findings – don’t just describe
  6. Ensure article is as culturally sensitive as possible

When you have your list, the second step is to do each task in turn. Don’t try to do them all at once as you work through your draft because you will inevitably miss things. It can become tedious to keep on going through the draft again and again, so take plenty of breaks, or aim for a certain amount each day. This is particularly important if you are working on a long piece of writing such as a dissertation, thesis or book.

As you work on your text, you may notice another task that is needed, in which case go right ahead and add it to your list.

And that’s it! Simple, yes?

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Researching In The Age Of COVID-19

October was so full of events and deadlines that I’m only just catching up with myself. One event was the publication of the three rapid e-books I have co-edited, with Su-ming Khoo from the National University of Ireland, for Policy Press. Moving from putting out a call for chapters to publication in five months flat was an astonishing experience. Su-ming and I had not worked together before, in fact we’d only met twice, but fortunately we found that we work together well and enjoy collaborating. We wrote about our learning from co-editing for the Research Whisperer. And our contributors, my goodness, they were wonderful. Communicative, timely, responsive collaborators, with no rampant egos, providing excellent material. The staff at Policy Press also worked flat out – I think everyone involved with the production of these e-books worked out-of-hours and during holidays, because we all had a shared aim: to create resources to help researchers working under difficult pandemic conditions. And here they are!

Volume 1 is subtitled Response and Reassessment, Volume 2 is Care and Resilience, and Volume 3 is Creativity and Ethics. Each volume has 11 chapters, and our authors are based all over the world: Australia, Brazil, Colombia, England, Fiji and Tonga, Germany, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Lebanon, New Zealand, Nigeria, Palestine, Portugal, Scotland, South Africa and the US, with participants and collaborators in many more countries from Finland to Indonesia to Zimbabwe. Su-ming and I wrote about some of our learning from the e-books themselves, about how the pandemic has transformed research methods and research ethics, for the LSE Impact blog.

I’m also delighted that Policy Press has made these e-books so affordable, at least by Western standards. They are £6.99 each or equivalent – and, at the time of writing, are on offer at £5.59 each; a 20% discount. The pricing, too, is part of our shared aim to help as many researchers as possible. Please spread the word.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $67 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $67 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Twelve top tips for co-editing a book series

This post is co-written and simultaneously published with Pat Thomson, to coincide with the launch of the Insider Guides to Success in Academia book series.

Helen: It’s interesting to reflect on how we do this co-editing thing. We’ve been working together on this series since May 2017, so that’s three-and-a-half years. You and I hadn’t worked together before, though we’d talked a lot on Twitter, a bit by email, and got into a comfy habit of meeting for lunch now and again at a nice pub midway between our 
offices. Ahhh, those were the days… anyway, now it’s mostly email with the occasional online meeting. Those are the nuts and bolts, but there’s a lot more to co-editing a series than that. I think it helps that we share quite a similar outlook on life. Was that why you asked me to 
co-edit with you?

Pat: I’m always prepared to take an educated punt on who might be fun to collaborate with. I saw that you were talking with doctoral and early academic career people on social media, as I was, but you had a very different background. You were an independent researcher, as opposed to me, a full time academic. However, we shared an interest in methodologies and methods. But we also knew about some different things too. As I remember it, we hadn’t actually even met face to face, but “knew” each other online. I think that you can actually get to know people through social media, just as you used to be able to through the medium of writing letters. Over time, as you see how people are on social media you get an impression of how they are and how they might be to work with. So asking you if you’d be interested in working on a series was in part about our shared interests and complementary differences, but also about the hunch that you would be good to work with. But why did you say yes?

Helen: I was a little bit flattered by you asking, and I too thought you could be fun to collaborate with. But mostly I agreed with you about the gap in the market for short books on topics around academia that didn’t merit a full-length book and so weren’t adequately covered in the literature. It was so interesting to think about! I’ve just checked my records and when we met in April 2018, the first book in the series was being written and we had 21 other ideas of titles and/or authors to follow up. Some have come to fruition now, such as Narelle Lemon’s and Janet Salmons’ book on collaboration, and Petra Boynton’s book on being well in academia. That’s lovely to see. Some didn’t even get off the starting blocks, and we have others in the series that we didn’t consider in that meeting, such as Your PhD Survival Guide which offers doctoral students help for their final year. Many of our authors come from our networks, so clearly networking and thinking are two of the key skills for co-editing a book series. You have more experience of this than me; what would you say are the others?

Pat: Well there’s choosing a publisher. I’d had a very initial discussion with Sarah, an editor at Routledge who I had worked a lot with before. I’d floated the idea of a series for doctoral and early career researchers that were shorter than usual, covered niche topics were affordable. She was very enthusiastic about the idea and encouraged me to pursue it. She also sent me a few small books that I could look at. At our first meeting, we discussed the style and tone of the books. We agreed on the size question, and also that our books should have a voice somewhere between a blog and an ordinary academic book. We also wanted something where the layout was half way between a text book and a monograph – so we needed a template/house style that allowed for different kinds of exercises, examples, illustrations. So afterwards, when we wrote the actual book series proposal we not only knew the competition and the market as well as the prospective authors, we also had a clear idea of what the books would be and do. And then of course there was the series cover decision!

Helen: OMG the cover decision… that took us a while, didn’t it? But I’m happy with the results. I have copies of all the books we’ve published so far, and they look good together. That’s important for the Routledge stand at academic conferences – not that those are happening at present, but I hope they will be again in time. So promotion is another skill co-editors need, and of course social media savvy is helpful there too. I think communication skills are also important. You and I communicate well with each other and with our authors and would-be authors. And it mattered to us both from day one to be supportive to people thinking of writing, or actually writing, for our series. I don’t think all series editors do that and I’m not sure why; do you have any thoughts?

Pat: Well, we are really committed to the series and what we think it can be, and we want it to be super good. We want to make the dream we had about it at the start a reality. I guess we run the risk of being seen as being too hands-on, but I think I’d rather that than distant and un-contactable. And I’ve certainly had the experience of working with a pretty remote series editor when I could have done with some conversation about working with a production editor and that was much harder than it needed to be. We do want our authors to feel supported, and that also means offering some constructive suggestions for improvement.  And of course it’s important that Sarah, our Routledge Editor, shares our view of what the series is and does; we do have a productive partnership with our publisher. That’s important too; we can make suggestions about the series, its direction and processes, and also about its promotion.

So here’s our twelve top tips for series editing:

  1. Know the field, its debates and authors
  2. Choose a co-editor with complementary skills and similar interests
  3. Identify the niche in the field that the series will occupy, and the potential audience
  4. Imagine the possible series – what it could be – and its USP
  5. Identify the right publisher you can partner with
  6. Build a list of potential titles and authors
  7. Line up the first two or three titles and authors
  8. Write a short and punchy proposal for the series
  9. Work with the publisher on the series identity – size, layout, cover etc
  10. Actively recruit authors and titles
  11. Work with the authors through proposal and manuscript development stages
  12. Actively engage with the publisher and authors in promoting the series

Call for Chapters

undefinedI am delighted to be working with Su-ming Khoo, from the National University of Ireland, to co-edit a book on Research Methods in Times of Crisis for Policy Press.

We put out the call for chapters last Thursday and we have already had several submissions.

This is no doubt in part because this is a fast-tracked book which will be swiftly written and produced, initially as an e-book. However, there is still plenty of time to respond to the call; the deadline is not until 15 June. So please click on the link above if you want to find out more, or download the PDF here.


Why I Love Reviewer 2

pencils and heartFeedback can feel like a very mixed blessing at times. Positive feedback is a delight to receive, while even the most constructive criticism can come as a crushing blow. Writers are particularly susceptible to this, especially novice writers who haven’t yet learned to separate critique of their writing from critique of themselves. I often meet doctoral students who are very reluctant to show their work to their supervisors, fearing criticism because they’re worried that it’s not very good. If it’s a first draft, of course it’s not very good, and a second draft will also contain problems that have to be fixed. Supervisors need to see this work so they can give feedback, which should include information about:

  1. what you’re doing well,
  2. what needs improvement, and
  3. how you can make those improvements.

If any of these elements is missing, ask them to include it in future feedback.

More experienced writers can also struggle with feedback. “Reviewer 2”, referring to an anonymous peer reviewer of an academic journal article, has become a standing joke on social media.

Roses are red, violets are blue, why are you so loathsome, Reviewer 2?

Even when you are really experienced, with a thesis or dissertation, several journal articles, book chapters, and even books to your name, feedback can pack an emotional punch. When you receive feedback (which should be in writing), read it through and give yourself time for emotional as well as cognitive digestion. If anything in the feedback annoys or upsets you, apply self-care: chocolate, a hug from a loved one, walking outdoors, meditation, gardening, exercise – whatever works for you. Then, when you’re ready, read it again and find the key messages.

Here’s some of the feedback from my book proposals:

  • The synopsis is quite antagonistic
  • This will provide insufficient information to be useful
  • The thrust of the book remains unclear
  • Chapters 1 and 8 seem to be somewhat repetitive
  • It is a bit thin and not complex enough to add anything new
  • The proposal covers a wide terrain and is unfocussed
  • I think this would be an excellent edited book… the author would benefit from the input… it’s a very broad aim otherwise and may not succeed
  • Far greater clarity is needed
  • The book will not make a very original contribution
  • The writing style is stiff

Luckily there was also a fair amount of positive feedback. Positive feedback is great: it provides much-needed encouragement, and lets you know what you can relax about. But it’s the “Reviewer 2” type comments that really help you improve.

There are three sensible ways to respond to constructive criticism. First, the no-brainer. Chapters 1 and 8 seem repetitive? That’s useful and specific, so I would definitely check those two chapters against each other and remove any unnecessary repetition.

Second, the no-thanks. An edited collection rather than a sole-authored book? I thought that could potentially make the aim even broader, with a bunch of authors jockeying for position. Luckily, my editor agreed.

Third, the oh-wait. The book will not make a very original contribution? I was sure it would, but what this comment told me, crucially, was that I had not communicated the originality of the contribution well enough in my proposal. It is so important to remember that reviewers can be wrong – though if they are, the fault probably lies in your writing. (Not always. Some good scholars are poor reviewers, especially those who are unable to distinguish the piece you are writing from the piece they would write if they addressed the same topic. But usually.) So when you are considering feedback on your writing, don’t always take it at face value. Think about it in the context of your work as a whole, and make a decision. You should certainly take notice if more than one reviewer says similar things. Another reviewer on the same proposal says more clarity is needed. The two comments, together, tell me I have not been clear enough about the contribution I think the book can and will make. That is very useful information because I need the book’s contribution to be perfectly clear by the time of publication, so I and my publisher can communicate it to potential readers. More work evidently needed.

This decision-making can be difficult, and sometimes a second opinion is helpful. Reviewers, too, can be unclear. If you don’t understand what a reviewer is trying to say, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that they’re cleverer than you and reach for the despair. However, it may well be that they haven’t articulated their point effectively, which unfortunately makes your job harder rather than easier. Sometimes you can go back to them for clarification; it’s fine to do this, even if you have to go through an intermediary such as a journal editor. But it is sensible to check with someone else first, to make sure it’s not a comparatively straightforward point that you’re just missing for some reason.

I always welcome feedback on my writing. I can’t write a book, or anything else for that matter, without feedback from a range of people. Critical feedback doesn’t discourage me, or at least not for long. The only time I’ve had a journal article rejected is when I wrote one for a client; I told them I would need feedback on a draft from a suitably experienced person, and they said someone from their organisation would provide this, but when the time came they said they couldn’t and I should just send in my draft. I was sure that wouldn’t work, and indeed it didn’t. After that I was able to persuade them to find me someone who could offer feedback; their input was very helpful, and the article was accepted by our second choice of journal.

I understand that some people struggle with feedback. I understand why some people struggle with feedback. But honestly, if you’re one of those people, and you want to succeed as a writer, you need to find a way over, through, past, or around that struggle. I hope this post will help, and that you will learn to love Reviewer 2 as much as I do.