Sooner or later, you’ll hear this common piece of thesis writing wisdom…
But be warned, it is terrible advice. They mean well, but must be ignored….
If anyone tells you to “just get words down on the page, because you can always sort it out later“, well I think that’s just about the worst advice anyone can give you.
Because the process of “sorting it out”, or editing, is 99% of the whole exercise!
If you leave clarifying your thoughts till last, you’ll end up will thousands and thousands of words, in “rough form”, but it’ll be unusable. You won’t have anything finished. And you’ll end up in a horrible situation of trying to edit your writing, working with stream-of-consciousness mess of a structure having forgotten what it was you were originally trying to say.
Instead, do it this way…
Edit as you write
The aim of your writing is to get an idea out of your head and onto the page in a way that will make sense to the reader.
The aim should always be clarity, but you need to clarify the idea in your own head before you can communicate it effectively to someone else.
When you write, the words will usually come out in a bit of a jumble because you’re thinking and clarifying ideas at the same time.
So the first version of a sentence will need some revision before it’s good enough to use.
The following point is vital.
When you’re explaining a complex idea, you must take the time to clarify your thought on the page, while it is still fresh in your head.
Give the thought the time and care it deserves. You must stop and edit the sentence to express yourself clearly before moving on, because if you just fill pages and come back to edit days or weeks later, the thought will be gone and it will be incredibly hard to sort out the mess of writing.
How to edit
The first version of a sentence will rarely be very good. But knowing that frees you from the pressures of perfectionism. You can write that sentence knowing that it’s just a first attempt.
Whatever you want to say, there are a huge number of ways you could write it. A huge number of possible solutions to the problem of communication:
- The cat sat on the mat
- The cat was sitting on the mat
- The mat had the cat sitting on it
- The cat was on the mat, sitting
- Sitting on the mat was the cat
And that’s just a single sentence describing one simple idea. So there are always alternatives, just by moving a couple of things around.
So if you aren’t happy with what you’ve written, just try structuring the sentence a slightly different way.
Look out for;
- Very long sentences. Shorter sentences are usually better. Only make them longer if it makes your point clearer.
- Repetition of the same words in a single sentence
Here’s an example of a sentence I edited in this very blog post…
“Now, what usually happens is that as you write, the words come out in a bit of a jumble because you’re thinking as you write.”
The repetition of “as you write” is unnecessary, as is the use of “what usually happens is that…” when “usually” is enough. So I moved “as you write to the start of the sentence and tidied it up a bit to give….
“When you write, the words will usually come out in a bit of a jumble because you’re thinking and clarifying ideas at the same time.”
Again it’s a simple idea, but there are many alternative solutions. It’s not about finding the perfect one, because that doesn’t exist. It’s just about looking at each sentence as you write and making it better if you can.
Try to get to the third version of the sentence quickly. The first version might be rubbish, the second OK, then the third will probably be quite good.
Flow and structure
Each sentence has to stand in context with everything around it.
But the order in which you think of things might not be the best order to present them.
So when you right a sentence you didn’t expect or plan, you need to look at how it fits in with everything around it and ask yourself:
- Does the sentence look OK on it’s own?
- Does it fit where you have put it?
- or should it go somewhere earlier in the section?
- or does it need another sentence before it to help it make sense?
- Or should you cut it?
Modify, move or cut. Those are your options! This is the hardest part of writing, but that’s exactly why you have to do it while the idea is still fresh in your head.
The flow will, to some extent, emerge as you write as it’s inevitable you will get new ideas as you go. But focus on one idea at a time, and give it the attention it deserves to express it clearly, then move on to the next idea knowing that you’ve taken care of it.
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