In the second of a two-part blog post, PhD student and AuthorAID mentor Rachel Strohm shares her top tips on editing your academic writing
“There is no great writing, only great rewriting” – Louis Brandeis, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1856 - 1941)
As the above quote illustrates, editing your work after writing is a fundamental part of the writing process. It will greatly improve the quality of your written work, which in turn will increase the likelihood of getting your article published.
Here are my top three tips on how to edit to make your paper stronger.
1. Write, rest, re-read
This is one of the simplest ways to improve your writing. Once you’ve written a draft of a paper, take a break for at least one day before you re-read it. You’ll be more likely to notice misspellings, errors in punctuation, repeated words, and so forth.
There’s actually a psychological reason for this. When we read, we don’t literally look at every word and think about its individual meaning, which would be very time-consuming. Instead, the brain has a number of shortcuts that essentially help most fluent readers to skim text and look for the overall meaning of a sentence or phrase. However, this can pose a problem when you’re reading your own writing! Because you know what you meant to say, you’re less likely to catch a misspelling or spot a repeated word that changes the meaning of your sentence.
By writing, waiting for one day, and then re-reading, you’ve essentially given your brain a bit of distance from what you knew you meant to say when you were writing. This makes it more likely for you to catch these errors.
2. Have a smart friend who’s outside of your field read your work
This is one of the best ways to make sure you’re expressing yourself clearly. When you’re very familiar with a topic, you may end up using academic jargon that is meaningful to you but not to readers in another field. You may also make logical leaps that you know are supported by the literature, but aren’t obvious to non-specialists. A smart reader who’s not in your field should be able to catch instances like these so that you can clarify them.
3. Take advantage of mentoring offered by organizations like AuthorAID
If you’re reading this today, you’ve probably already realized that AuthorAID runs a great mentoring programme! However, you could also be wondering if mentoring is right for you, or feeling hesitant to share your work with someone who might criticize it. In the two years I’ve volunteered with AuthorAID as a mentor, I’ve worked with scholars at all different levels of professional development – from MA students to assistant professors – and all at different stages of the research and writing process. There’s never a bad time to get feedback on your writing. A good mentor will also give you concrete, respectful suggestions on how you can improve.
Conversely, you could also consider signing up as a mentor yourself! I’ve found that editing for other authors has helped me improve the quality of my own writing a great deal. At various points, I’ve made literally all of the mistakes that I describe above – but the editing experience I’ve gained has helped me catch and correct them quickly, making my own writing much more clear and compelling.
Read Rachel’s top tips for academic writing in Part 1.
Rachel Strohm is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s also a co-founder of the Mawazo Institute, a non-profit which helps East African women launch careers as scholars and policy experts . She has been an active AuthorAID mentor since 2015.