How to revise and edit your academic writing

How to Revise and Edit Your Academic Writing

Why is revising your academic writing so important? Because writing is a process. Producing a single draft is never going to be the only step. It's a huge victory, for sure, but it's only the beginning.

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know that I talk a lot about separating writing from editing. I tell you to write a dump draft just to get your ideas down on paper, I try to convince you to let it all hang out and not worry so much about getting it right the first time (because—again—you’re NEVER going to hit it out of the park on the first try. NE-VER.)

I tell you this because I believe it. I think it’s the fastest way to write.

It might seem obvious that freewriting and dump drafts are only the beginning, because they're messy and unstructured. And once that hot mess is down on paper, you need to do something with it. You need to re-read, revise, and edit.

But the same is true if you take a more cautious approach to your early drafts: you may have something that more closely resembles an academic paper, but that doesn't mean you're finished. You, too, need to re-read, revise, and edit.

And sometimes that process can be a real pain in the ass. The truth is that writing only feels easier and faster if you trust your revising and editing skills. If you’re not confident about your ability to revise and edit, the next stages can be tedious at best and terrifying at worst.

I don’t spend a lot of time explaining the editing process here because honestly, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my process. I just do it. It’s the best kind of work: it's challenging in a way that leads to flow, not frustration.

Before you give yourself an eye-roll headache: I got you covered.

I’ve spent some time on my summer blogging sabbatical thinking about how to describe my editing approach as a process that others can use. That’s what I’m walking you through today: a step-by-step guide to revising and editing your own academic writing.

I’m going to explain how to get from that dump draft to the final version you submit to a journal, to your committee, or to a funding organization.

I still recommend getting someone else to look over your writing (obviously). But your writing life will get so much easier once you get comfortable with the different stages of revising and editing. You’ll start to understand your own writing a lot better, you’ll become a more confident writer, and those dump drafts will need a lighter touch. Over time you’ll develop an instinct for it.

So here’s what we’ll do: I’ll walk you through what I do when I edit other people’s work.

[Side note: my process follows roughly the same categories or stages of editing described in Editors Canada Professional Editorial Standards – but academic editing requires an additional set of skills and knowledge, and most people don’t need or want to differentiate among the different types of editing. What’s most important to know is that your process should move from the macro to the micro, which is the most efficient way to proceed.]


So: before we get into the process I use, let’s revisit some recommendations:


What to do first


1.     Start with a dump draft

Just get your ideas down on paper. Read more about dumping here >>


2.     Let it sit awhile

It really helps to give your writing some breathing room. You want to forget what you wrote so that it’s easier to come back to it as a stranger. Why? You’ll be less attached to your work. Read more about letting your writing sit >>


3.     Remember that “there’s more where that came from”

Sentences are just sentences. Pages are just pages. Yes, of course, they represent time and energy and thinking, but they're all part of what got you to this place. You needed to write them, but it doesn’t mean that they need to show up in your final draft. They're essential, but not precious. Be ruthless with them. Read more about shifting your mindset into editing mode >>


4.     “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open”

That's advice from Stephen King's superb memoir, On Writing.

He’s saying that you need the first draft to be private: you're less likely to censor yourself if you protect your ideas and your writing in the early stages. Writing for yourself helps keep you open—you’re not worried about anyone seeing your shitty first draft, so you can just WRITE. But once it’s on paper, you need to rewrite, to revise, to edit, with your readers in mind. That’s when you start finessing the piece for your audience. It stops belonging to you, and it starts belonging to your audience. Read more about taking care of your readers >>


5.     Keep in mind that your writing will NEVER be perfect

You could keep revising and editing for years and there will still be things you want to change. Writers often read their published work and cringe. So you’ll have to decide when enough is enough. Sometimes it’s decided for you with a deadline, but my advice here is to give yourself enough time to review and revise until you’re ready to say “this is my best work FOR NOW,” not until the clock runs out. Read more about tackling perfectionism here >>


6.     Get someone else to look over your writing

Depending on the length of your paper and how busy your volunteer reviewer is, it can be a tall order to ask them to take multiple passes at your writing like I describe here. So the best thing you can do is pick one of the elements from the downloadable checklist I made for you (get it below!) and ask your volunteer reviewer to focus on and give you feedback on that specific area. If you're lucky enough to have more than one volunteer reviewer, you can ask each of them to focus on a separate and specific area.


Revising Your Academic Writing, Step-by-Step


I want you to think of this as taking a series of ‘passes’ at your writing, where you focus on only one piece at a time. Which—I’m sorry to say—means that you’ll be reading and re-reading and revising and reading again.

This is iterative. It takes time. We’re moving from big picture to fine detail because it’s a waste of time to fix grammar and punctuation on a sentence that gets eliminated.

To make this even easier for you, I created a downloadable checklist you can use when you're revising and editing your own writing. Download it now and follow along! It gets into more detail and specifics and tells you exactly what to focus on, so don't miss it.

Get your free revising and editing checklist by signing up below:


FIRST PASS: Read for organization, argument & logic


This is where you should spend most of your time. The overall organization of your document and the logic of your argument should be your top priority. Most readers will forgive spelling and style errors if you can guide them from one end of the paper to the other. 

Read the paper as a whole to see if you can make sense of what you’re saying. This is the highest level review. You’re looking at the structure of the paper and how you’ve set things up. Is it organized? Can people easily figure out what you’re trying to say? Do YOU know what you’re trying to say? I can guarantee that fuzzy thinking leads to timid writing. So make sure you're clear on your message, which will allow you to write with more conviction.

Put yourself in your reader's shoes. Will it make sense to THEM? Have you arranged your paper in an order and in a structure that moves logically from one point to another? What does your reader need to know first so that they understand the next thing? Have you provided a logical progression of ideas?


Revising during the first pass means:

 Cutting or moving paragraphs around, making notes about where things don’t make sense or need more clarification, adding sentences or paragraphs or sections.


Pro tips and tools for this stage:

  • Write an outline of your paper (and compare it against the outline that you made before you started
  • Check your outline against the sections required in your document and any guidelines for your paper


SECOND PASS: Read for clarity, style & flow


This is where you start reading paragraph-by-paragraph. Is each one of your paragraphs clear? Does each of your paragraphs express only one idea? Does each paragraph have a strong first (topic) sentence that explains what the paragraph is about?

Are you saying the same thing twice? Where are you saying almost the same thing but in a slightly different way? Is there a way you can shorten those two explanations and condense them into one?

Are you writing in a style that’s appropriate for your audience? Is there variation in your sentence length to keep readers from getting bored? Are some of your sentences crazy long and trying to say too much?


Revising during the second pass means:

Changing the order of sentences in a paragraph, breaking up long paragraphs into shorter ones, rewriting topic sentences, cutting redundant paragraphs, writing strong transitions.


Pro tips and tools for this stage:


Online tools:


THIRD PASS: Read for spelling, grammar, and punctuation


This is where you do your fine-tuning. At this point you should be close to the final draft stage, and all you really need to do is spit-polish the thing. This stage should go pretty quickly because there are a lot of tools out there to help root out errors of spelling and grammar. This is also where you'll want to check your citations and check for consistency throughout your document.


Revising during the third pass means:

Using a spelling and grammar checker, making sure your citation system is appropriate and thorough, checking abbreviations, font size, tables and figures.


Pro tips and tools for this stage:

  • Grammarly or your word processor's spelling and grammar checker 
  • Make a style guide or check the formatting requirements for your manuscript


That's it! Revising and editing takes loads of time and practice, but I promise you'll improve the more time you spend on it. Use the checklist on your next paper and see how much easier the process is for you. And, as always, PLEASE let me know how it went for you by leaving a comment below!

Get your free revising and editing checklist!

How has the step-by-step explanation helped you with your revisions? Have you used the checklist? Tell me in the comments!

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