“Your Research is Great, but Rewrite the Whole Text”: Self-Editing for Publication
By Marharyta Fabrykant, Candidate of Sciences (Ph.D.), Leading Research Fellow at the Laboratory for Comparative Studies in Mass Consciousness, Expert Institute, HSE University.
The very first thing we learn about academic writing is that great research alone does not make a great publication — or, for that matter, any kind of publication. You need to present it properly. When publishing internationally, it means good academic English — something that equals English per se plus a myriad of far-from-obvious rules of contemporary (yes, these rules do change quickly!) academic writing. The second thing we’re likely to learn is that no matter how well you mastered the rules, it is nearly impossible to get it right at the first try. Long before its encounter with anonymous reviewers, your paper needs editing.
Should you be luckier than most academics, you can get each of your papers edited by experts. You may seek help from colleagues and friends (be ready for cushioned criticism though). Alternatively, you might be able to have your text proofread by professionals (they’ll meticulously go through every error from a major structural inconsistency to the tiniest stylistic aberration). Whether you get external advice or not, ultimately, you have to make your own decision about what to alter in your text.
While self-editing, most academics tend to fluctuate between two extremes. Some writers form a deep attachment to each sentence they write and have to combat every change. They would like to see the text just as they have created it. Others, like me, hate everything they write (not only at the writing moment, but also many months afterwards). They want to rewrite everything but do not know where to start. Both approaches seem to be equally unhelpful. The question is how to approach text editing. Let’s consider some of the strategies.
The structure of your paper as a whole should be the first thing to check before zooming in on smaller details. From my experience as a reviewer (and, obviously, as a reader) of academic papers, the following often occurs.
1. “Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.” I remember Adams’s science fiction novel every time I come across a paper dealing with a very broad issue or many issues at once. For example: “This paper is dedicated to the recent developments in cognitive sciences. Its purpose is to show cognitive development alongside other aspects of human development.” Three subjects, each of them huge, simply cannot be given their due in a single article, can they? Make sure your paper has a specific focus explicitly defined and reflected in the title.
2. “Roller coaster.” Defining the focus is not enough; you should stick to it. Moving from one issue to another, do it smoothly, so that the paper looks coherent. Consider the following excerpt: “Cognitive development is an important factor of life satisfaction. Unhappy children are much more likely to have lower grades. Professional success is also an important factor of wellbeing.” Here new angles of the topic pop up in a rapid succession, making the reader confused. Your task as a writer is to guide the reader along the “path” of your argument, not to give them a ride on a roller coaster. Be sure no logical links are missing, and, if you need to introduce a totally different point, use metalanguage. Even a simple “moving on to another issue” can do the trick.
3. “Whodunnit.” Fond as many of us are of a good detective story, the author of an academic paper should place clarity well above suspense. You are competing for the reader’s attention with thousands of other papers, not to mention the reader’s own research. So you need to persuade the reader that your paper deserves attention — and the sooner your main argument comes in the text, the better. Never ever postpone presenting your major findings until the last page. State them briefly at the end of the introduction, that is, within the first two pages. Later on, you will be able to explain how you got these results and discuss their implications, but first things first.
Having made sure the structure of your paper combines focus, consistency, and intellectual appeal, you should examine your text at the paragraph level. Academic writing in English has a very strict paragraph structure, making any exceptions look bizarre. Each paragraph consists of the following parts:
- A sentence that contains the main idea of the paragraph (topic + what you want to say about the topic)
- Several sentences that develop the topic: evidence, clarification, arguments and counterarguments, or any relevant details
- A sentence that summarizes the ideas of the paragraph, restating the key point and/or linking it to the topic of the next paragraph.
And so it goes on and on and on. The rule of the thumb is one paragraph = one topic. This structure, in particular, excludes single sentence paragraphs: while they can give dynamism to fiction, they hardly ever appear in academic texts. Readability, however, suffers from too long paragraphs, exceeding 2/3 of a page, so these are better avoided. Besides, same as when structuring the text as a whole, it is always a good idea to use metalanguage when a paragraph introduces an entirely different topic. You can never err on the side of clarity.
Having dealt with the structure of your paper at the paragraph level, you can now turn to polishing it sentence by sentence. That is where many non-native speakers come across a paradox: to produce a highly readable paper, we have to unlearn much of what we had to master when being trained for English exams, especially at the advanced and proficiency levels. Unlike examiners evaluating our essays, readers of our academic papers have zero interest in the range and complexity of our vocabulary and grammar. What they are interested in is the substance of our papers, and the easier we can present it, the better. Sometimes sophisticated language is appropriate, but as often as not short words and basic syntax work better.
Here are some of the common mistakes to avoid in your sentences:
- Long sentences, especially several long sentences in a row
- Excessive use of adjectives and adverbs, especially as qualifiers (e.g. “very strongly,” “slightly necessary,” “important factors”)
- The verb to be in every other sentence: opt for active verbs
- Excessive use of linking words, such as “nevertheless” or “however”, especially in the very beginning of a sentence
- Many (especially more than three) words separating the subject from the verb (e.g. “Cognitive development, despite multiple studies dedicated to the issue over the last several decades, nevertheless still remains an important topic.”).
Ideally, you should alternate shorter and longer sentences, vary syntactic structures, and use the simplest possible language to present your idea clearly.
Having completed editing and revising your text, here are the key points to check before you submit your manuscript to the journal. Make sure that:
- Your major argument is presented no later than in the first 1.5 pages and developed consistently throughout the paper.
- The Introduction and Discussion sections complement each other and create a coherent frame for your research results.
- Each paragraph has a clear structure and logically follows from the previous paragraph.
- Each sentence sounds well — literally! Reading your paper aloud to yourself does wonders in tracking whatever remaining flaws.
And now — time to write your next paper! Or rewrite.
Some useful books
- Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. American Psychological Association.
- Mccloskey, D. M. (2000). Economical writing. Waveland Press.
- Birkenstein, C., & Graff, G. (2018). They say/I say: The moves that matter in academic writing. WW Norton & Company.
- Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.