Spend 40% of the time researching, 20% actually writing and 40% editing and rewriting.

Sometime back, I took part in a webinar about academic writing and the issues that lead to challenges when reporting or documenting research. The webinar was hosted by Daphney Grant. The points raised in the webinar are those I have often struggled with in my research and in projects, especially in the initial stages when there is a lack of clarity. A summary of the issues discussed in the webinar.

  1. Failure to budget time effectively. Tell me about it!

  2. Editing while writing, which is destructive because:

    • it is like multitasking (an illusion of work)
    • it makes writing more uncomfortable (and more difficult)
    • it makes you a bad editor because you don’t have enough distance and perspective on your work.

A suggested trick is to write in 3-point type, which is too small to read. If you can’t read it, you can’t edit! Also, developing the habit of promissory notes… writing a note in the document to remind yourself to check a fact later and don’t stop writing.

  1. Lack of good systems for storing documents… besides using reference managers, saving documents with multiple tags gives you different ways to find articles later and ideas about writing.

  2. Failure to keep a research diary detailing the history of the research as it unfolds. The diary should not contain any research itself, but records opinions about the research. Keeping a research diary also allows you to maintain a writing habit, a low-risk place to write while doing research.

  3. Poor editing skills. Editing should be more specific than just reading the same text repeatedly and trying to make it better. As researchers, we should break the habit of editing while writing and re-reading what we have written right after writing.
    There are two types of editing: Substantive (developmental) and copyediting (line).

    • Substantive editing relates entirely to the content. Does the material make sense, is it logical, is it persuasive, is everything in the right order, missing information, etc.
    • Copyediting relates to rules. Checking the spelling, average sentence length, antecedents, grammar, etc.

    The two types of editing require different approaches. The best way to do substantive editing is to take a break first (incubating). It is important to address your work with fresh eyes, and your eyes will not be fresh if you have recently read your document many times. Ideally, you should have forgotten about what you wrote, and then you will approach the work in a similar mindset to the readers.

    Once you’ve had the break, review the work while reading it aloud and ask yourself whether it will make sense to the uninitiated reader. Later, when copyediting use software or a copyeditor to help check for any errors.

  4. Aspiring to spend way too much time working and end up wasting much of that time. Set small reasonable goals, e.g. writing 200 words a day or for 15 minutes every day.
    Book recommendation: The Now Habit by Neal Fiore.

  5. An accountability system that is too weak. For want of a nail… The small daily goals you cannot achieve because of a lack of accountability.

Perfectionists tend to procrastinate. Procrastination is about poor impulse control. Perfectionism can be a problem, and we should start forcing ourselves to be less than perfect. For example, by handing in assignments before it feels less than perfect, sharing crappy drafts often… It is more important to get the work done and on time than to do it perfectly. Perfectionism can hold your work back.
Book recommendation: The Checklist Manifesto: If you can talk, you can write.

Rewriting should take time. If you spend 20% of the time to write, then you should have plenty of time for rewriting.

We should aspire to write crappy first drafts. It should be the goal because if you write something excellent at first, it shows you are spending too much time trying to edit while you are writing and not enough editing after you’ve had some distance.