The posting below addresses how to revise academic prose briskly and well for faculty, graduate students, and full-time researchers alike. It has been adapted from Gray, T. (2020). Writing your dissertation quickly and well. In K. Townsend, M. N. K. Saunders, R. Loudoun, & E. A. Morrison (Eds.) How to keep your doctorate on track: Insights from students’ and supervisors’ experiences.Cheltenham, U. K.: Edward Elgar. Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Note: The posting is a summary of the book, Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar (2020), 15th anniversary edition, which is available in paperback for $25 from https://teaching.nmsu.edu/publish-flourish/ or in Kindle for $9.99 at https://Amazon.com.
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Revising Scholarly Manuscripts—Briskly and Well
Organization is the skeleton of a manuscript, its very structure. Get it right and the manuscript works. Get it wrong and it doesn’t. In this posting, you will learn how to organize paragraphs around key or topic sentences and how to organize manuscripts around an “after-the-fact” or “reverse” outline. You will also learn how to solicit and use informal feedback effectively by asking the right readers for the right kind of feedback—and then listen avidly and respond quickly and thoroughly.
Identify—or Write—a Key Sentence for Each Manuscript and Paragraph
In this step, you will identify—or write—a topic or key sentence for each manuscript and paragraph. A topic sentence may announce only the topic, but a key sentence also announces the point. Key sentences are stronger than topic sentences because they unlock the meaning of the manuscript or paragraph by giving the reader a better sense of direction.
Readers expect nonfiction to have one point per manuscript and per paragraph, announced in a key sentence (Baker, 2006, pp. 36–38; Williams & Bizup, 2017, pp. 109–120). Although readers expect keys, writers do not always provide them. Two prominent journal editors (Belcher, 2019, p. 66; Olson, 1997, pp. 59–61) reported that the major reason journal manuscripts are rejected is that they do not have a single topic or key sentence that announces the purpose or point of the manuscript clearly and early. Another leading writing expert (Bean, 2011, p. 325) says that when he is asked to help academics revise their writing, he comments most frequently on [the lack of] topic or key sentences in paragraphs. Clearly, your writing will profit when you attend to topic or key sentences. It may sound like it would be slow to do, but it cleans up prose so quickly that it is actually faster.
Place your keys early, whether in the manuscript or the paragraph; after all, we are not writing mysteries (Belcher, 2019, p. 265; Huff, 1999, p. 72). Academic readers want to skim and skip as they read. Therefore, they “want to know from the start that the butler did it” (Ratnoff, 1981, p. 96; Belcher, 2019, p. 265). Academics read journal articles, grant proposals, and even paragraphs looking for the point. Therefore, they are more likely to read more if they understand the point. “Articles that withhold their purpose, import, or conclusions until their end [are muddled]. They must actively avoid being clear so that the mystery is sustained” (Belcher, 2019, p. 265). . . .
This is also true when you write a paragraph—announce your key at or near the beginning of the paragraph and then organize the paragraph around the point. Check each paragraph to see if it has a key sentence that announces the topic—and the point—of the paragraph before providing adequate support or evidence for it. In some paragraphs, this may be as simple as identifying the key sentence that you have already written; in others, you may have to write a key sentence and then rewrite the paragraph to support it.
To organize within each paragraph, remember that, in non-fiction, readers expect paragraphs to provide three elements in this order: transition, key or topic sentence, and support or evidence. Follow this order unless you occasionally have a reason for breaking it. Start your paragraphs with a transition, which ties the material from one paragraph to the next, providing coherence. A transition may be as short as a word or a phrase harkening back to the previous paragraph or as long as a sentence or two. After the transition, provide a key or topic sentence. Finally, provide evidence to support that key sentence. By ordering your paragraphs in this way, you will have provided within-paragraph organization.
Topic sentences are the same as key sentences, with one important difference, as mentioned above. A topic sentence may announce only a topic, but a key sentence announces the topic and asserts the point. So, a topic sentence might say, “Next, we discuss the nutritional value of apples and oranges.” In contrast, a key sentence would provide the key by telling its point: “Next, we argue that the nutritional value of an apple is superior to that of an orange.” Again, key sentences are stronger than topic sentences because they unlock the meaning of the paragraph and give the reader a better sense of direction.
Key sentences share characteristics with topic sentences. The ideal key sentence occurs early in the paragraph. It announces the point simply and with little detail. A key does not try to prove the point because the rest of the paragraph does that. It is broad enough to cover everything in the paragraph—but no broader. A key sentence uses key words as subjects, rather than using pronouns such as “she,” “they,” or “it.”
Next, try finding a key sentence in a few paragraphs in this posting. Read the posting paragraph by paragraph backwards, starting with the last paragraph in the posting. By reading backwards you will keep the focus on each paragraph, rather than getting distracted by reading the entire manuscript. Begin at the end of this posting, and hunt for key sentences until you develop the skill of identifying them.
Now, try finding keys in the most polished part of a manuscript you have written but not yet published. In a well-written paragraph, the key sentence is easy to find. If you can’t find your keys easily, your reader won’t be able to find them at all. In this case, rewrite any given paragraph to include a key and then reorganize the paragraph around it. It is normal to have difficulty finding a key in each paragraph of your own work. In my workshops, participants can’t easily find keys in the writing samples I give them or in their own writing. So, practice on relatively easy prose (this post) and then work up to your most polished prose and finally to your own early drafts. Across time, you will learn how to write with keys as the most self-conscious writers do. You want to emulate these fine writers, not the average writer.
Make a List of Key Sentences as an After-the-fact Outline
In the last step, you worked on organization within paragraphs; next, focus on organization betweenparagraphs. To examine between-paragraph organization, make a list of the key sentences you identified in the last step. Making this after-the-fact outline is sometimes called a “reverse” outline because it is written after the paper, not before. Now, make sure that the minor points communicate your main purpose to your audience. Next, ensure that the minor points in each of your paragraphs are organized logically and coherently.
Reverse outlines help your readers and you. They help your readers because they are actually in the manuscript so they show the structure of the paper to your reader, helping the reader skim and skip, which is how academics read. The reverse outline helps you as a writer because you can see the structure of the manuscript without all the distracting detail. This is especially true if you make a list of key sentences instead of merely highlighting the keys in the paragraphs. Writing and reading the outline gives form and structure to your writing and thinking. This method of working with key sentences is very effective, but it can appear to be slow because it may cause you to reorganize. In the end though, it will be faster and you will have a better product because you will achieve greater clarity and organization in your thinking and writing.
To make a list of key sentences and headings, take these actions. Create a new, blank document and place the title and the purpose (key sentence) of the manuscript at the top of the page. Then, copy and paste into the document the key sentences you identified in the last step. Next, read the list sentence by sentence backwards. As you read, make sure each sentence helps communicate the purpose to the audience. Next, read the list of key sentences forwards, making sure each sentence is organized logically and coherently.
As you read your key sentences, consider the value and placement of each key and its corresponding paragraph. When a key sentence doesn’t add value by helping communicate the main purpose to the audience, drop that sentence and its corresponding paragraph. Similarly, when two key sentences are placed illogically in reverse order, reverse both the key sentences and the paragraphs they come from. Finally, re-read the manuscript forwards, making sure the changes in the whole manuscript are to your liking.
Seek Informal Feedback before Formal Review
Seek informal feedback before seeking formal peer review because it is the eyes of our readers that really “count”—we are not (supposed to be) communicating primarily with ourselves. And we are the worst readers of our own writing—we are too close to it. In contrast, readers are not as emotionally invested in your work so they see it through a clearer lens (Johnson & Mullen, 2007, p. 161). As a result, readers “can quickly identify omissions and logical breaks that would take you weeks to figure out” (Belcher, 2009, pp. 7–8). After peer review, journal articles have been found to improve on 33 out of 34 measures (Goodman et al., 1994). There is no reason to believe that this is any different for informal reviews. Seek informal feedback before formal review, which will increase your chances for getting manuscripts accepted and grants funded.
The way you seek feedback affects the quality of feedback you receive. Seek feedback early in the process when your writing can most benefit from it. Begin sharing your work with a few trusted people right after you finish your first reverse outline. If you are not ready for stern feedback, share your work with your most supportive readers and ask them to be both gentle and substantive. Ask them to be gentle by asking you questions rather than making statements. For example, “Do you think readers might be confused here because…?” Ask them to be substantive by asking pointed questions such as, “What two places in the manuscript are least clear? Least organized? Least persuasive? Please explain why.” Questions like these will yield specific answers and suggestions for improvement.
Respond Effectively to Feedback
When faced with feedback, it is easy to stop “listening” and start talking about how unreasonable readers are. Instead, listen avidly, and respond thoroughly and quickly. To listen avidly, cultivate feedback by responding with nothing negative, asking questions, and inviting ever more feedback. As you respond to informal readers, say nothing negative and avoid words such as “no” and “but” (e.g., “But I tried that already”). Ask questions that will prompt more feedback (e.g. “What would it look like if I had done that successfully?”). When you don’t understand or want to know more, employ the phrase “Say more about that.” Thank your reader for feedback. (Yes, it’s true! Readers need encouragement too!),
After you listen avidly, respond thoroughly. Remind yourself that, when it comes to criticizing clarity, the reader is always right, at least in one sense: the text is unclear to him or her. The reader knows what’s unclear, but they do not always know the manuscript well enough to suggest the best way to fix the problem; you as the writer will have to decide that yourself (Belcher, 2019, pp. 377-388). When someone questions your clarity, say what you meant out loud without looking at what you wrote. Record what you say. What you say will almost always be clearer than what you wrote. Also remember, you need to respond to say, 90 percent, of all comments by doing something—even if it’s not what the reader suggested.
Respond quickly as well as thoroughly. To respond quickly, don’t catastrophize by thinking that it will take longer to respond than it actually does. One accomplished writer goes so far as to say that, if she thinks a comment from a reviewer will take 2 weeks to fix, she applies herself to the problem for 30 minutes. If she can’t fix it in 30 minutes, she deletes that section of the manuscript (Belcher, 2019, p. 381). That is extreme, but her point is well taken. I often react to feedback by thinking that it will take weeks to respond. This is especially true when I merely “think” about the feedback. In fact, just thinking about a problem without writing about it ensures that it will take weeks to fix. I find it far more effective to write about the problem, speculating on different ways I could respond. Using this method, I find I can respond in hours rather than days or weeks.
Read Your Prose Out Loud
Before submitting your manuscript, read it out loud by reading backwards, paragraph by paragraph. Reading backwards keeps your focus on each paragraph and slows you down so you see problems that were previously invisible to you. You are checking for problems with style, which means checking for wordiness, word choice, grammar, punctuation and spelling.
Wordiness is a special problem in academic writing. As you read out loud, you will trip over certain sentences that are wordy. When you trip, consider rewriting the sentence into two sentences. If the sentence can’t be broken into two, check for subject and verb placement. To simplify the sentence, rewrite it by placing the subject and verb close together and in the first seven words of the sentence (Booth et al., 2016).
Kick It Out the Door and Make ’em Say, “Yes!”
These steps give form and structure to your writing, allowing you to approach your writing systematically, rather than thrashing around trying to make your paper “better.” Follow them and you will find you flourish as a writer, while some of your peers flounder.
Take these steps for your manuscript, and then kick it out the door. Avoid telling yourself that your manuscript is not really done, it could be better. That’s true today, it will be true tomorrow, and it will be true 100 years from now. Artists are encouraged not to over-paint a picture and bury a good idea in a “muddy mess” (Becker, 2007, p. 131). So, it is for writers: You must find the balance between “making it better and getting it done” (Becker, 2007, p. 122). You’ve written daily. You’ve held yourself accountable to a coach. You’ve identified key sentences; made a list of them; and read and interrogated them. You’ve shared your work with others and responded to their criticisms. It’s time to kick it out the door (Becker, 2007, p. 121). Don’t worry; if your writing needs more work, you’ll get another chance. Anonymous reviewers are not known for being over-kind. Your job is to write it and submit it. Their job is to tell you if it will embarrass you publicly. You’ve done your job, so make ’em do theirs: Kick it out the door and make ’em say “YES!” (Gray, 2020, p. 75).
Baker, S. (2006). The Longman practical stylist. New York, NY: Longman.
Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Becker, H.S. (2007). Writing for social scientists. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Belcher, W.L. (2009, 2019). Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Booth, W.C., Colomb, G.G., Williams, J.M., Bizup, J., & FitzGerald, W.T. (2016). The Craft of Research (4th edn). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Goodman, S.N., Berlin, J., Fletcher, S., & Fletcher, R. (1994). Manuscript quality before and after peer review and editing at Annals of Internal Medicine. Annals of Internal Medicine, 121(1), 11–21.
Gray, T. (2020). Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar (15th anniversary ed.) Las Cruces, NM: Teaching Academy, New Mexico State University. Available at: teaching.nmsu.edu/publish-flourish/ (accessed April 9, 2020).
Gray, T., & Birch, A.J. (2000). Publish, don’t perish: A program to help scholars flourish. In D. Lieberman & C. Wehlburg (Eds.), To Improve the Academy, 19, 268–84. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2334-4822.2001.tb00536.x
Gray, T., Madson, L., & Jackson, M. (2018). Publish & Flourish: Helping scholars become better, more prolific writers. To Improve the Academy, 37, 243–56. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/tia2.20081
Huff, A. (1999). Writing for scholarly publication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Johnson, W.B., & Mullen, C.A. (2007). Write to the top: How to become a prolific academic. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.
Olson, G.A. (1997). Publishing scholarship in humanistic disciplines. In J.M. Moxley & T. Taylor (Eds.), Writing and publishing for academic authors (pp. 51–69). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Ratnoff, O.D. (1981). How to read a paper. In K.S. Warren (Ed.), Coping with the biomedical literature: A primer for the scientist and the clinician (pp. 95–101). New York, NY: Praeger.
Williams, J.M., & Bizup, J. (2017). Style: Lessons in clarity and grace (12th ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.