Advice about academic writing often stresses the iterative nature of the writing process; the creation of an effective final draft generally requires multiple drafts and extensive revision. A crucial corollary to a commitment to extensive revision is an acceptance that revision mustn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely. Otherwise, a certain mania can set in: any draft can always be other than it is. After a certain point, we have to ask ourselves about diminishing returns and about the very real possibility of messing up what is already working.
An external deadline can stop us from obsessive editing; whether or not we’ve crafted the best possible document at the point of submission, at least we’re saved from endless tinkering. But when there isn’t a firm deadline−as with, for instance, an early dissertation chapter−editing can become a thing that we do long past the point at which we ought to have moved on. If we are to manage our workflow effectively, every text needs to move through our hands and out into the world. The fact that we could always make it different doesn’t mean that we would be making it better or even that making it better is always the best use of our time.
One way to ensure that editing doesn’t go on indefinitely is to recognize the type of editing that is suitable for each stage of the revision process. The optimal order for editing will usually move from broad to narrow; that is, we start with structural edits before turning our attention to finer issues. This order ensures that we treat crucial issues of structure before spending time on the wording and organization of our sentences and paragraphs. Doing fine editing before establishing overall coherence can mean that we run the risk of becoming overly attached to a text that still requires major revision; doing the big stuff first is efficient since it saves us from reworking text that may end up being cut later.
Once we are finished making all of these editorial improvements, we still need to save time for proofreading, that is, for doing a final check for any remaining errors or inconsistencies. We can’t properly proofread until we have sworn off making any more broad changes to our text. Not only is it difficult to proofread a document that is still in flux, such a document is vulnerable to a range of new errors that are the direct result of our own editorial intervention. Being strict about the type of editing that is best for each stage of the process can help us to create a document that is well-edited at both a macro and micro level.
Rachael Cayley is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. Rachael has a blog about academic writing for graduate students, Explorations of Style and tweets at @explorstyle.