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10 Steps to revising your academic article or book chapter

Many novice writers imagine clean, clear prose springing off of the fingertips of accomplished writers. Most writers will assure you that it does not work this way. We first write, and then, revise, revise, and revise some more.

Trying to write perfectly the first time around has three central problems. 1) It takes a long time; 2) It can be a waste of time, as you often can only see at the end of a paper what needs to be cut; and 3) Your writing will not be as good in the end because the best writing comes out of revising.

Writing a spew draft of a chapter or an article allows you to work quickly, and lets you improve your writing through revising. Although you may be able to type very quickly – as quickly as a whole chapter in one week, revising it will take much longer. In their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation, Sonja Foss and William Waters offer a multi-step approach to revising an article or chapter. I present a slightly modified version of it below, that explains, in ten steps, how to revise an article or chapter.

Step One: Remove all unnecessary information. Take a first pass at your chapter to cut out any sentences or paragraphs that do not contribute to your main argument. To feel better about cutting liberally, save the rough draft of the paper as a separate document so that you don’t lose any writing that you may want to use later.

Step Two: Reorganize. Rearrange your paper to make sure you have presented it in the best order possible. Find the thesis sentence in each paragraph, take it out, and create a separate document with just the thesis sentences. Rearrange the thesis sentences to ensure they are in the best order.

Step Three: Check for missing information. Look at your re-arranged list of thesis statements and make sure that you do not need to add any more information. Pay attention especially to missing examples or underdeveloped arguments.

Step Four: Check paragraph construction. As you put your paragraphs back into your paper, make sure that each paragraph follows from the thesis sentence. Sometimes you may need to add new information. Other times you will have to split the paragraph into two, as you see that you have two main ideas in the paragraph.

Step Five: Check transitions between paragraphs. Make sure that your paper flows together. In places it does not, move paragraphs around or add transition sentences to ensure that the flow is evident to the reader.

Step Six: Review each of your sentences. Make sure the sentences are not too long and that you have some variety in your length. A rule of thumb is that no sentence should go on for more than two lines. Some sentences should be much shorter.

Step Seven: Check your word choices. Look out for using the same word repeatedly in a paragraph, on the same page, or in the document. If you use strong words such as “appalling,” use them sparingly, changing for words such as striking or unfortunate and save “appalling” to make a more forceful point.

Step Eight: Check for spelling and punctuation. Use, but do not fully rely on, your computer’s spelling and grammar check. Check for comma placement, semi-colon and colon usage, and quotation-mark placement.

Step Nine: Review a hard copy. Print out your document and read it over again, checking for style and grammar. Watch out for split verbs and infinitives, word usage (e.g. loose vs. lose), passive voice, dangling modifiers, and any other mistakes that you commonly make. If you are not sure what mistakes you are most likely to make, look back at your work that has been edited or proof-read by your advisor, an editor, or a colleague to see what your most common mistakes are.

Step Ten: Read your document aloud. Reading aloud forces you to slow down and ensures that you find errors that you might not otherwise see. Reading aloud also takes a long time. Once I have read my document aloud to myself, I know I am done with it, and ready to send it off. This final ritual signals that you are done revising and ready to submit your article or move on to the next chapter.

The best thing about having these ten steps is that you can move from rough draft to finished copy in just two weeks. If you spend between 30 minutes and two hours each day on each of these steps, in just ten workdays, you can be done!

Reprinted with permission from the blog, Get a Life, PhD, Weekly Tips on How to Succeed in Academia and Have a Life Too, written by Tanya Golash-Boza, PhD, a Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Kansas.