Revising academic texts: Efficiency & style
Kaizen – translated to mean a change for the good – is Erin McTigue’s word of the year and the guiding principle behind her 2019 TAA Conference Presentation, “Revising Academic Texts: Efficiency & Style”.
Delivering a dynamic and interactive session, McTigue shared useful strategies to improve the flow and readability of your writing efforts through effective revision. Below we summarize six of those techniques that you can apply to your current manuscript to make your own change for the good.
Identify the key sentence for each paragraph
A key sentence is “what you want your readers to take away” from each paragraph. Although often the first sentence, it doesn’t have to be. McTigue advises starting the revision process by examining your paragraphs, finding that ONE key sentence in each, and underlining it.
In doing so, you may experience a common problem – there is more than one key sentence in the paragraph. If this happens, McTigue suggests two options for resolution: 1) consider breaking the paragraph into multiple paragraphs for each key topic or 2) combine, when possible, the multiple sentences to remove unnecessary redundancy.
Find the gaps in your own manuscript
Most academic writers are familiar with the phrase, “find the gap in the literature” associated with defining topics worthy of further study and research, but when editing your own manuscript, it’s important to look for the gaps that exist on the page.
This revision process, McTigue notes, “let’s us recognize when things are inadequately defined or loosely connected”. Further, she cautions that “it can be difficult to see our own mistakes as we revise because our brain may fill in the gaps.” Involving another reader in the process can help identify those gaps more easily.
When proofing and revising your own papers, McTigue suggests that you “keep each sentence on its own line to make it easier to spot redundancy and evaluate the flow of ideas.”
Show your “why?”
Simon Sinek once delivered a TED talk focused on the concept to “Start with Why” and has a bestselling book by the same name. During her presentation, McTigue asked, “Is your ‘why?’ buried in the middle somewhere?” If so, she suggests using a reverse outline to help you find it and show it to others.
Not only does a reverse outline make it easier to consider the logic order related to key arguments in the paper, but it can be a tool for collecting feedback from others who may not have the time to read your entire manuscript. As McTigue notes, “reading ten sentences is less scary than reviewing a whole paper”.
By being able to summarize your paper into key points without too many details, you can clearly see (and show) the why behind the manuscript. As an added suggestion, McTigue says to “test your argument by presenting it orally and see what is retained by the person with whom you shared it.”
Create a research space (CARS)
A technique that can be overlaid on the reverse outline in an effort to strengthen your argument is CARS. CARS is a process for creating a research space by which the author 1) establishes a territory, 2) establishes a niche, and 3) occupies the niche.
CARS is supported by a template for entering a discussion (shown below) that aids in demonstrating the author’s understanding of the existing conversation surrounding their research. McTigue notes, “As academic writers, we should not barge into the conversation without knowing what’s going on.”
Although overuse of this template for CARS can make your writing formulaic, session participant Dannelle Stevens added that “much of the template falls away during the revision processes to let your own voice communicate the same structured information.” Therefore, using the structure as a starting point to ensure all necessary elements are included for effectively entering the discussion provides a foundation for maintaining those elements in your own voice in the final manuscript.
It’s not overwhelming – it’s multiple choice
When revising a paper, particularly through the use of the techniques mentioned above, you may find things that just don’t fit. They’re not part of the “why”. They create confusion of message. Or they interrupt the flow of the manuscript.
McTigue says that in these situations when a sentence doesn’t fit the paragraph key topic, “it’s not overwhelming, it’s multiple choice – delete it, move it, or reword it.” Put that way, revising isn’t so hard.
Use signals to tie it together
Once your manuscript is properly ordered around the key topics of each paragraph and revised to convey the purpose of your message, the final revision task is to ensure a connected flow across the ideas.
McTigue suggests the use of effective signals to transition between paragraphs. Phrases like “we look beyond” indicate an intent to clarify, whereas “much evidence” informs readers of the predominant narrative. “Other researchers” signals contrasting ideas, whereas a phrase like “a meta-analysis demonstrated” may be used to counter the common narrative.
Applying these six strategies to your manuscript drafts are certain to change the results for the good and perhaps kaizen becomes your word of the year too.