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Drafting scholarly manuscripts—briskly and well

This post, the second in a series of five, offers strategies that can help you learn to draft briskly and well. Draft your manuscript without revising as you draft and outline your manuscript based on an exemplar or an excellent publication, thesis, or grant proposal.

Writing informally is helpful for your very first draft—or anytime you are drafting a new paragraph or section. Writing informally can mean freewriting—or freely dictating—continuously without stopping and without revising your work. As you freewrite, conduct a conversation with yourself about whatever you are reading, whoever you are surveying or whatever is happening in your experiment. Converse with yourself to keep a written record of your thoughts as you research, however crude, so that you can read them later, revise them, and rachet up your thinking to the next level. Imagine that you are writing in a journal or dairy or in an email to a colleague: “I wonder why this author is arguing such-and-such. It seems counterintuitive because. . .” or “I don’t know why I got the results I got in the lab today. . .” Perhaps it was because. . . No, I don’t think so. I think the reason was. . . Tomorrow I will try something different.”

Freewriting is like taking a deep dive into a swimming pool—it plunges you into your topic so you will be surprised by the nuggets of truth that arise. Once you finish your freewriting for the day, underline these nuggets and place these important points in a typed list. You will use this list of important points when you outline your manuscript.

To freewrite, write for a very short time, say encouraging things to yourself as you write, and don’t revise. Write for a few minutes, starting with three to five, and working up to 10 minutes, the usual length for a free write (Elbow, 2012). As you write, tell yourself, “I have something to say and I’m going to write it down.” To freewrite, avoid revising as you type or dictate. Ensure you cannot see the words on screen by darkening it or minimizing your file. Or, write by hand and don’t allow yourself to backtrack.

Don’t wait to write because you think that the literature review—or the whole research project—must be finished first. Neither the literature review nor the research will ever be finished in the fullest sense of the word. You can always read one more study or do one more t-test. So start writing immediately upon beginning your project and leave underline marks with notes inserted in your writing like this: _____. “Find this citation or get this statistic_____.” Then, a simple search for multiple underline markings will let you find the notes and fill them in—during your research time rather than your writing time. So, write informally from the first day of your research project. Read as you write and write as you read; research as you write and write as you research.

As you move from your earliest writings or first “draft” to your second, you will need to organize your thoughts. To do so:

  • Find a well-organized manuscript on a subject close to yours, an exemplar.
  • Make an outline of the exemplar
  • Make a parallel outline of your manuscript-to-be
  • Write to each entry in your outline.

Begin by making an outline of the exemplar by locating the topic sentence in each paragraph—that is, the subject or the point of the paragraph. Once you have made an outline of your exemplar, write parallel topic sentences for your own manuscript, referring back to your list of important points you made to ensure that you include them all. Then, put each topic at the top of a page and write about that sentence for one short writing session. You are still writing somewhat informally and quickly—you can revise more later—but you are not quite freewriting as before because each paragraph has a topic and you are organizing your writing around it. This writing will be superior to the freewriting you did earlier. During the next writing session, address a different topic sentence. This process of drafting paragraph by paragraph will keep you productive and on track.

See tomorrow’s post, “Organizing scholarly manuscripts—briskly and well”, for ideas on how to organize your drafts briskly and well.

View the other posts in the series:

Triple your scholarly productivity by writing daily
Organizing scholarly manuscripts—briskly and well
Solicit and use informal feedback before formal peer review

This blog post was 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. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

The above mentioned chapter is itself a summary of the book, Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar (2020), 15th anniversary edition, which can be purchased for $25 at or in Kindle for $9.99 on Amazon.

Also cited:

Elbow, P. (2012). Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Tara Gray serves as the first director of the Teaching Academy at New Mexico State University (NMSU). The Teaching Academy provides professional development aimed at helping educators live extraordinary teaching lives embedded in exceptional careers. Tara has published 50 scholarly works, including four books.  She is the author of Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar. She has been honored at New Mexico State and nationally with ten awards for teaching, scholarship or service. She has presented Publish & Flourish workshops to 10,000 participants at more than 120 venues, in 35 states, and in seven countries. Workshop participants report that Dr. Gray is “spirited, entertaining, and informative—she’s anything but gray!”