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Polishing your scholarly manuscript–and letting it go

In this post, the fifth in a series of five, you will learn how to polish your prose by reading it out loud “backwards”—and then letting it go.

Before submitting your manuscript, read the manuscript out loud read it out loud s-l-o-w-l-y (Goodson, 2017, p. 36). To force yourself to read slowly, try reading your prose paragraph by paragraph backwards. That is, start with the last paragraph in your manuscript and move backward paragraph by paragraph until you reach the first paragraph. You will read more slowly because reading backwards is somewhat jarring.

You will focus on each paragraph so you see problems that were previously invisible to you. You will read as though you were reading for the first time. You will divorce yourself from your prose and gain some distance from—and perspective about—your writing. You will see your manuscript through a new lens because what you were thinking at the time that you wrote and what you actually wrote can be different.

Reading out loud will also help you to make your writing more conversational and otherwise improve your sentence style (wording, grammar, punctuation, and so on). Begin by making your prose more conversational. Although academic writing may never sound truly conversational, a step in that direction is usually an improvement. Academic writing doesn’t have to read like a novel, but it shouldn’t read like a tangled tome. This is true for science and non-science writers alike. If you write the way you speak, your writing will have more vigor (McCloskey, 2019, p. 36). Your readers will hear the meaning coming off the page (Elbow, 2012, p. 220). So as you read out loud, change the text to what you want to say as you read: You may find that you want to skip over phrases and simplify sentences. Do so. Change your prose to match your more conversational tone.

As you read, check 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).

Take the advice in these five blog posts, and then kick your manuscript 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).

View the other posts in this series: 

Triple your scholarly productivity by writing daily
Drafting scholarly manuscripts—briskly and well
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:

Becker, H.S. (2007). Writing for social scientists. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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.

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

Goodson, P. (2017). Becoming an academic writer: 50 exercises for paced, productive, and powerful writing (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McCloskey, D. (2019). Economical writing (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago 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!”