When you begin to write, whether a dissertation or a novel, you must fight the urge to edit your work too soon. Your first responsibility must be to get your ideas down on paper or in a computer file. Only then should you make a concerted effort to edit your work.
Ideas generally do not flow smoothly or sequentially. They often come in spurts that allow you to write several paragraphs to several pages without stopping to think about what should come next. One idea may also trigger related ideas, like shoots on a tree limb that will either grow into separate branches or be pruned to keep the tree shaped and healthy.
Don’t stop the creative process. When you stop the flow of ideas prematurely to wordsmith a sentence, second guess the name of a character, or determine the appropriateness of the content you are writing, you may be terminating your creative thinking process prematurely. You can become so fixated on ensuring you have the perfect word or the most appropriate name that the plot line of your novel or the next connecting idea in your chapter is removed from your short-term memory bank, possibly never to resurface (at least in that particular form). What is left is a well-crafted sentence that goes nowhere, often accompanied by deep frustration at again not knowing how to continue because you have also lost your momentum.
Instead, keep writing. Don’t worry if you are suddenly developing a different but related idea. Don’t worry about word choice. If another word pops in mind as you are writing, note it in the margin (if you are a pen-and-paper writer) or in parentheses at the end of the sentence or in a comment using the track changes feature of your word processing program.
Reread & Evaluate. When you have completed your writing for the day or whatever time period you have set aside for writing, reread your material. As you reread, begin identifying what works and what doesn’t. Substitute the words, names, or other things you noted to see what works best. Note anything else you need to think about more before changing or developing more fully. Work on those areas later.
If you have changed subjects and begun developing a different idea, move that material to a later point in your writing. Either physically cut and paste it into the appropriate section or, if you haven’t begun to section yet, move it to the end of your writing to be used later (or not).
Resist the urge to edit intensely until you have your first draft complete. This draft may be the entire chapter of a dissertation or thesis, one section of a paper, a chapter in a book, or an entire article or essay.
Then do a preliminary edit. This edit is strictly for content and organization. A well punctuated sentence with appropriate word choice that does not contribute to the main idea of your paragraph is still a poor sentence, so concentrate on content. Look at the flow of ideas. Look at the relationships between ideas. Identify what has to be developed more fully. Identify anything that is off topic. Look at word choice and clarity of meaning. Based on what you find, return to research and writing mode to fill in missing information to ensure the content moves smoothly from one idea to the next.
Note: This is still not the time to work intensely on nitty-gritty details such as punctuation and capitalization. Correct or change items that you see immediately as you read, but do not get bogged down in the details. Once you have your content under control, then you can begin editing in earnest.
Editing Dissertations, Theses, and Works of Nonfiction
In your second edit, look primarily for clarity and tone. Do your sentences make sense? Have you used the most appropriate word choice? Have you used appropriate transitions to get from one idea to the next? Are your sentences so long that they become difficult to follow? Have you used the correct verb tense? Have you used active voice? Have you eliminated all contractions? Have you used abbreviations and acronyms appropriately? If you are writing a dissertation, be sure you have organized each chapter according to university requirements. Be sure each section contains the required information.
Also check to see you have eliminated possible plagiarism. Make sure all quotations are clearly punctuated (often people forget to put the ending quotation marks in) and that the citation for each quotation includes not only the author and publication date but also the page number on which the quotation appears. Make sure any ideas that are not completely your own (e.g., conclusions based on your findings or personal interpretations) are credited appropriately. Better to cite something than to overlook citing something! Then be sure you have all the sources you cite listed in your reference list or bibliography.
What’s next? After this second edit, you may be ready for the final edit or you may need to return to research/writing mode. Your decision depends on whether you have areas that still need to be finessed in terms of style, beefed up in terms of specific content, or moved or removed because the material does not work in its current location.
The 3rd Edit—That’s right, 3rd. Once you are sure your content is as near perfect as you can get it, you are ready for the third edit. This edit should focus on nitty-gritty details. You may consider this proofreading; and, if you have been successful in your previous edits, this may be the case. However, if you had to redo content, you may be combining proofreading with the areas outlined in the second edit. In this third edit, focus on grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing, usage, sentence structure, and any of the stylistic requirements your publisher (or university) expects.
Finally, ensure that your reference list and your citations match. Generally, any work cited must be placed in your reference list and any source given in the reference list must be cited within the main text at least once. Bibliographies may include works not cited; however, check your university dissertation formatting and style guide to be sure this is allowed.
Works of Fiction
Writing fiction is a bit different from nonfiction, but the basic premises are similar. You should have some kind of plot outline to guide your story development just as doctoral candidates have the specific chapter outlines to ensure all the content in included in the final paper. However, you have more freedom to play with your material and let your story spin itself than writers of nonfiction.
Write first; edit later. Just as with nonfiction, you want to get your ideas down before wordsmithing and reorganizing your material. Unlike nonfiction, you have a myriad of details that you must keep straight as you move through your storyline, from the color of the hero’s eyes to the car used in the bank heist get away.
However, your first priority should be in getting the story roughed out in as much precision as possible. If you get to the end of a scene and aren’t sure where to go from there but know that later a particular event must occur, jump to that portion of the book and develop it. If you want to frame your story using a flashback technique but have difficulty creating the transition, consider writing the whole story in chronological order first and then playing with framing to create the tension and tone you desire to keep your reader reading.
Let your characters write their story. You often hear published authors talk about their characters taking on lives of their own. Even though these authors begin with plot outlines, their characters dictate the action, often changing the original storyline completely. So think like your characters when you get to a point where your story is not moving forward. What would John do here? How would Mary react? What would happen if Tim and Stephanie divorced? Moved to another city? Adopted a child? Were involved in an accident?
Reread & Evaluate. After you have completed your story, begin rereading to see how the story flows. Identify what needs to be developed and what needs to be removed. Examine not only the progression of your story but also the consistency of content and characterization details.
Profile your characters. In terms of characterization, keep a file for each character as you write. Note the person’s physical and personality characteristics and background information. If you change someone’s characterization as the story develops, be sure there is a reason for the change (e.g., the outgoing little boy becomes withdrawn because of his father’s disappearance, a divorced woman lies about her age and former experience because she is desperate for a job; the accountant changes his physical appearance to escape the mob). Otherwise, rewrite to eliminate the inconsistencies.
You will need to keep locations and timelines consistent. For example, the physical layout of the main character’s apartment must remain the same throughout a story unless part of the storyline is changing its arrangement. Note in your file, even if you never mention it in the actual story, its complete layout. Draw it, including doors and windows, furniture placement, colors and décor, east-west orientation. Then, if you have to have a character exit the apartment because of a fire, you aren’t having him crawl out on to a balcony that did not exist earlier in the book. Similarly, you won’t have a character seeing the sun rising over the skyline from his bedroom at the beginning of the chapter and then seeing the sun setting in the horizon from the same bedroom later in the book.
Timelines must be realistic. Draw one for your story, and possibly for each main character, to make sure their comings and goings are doable. It’s hard for someone to live fulltime in New York in 1963 and fulltime in Florida in 1965 when the character moved to New York in 1963 and lived there for five years. Either the dates have to change or you have to create a scenario in which this is possible. Even in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, consistency is important to create and maintain the suspension of belief necessary for readers to stay engaged in these storylines.
Now edit and proofread. Once you complete your story, including elimination of any inconsistencies, you are ready to proofread and edit your work for the technical aspects of writing. Even during this time, you should be attuned to the flow of the story, especially dialogue. You should also look carefully at the way you have divided the story into parts, sections, or chapters. These should reflect not only the appropriate structure for your story (location, time, character) but also the creation of anticipation for the next page in the story: Do you maintain the momentum of the story? Does the chapter end with a mini cliff hanger so that the reader wants to know what happens next? Is the character sufficiently charismatic that the reader will keep reading to see what he or she will do next? Is the situation plausible enough that the reader will want to continue reading the story? Does the story flow, especially if you use flashbacks or other time devices that disrupt the chronological order of the events in the plot?
If need be, employ an editing service. It’s no secret we often can’t see our own writing’s flaws. Most of the world’s best writers have an editor. At Edit911, our dissertation editing service and book editing service has helped over 23,000 people improve and maximize their writing.
Writing is a process, one that is slightly different for every person. However, editing your writing too soon may result in abandoning your story or dissertation out of a sense of frustration rather than in completing the finely crafted work you want to create. Concentrate first on the creative part of the writing process. Get your ideas down. Then work on flow, framing, and organization. Look at the nitty-gritty details of the conventions of writing last. Doing so will help you fulfill your writing goals.