Whether you’re working on job documents, class papers, theses/dissertations, or other materials, writing over break can be hard.
Writing Over Break: Getting Past Common Hurdles
Writer’s block can look like a few different things. It can be an initial “blank page” quagmire; the “but I still need to research more” black hole; or a general feeling of anxiety or “being stuck” that can strike at any point in the writing process.
The Blank Page
Who among us hasn’t experienced that terror of the blank page? Here are some tips for getting over this common, normal hurdle:
- Make the page not blank. At its simplest, simplest level, this fear can be one of getting started—of facing that blank page. So put any kind of writing on that page: free-write, outline your thoughts, or even write out your fears/frustrations—i.e. those fears/blocks that are going through your mind at the moment. Any of these will suffice to make the page not blank anymore, which can help us ease into the groove of writing.
- Write an outline. Some people prefer to free-write or write a rough draft first, and reverse-engineer an outline later. For others (myself included), outlining can be a good first step toward breaking that blank-page fear. Your outline can be as sparse or detailed as you wish; the point here is less to have a stellar outline and more to get your writing juices flowing.
- Talk it out (and then transcribe). Sometimes, when you’re stuck, talking out loud about your ideas, or even your thoughts/feelings about the project more broadly, can be easier than committing words to paper. If this is true for you, try talking—to yourself, peers, an adviser—and record yourself while talking. Then either transcribe directly from your recording, or use your recording as a blueprint for an outline or draft.
- Find models/templates. This can be especially helpful when you’re tackling a new form of writing: say, you’re writing a personal statement, conference abstract, or CV for the first time. Looking at real examples of such forms can help get you started, and give you a blueprint of where to go (mimicking and drawing inspiration from others is okay in writing as long as it doesn’t veer into plagiarism). Ask friends if they’re willing to share their own examples; see if your program offers any; you can even search (selectively) online. And if it’s not your first time writing this kind of document, then find one you wrote before and use that as a template!
The “But I Still Need to Research More” Black Hole
This goes in the general category of “getting derailed.” Sometimes this feeling—the feeling that we’re not ready to write until we research/read more—comes at the very beginning (i.e. when we’re facing the blank page). Sometimes it can strike in the middle of writing, especially if we think, “Oh, but I just need to check something from this article/book…” and then end up spending eight hours re-reading said article/book and others, rather than writing. Research/reading has its time and place. But the “research black hole” is that point where further research actually derails you rather than moving you forward. Some ways to handle this are:
- You know enough. If you’re at the point of writing, it means one of two things: either you already know enough about your topic to write, or you’re up against a deadline and don’t have a choice. Either way: you’ve researched enough. When I tell this to students, some common protests (and my responses) include:
- “No, I really don’t know enough!” Even if you don’t feel as if you know enough, have researched enough, or are ready to write—trust me that you do. At this point, you most likely know more about your topic (or about your particular ideas about the topic) than the average person on the street. This means you’re ready to start writing—emphasis on the word “start.” Remind yourself that starting to write does not mean setting things down in stone, or that you can’t revise or add material in the future. It simply means starting. Don’t believe me that you already know enough? Try talking—informally—about your ideas to a friend, family member, or colleague. Find someone who’s a patient, good listener, with whom you feel totally at ease—someone who will let you ramble without feeling self-conscious. You’ll be surprised at how much you have to say. Then—and this is crucial—go put what you said down on paper (I’m a fan of recording while talking, so that you don’t forget what you said). Writing is, at its base level, us telling others about our ideas. If you have something to say, you’re ready to start writing.
- “But there’s more research out there that I haven’t yet read!” Yes. There is. There always will be. But if you hold off writing until you’ve read everything there is, you’ll never write. The goal here is not perfection—no professor expects you to have read everything out there. The goal is “good enough”: have you researched enough that you have some preliminary thoughts to write down? Again, remind yourself that you can always continue researching (in separate allotted time), and you can always adjust your writing in light of new research later on—but it shouldn’t freeze you from starting to write in the first place.
- The “30 minute” exercise. Some types of writing involve working closely with secondary texts—quoting or referencing them, for example. Sometimes this is fine: you might find that you’re able to quickly look up the quote/statistic and continue writing. But sometimes this derails us, either by distracting us into reading more than we need to, or just by slowing down the overall writing pace. If you find you’re getting derailed, try the “30 minute” exercise: give yourself 30 minutes where you’re not allowed to open any sources. In these 30 minutes, you may only write. If you don’t remember a specific quote, fact, or page number, simply leave a blank space or note-to-self in your writing (e.g. “FILL IN QUOTE”). You’ll come back to it after 30 minutes. This method works because it feels less scary to commit to only 30 minutes of source-free writing.
- Leave “fill in” spaces. If you find the “30 minute” exercise works for you, try applying it on a longer-term basis. Designate separate, scaffolded writing stages:
- First, write entirely without looking at your sources, leaving “fill in” spaces within that writing as you go. These “fill in” spaces can be small items like quotes or stats, or large items like a certain scholar’s viewpoint. Either way, “fill in” spaces represent anything you’d need to look up in a book/article in order to incorporate it into your draft. You can do this within the text of your draft (e.g. “Jane Smith claims that [FILL IN #] of students dropped out of high school in [FILL IN YEAR]”) or as a margin comment. You can also apply this strategy toward your whole draft (e.g. a whole chapter), or for a specific part of your draft (e.g. a chapter section).
- Next, go back through your draft and fill in those spaces. This can save you time: when you have a laundry list of “fill in” items, you may be less likely to get distracted into reading/researching more than you have to; rather, you know you’re opening your sources for specific, targeted items. Additionally, you can maximize your time by organizing your search via source: going through one book/article at a time and filling in everything from that one source, rather than jumping back and forth between sources (which can be more time consuming if you have to find or re-familiarize yourself with the source each time). If you wish to maximize your time this way, it’s helpful to flag your “fill in” items with the relevant source name as you write them (I did this with the “comments” function of Google Docs and Word).
- Comments/notes to yourself. Sometimes the issue isn’t looking up specific facts or quotes; rather, sometimes we simply feel we need more research to flesh out or support our ideas. For example, you might be able to write your ideas and the research you’ve conducted thus far about feminist approaches to zombies in film, but you may feel that you still need to incorporate an additional article that discusses this topic. One strategy is to continue writing—without stopping to look up the additional scholarship—but flag the paragraph/section for yourself, via margin comments, as something to return to. If you don’t have time to return to it before sending your draft to peers or your professor, you can turn the comment into a question (“Should I incorporate Jane Smith’s article here?” or “Do you feel this point needs further backing in scholarship?”). Alternatively, you can keep a document version for yourself with the comments (so that you remember your thought process) but delete the comments for your reader, and see if the reader picks up on anything on her own. After all, that’s the point of feedback: to highlight what needs revision (in this case, adding more scholarship) versus what reads fine as is. You might find that while you thought you needed a ton more research, your adviser thinks it works as is.
Feeling Stuck and General Writing Anxiety
Sometimes the hurdle isn’t as specific as the blank page or the research black hole; sometimes it’s a more amorphous anxiety or a general feeling of “being stuck.” If you’re using your writing time to re-organize your notes or outline for the tenth time, it may be due to an underlying fear of (or aversion to) the act of writing itself. The above tips may help; here are some more general ones:
- Document your anxieties. Free-write about what you’re feeling in this moment: what’s keeping you from writing? This can help you figure out what’s holding you back; it also has the sneaky effect of getting you in the writing zone, because you are putting words to paper.
- Silence your inner critic. If you’re like me, then you have a disdainful little voice in your head that sometimes pops up, critiquing every word choice as you type. Numerous writers agree: you must silence this voice. Writing can and should be messy. We need to silence that inner critic, and embrace the mess, in order to get the writing going. Save worrying about word choice or sentence structure for later; that should be a distinct later stage of the writing process. Focus instead on generating a lot of content, at a steady pace, even if that content is messy.
- Keep a “cuttings” document. Silencing that inner critical voice may be straightforward—or, if you’re like me, it’s easier said than done. That’s why I keep what I call a “cuttings” document for each of my projects. This is a dedicated document for informal, unpolished writing related to your draft. Crucially, this is a document that no one else will ever read. When I’m feeling particularly anxious—often about a high stakes piece of writing like a fellowship application—I allow myself to write rambling paragraphs in the formal draft and then cut and paste anything that feels too messy or tangential into my “cuttings” document. This helps me get past the fear of committing perfect words to paper, and instead get on with writing down what I’m trying to say, messiness and all. It also feels safer to me than simply deleting messy or superfluous segments; saving them in my “cuttings” document means I don’t have to worry about ideas getting lost. I can, and do, return to my “cuttings” at later stages of revision or development. You could theoretically begin your writing in the “cuttings” document at the outset; I’ve found that I need to start writing in the “formal” document in order for the juices to flow, but everyone has a different rhythm.
- Positive reinforcement. Keep a running list of tasks you’ve completed (scaffolding into small, doable tasks helps here) to remind yourself that you did do stuff, you weren’t just sitting around all day. This can be as simple as: rather than deleting completed items from your checklist, keep them there (marked as done) for the day or week, as a visual reminder to yourself of what you got done. Sometimes our feelings of anxiety or being stuck stem from the amorphous nature of writing (and graduate work) itself—the lack of a clear external structure can make us feel like we’ve just been wasting time (even when we haven’t), which is not a motivating feeling. Positive reinforcement and encouragement—whether self-given or from peers—can help us move past that. Plus, it’s always helpful to have an objective, accurate view of how you spent your time and what you’ve accomplished thus far.
- Self kindness. Speaking of wasting time: sometimes we do. Sometimes, no matter how many strategies we try to implement, we still avoid writing and binge on Facebook. Rather than beating yourself up for this, I suggest doing the following:
- Notice that you’re going off plan
- Tell yourself that it’s okay that you went off plan. Even, yes, for two (or more) hours. What’s done is done.
- Refocus using any of the above techniques, or others that work for you, and get back on track. (This may be possible right away, or you may need to wait until your next writing slot to get back on track. Either way is fine.)
This may sound counter-intuitive. But beating ourselves up often only serves to heighten the very negative feelings that drove us to avoid writing in the first place; this can result in even further avoidance. Self-kindness and acceptance help us to move past such feelings.
I discussed writing groups and buddies in my previous post; these are two great ways to build accountability. Some others are:
- Establish deadlines with your professor/adviser. Either they or you can choose the deadlines (or you can choose them together), but make it clear what work is due by which deadlines. Be as specific as possible. For example, for a dissertation chapter, you might want to schedule a “rough draft” deadline, then a “polished/revised draft” deadline, and then a “final draft” deadline. If your professor doesn’t have time to read multiple drafts, s/he doesn’t have to—this can just be a case where they notice whether or not you’ve sent it to their inbox. The goal here isn’t necessarily feedback (although that’s always great)—it’s external accountability. Establish together what the procedure will be leading up to and following the deadline: will your professor email you a reminder a week in advance? Email a receipt acknowledgement, perhaps with encouraging words? Email you if they did not receive it by the deadline? Choose something feasible for your adviser but that will hold you accountable.
- Group/peer deadlines. There’s a huge value in articulating deadlines to people outside of ourselves: it holds us accountable, and makes the stakes feel higher by making the deadline feel more “real.” Sometimes, our professors can be this outside person—sometimes not. If you don’t feel comfortable using your professor to set accountability deadlines for yourself (and plenty of students don’t), try using peers or online communities. This can be as simple as texting your goals and deadlines to a family member or friend, or as formal as joining an online writing group that commits to regular writing. Facebook hosts many such groups (search “dissertation writing group,” for instance); you can of course also form your own. These differ from the writing groups/buddies mentioned in my previous post: while writing groups swap writing and writing buddies write side-by-side, accountability groups can simply offer a space in which you articulate (and hold yourself accountable) to your goals/deadlines.
- Self-established deadlines. These are deadlines that you establish by yourself, for yourself, without looping in your adviser, writing buddies, or anyone else. I’ll be honest. These have never—never—worked for me. But they do work for some people. For those of you for whom they don’t work (you know who you are), see above.
- Apps. There are some great apps that offer additional accountability options, if that’s your speed. Some, like Forest, work through a carrot/stick approach; others, like Habitica, fuse reward-based accountability with time management.
Speaking of time management:
- Schedule breaks. We all need breaks—even if just to stretch for five minutes and not kill our backs.
- Set timers. If you’re taking a break, set a timer (unless it’s just, you know, a bathroom-and-stretching break, in which case timers may be overkill). You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve said to myself, “I’m just going to read the news for 5 minutes” and then when I look up at the clock it’s been an hour (I’m sure none of you can relate).
- Set *writing* timers. At first this sounded counter-intuitive to me. I mean, the whole point of getting in the zone is to get in the zone, right? Without breaks? But setting timers for your writing—as versus for your breaks—can actually spur you to write more, and faster. I found it also gave me permission to write: some apps meant to help with this (commonly called “Pomodoro” apps, after the Pomodoro technique) have a default setting of 25 minutes. Even on days when I felt overwhelmed and busy, a mere 25 minutes still felt doable—it’s a good way to get yourself going if you’re having trouble getting started. It also sped up my writing: my writing tends to expand to fit whatever block of time I give it. When I had 25 minutes—even if I knew, logically, that it would be followed by another 25 minutes and another—I found my writing shrunk to fill that block of time; I jotted my ideas down faster and distilled them quicker. If you want to use this method, you can use use an app (some are free, others not) or simply set alarms on your clock (although there’s something oddly motivating about having a timer in the shape of a tomato).
- Project-hop. This is one of those strategies that can either really work for you or really not. Personally, I’ve found that it sometimes helps to channel my distraction by jumping from writing project to writing project. If I see that I’m losing my focus on one thing (and stretching / timers don’t help), rather than channeling my distraction into, say, watching Colbert clips, I can switch gears temporarily and work on a different project—having in mind that I’ll return to my first project soon (or after a 25-minute Pomodoro). This might mean pausing in dissertation chapter writing and working on a more mindless task like citation formatting; it might mean hopping from a dissertation chapter to a conference abstract or personal statement. I do try to keep the tasks writing based (as versus, say, browsing CFP’s or scheduling doctor appointments) so that I stay in the general zone. Again, this strategy is definitely not for everybody; if you’re reading this and thinking, “Oh my god this would be the worst thing for me” then ignore this idea. But for those of you who naturally tend to work this way: I’m here to validate that it can be a productive and mindful use of your time.
- Scaffold tasks (& establish moving deadlines). As teachers, we scaffold writing projects for students—we break larger projects down into smaller, building-block tasks. We should do the same for ourselves. This means:
- Actionable, feasible tasks. Scaffolding gives you concrete tasks and allows you to plot those tasks onto real-time in your calendar. This way, when you sit down to your block of writing time, rather than having a broad, vague task before you (such as “write chapter 1”) you have a very focused, clear task (“list sources need for chapter 1” or “order books for chapter 1 from library” or “outline chapter 1”). Some tasks may take up your entire writing block (e.g. outlining a chapter may take a few hours); tasks that are smaller can be subdivided within larger writing blocks (if you have a 3-hour writing block, for example, you can schedule multiple short tasks).
- Moving deadlines; static workflow. Unlike the rigid deadlines you establish with your adviser (or others), when you plot scaffolded tasks onto your calendar (i.e. within your writing blocks), it may help to think of them as moving deadlines. Your goal can definitely be to finish task #1 by the end of its appointed time slot; however, if you don’t, it simply shifts to the next time slot—pushing task #2 one slot over. This works especially well for tasks that build on each other (you can’t send your draft to peers for feedback until you write it; you can’t order library books until you research which ones you need). The key is to not get fazed as micro-deadlines for scaffolded tasks shift. Think of it as a moving target. The more important thing is to have a set workflow in place: knowing which tasks you need to do first, second, third, etc. For this reason, it may be helpful to keep your scaffolded workflow organized in a place that’s not your calendar; if you’re like me, placing “outline chapter 1” on your calendar only ensures that when you don’t complete it on Monday as planned, it disappears from sight come Tuesday. Keeping your workflow organized in a separate location—in an app (Habitica, Trello, or one of the numerous free to-do apps available out there) or even a good old-fashioned notebook—can help you stay on task when you sit down to write.
- Know when to move on. Sometimes, as detailed in the bullet above, tasks are order-dependent and if task #1 is not complete by the end of its allotted time slot, it simply must carry over to the next slot before task #2 happens. However, at other times it can actually be helpful—from a time management perspective—to say, “I’m going to do as much as I can of task #1 in its allotted time, but when that timer rings, I’m moving on to task #2 no matter what.” I’ve found this works best when:
- I give myself permission to “come back later” to task #1 (but just focus on task #2 for now)
- Task #1 is an unlimited sort of task—the task that can expand like a lava-monster into a black hole of time (e.g. researching other relevant scholarship on my topic)
- Task #1 is anxiety-provoking
- Task #2 is anxiety-provoking (and thus I’m inclined to avoid it, because task #1 is more fun), or
- I’m super close to a deadline.
Moving on to the next task forces us to get at least a little bit of each task done. It also helps us embrace the “good enough” principle: that our work doesn’t need to be perfect, just good enough to submit. Since “good enough” is hard for many grad students to gauge (myself included), moving on to the next task can serve as one way to establish a default “good enough” bar. In general, learning how to gauge when something is “good enough” as versus “perfect” is a valuable skill that considerably helps with time management. I’ll discuss concrete tips for how to gauge “good enough” in the fourth post in this series, which discusses revising, editing, and completing your writing.
Speaking of revising and editing: make sure you schedule time for those stages when you’re planning—and plotting on your calendar—your scaffolded writing tasks. Ideally, I break my writing into five overarching stages:
- Outline/notes: where I develop core ideas and structure
- Rough draft: where my goal is to get as many consecutive words on paper as possible, communicating my ideas messily, informally, and if need be, with gaps to fill in later (more on this strategy in my next post)
- First draft: where I polish up the rough draft to the point—and only to the point—of it being readable and complete for a non-intimidating outside reader (such as a peer). The draft is still not perfect, and may feel “unfinished” or “incomplete” to me, but it is contiguous and legible. At this stage, I send it to my outside reader (e.g. adviser, writing buddy, friend/family member) and ask for feedback.
- Second/revised draft: after receiving feedback, I revise accordingly to strengthen my draft.
- Final/edited draft: the last, final stage is editing—whether someone else takes a look or I self-edit. This is where all the micro-issues (spelling, grammar, word choice, sentence structure, citation formatting, etc.) get smoothed over.
I’ll go into more detail on tips for revising and editing in the fourth post of this series, but I mention this now in order to say: include distinct tasks of revising and editing when you plan out your scaffolded tasks. You don’t have to use the same stages that I do. Rather, when you establish deadlines, as discussed above, set deadlines for (at the very least) a rough draft, a revised draft, and a final, edited document.
Revising and Editing (and How to Actually Finish)
As I mentioned in my post on time management, ideally you should schedule time for revising and editing your writing. These are important, separate steps to the writing process, ideally involving an outside reader who can give you revision and/or editing feedback. I’ll discuss why below; however, I do want to acknowledge that sometimes we simply don’t have time for extended revision and editing stages or outside readers. I’ve definitely been in the boat of finishing a conference abstract down to the wire, and needing to hastily self-edit before submission. This is not ideal. However, since it’s a reality, the strategies below include tips for last-minute, self-editing as well as tips for more planned-out, ideal scenarios.
Why revise? Simple: you want to put your best writing forward, whether that writing is a job application or dissertation chapter. The best way to do that is to give your initial draft some resting time (away from your eyes and brain) and then—ideally after feedback from an outside reader—return to it with a fresh pair of eyes and tighten it. While you may have had successful past experiences submitting writing sans revision, revising is one of the best ways to make your writing as strong as you can. Here are some tips:
1. Outside readers
My top revision advice? Get an outside reader. I cannot emphasize enough how much this helps: it is the single, biggest way to improve your draft at this stage. Why? Because your goal in writing is always, fundamentally, to communicate ideas to an audience, whoever that audience is—whether it’s your adviser, journal editors/readers, a prospective employer, or others. Getting feedback from an outside reader helps you learn how a sample audience responds to your writing. What did s/he take away from your writing? What did s/he understand? Find confusing? Often, things we think are coming through clearly in our writing don’t get through to outside readers; we’re often so immersed in our own knowledge of what we’re trying to say that we may not see places where we fail to fully explain things. For this reason, an “outside reader” doesn’t have to be a professional, or someone outside your field—it simply refers to anyone who’s not you. Do try, though, to ask someone whose general judgment you trust. This may be a friend or family member; it can also be a colleague, fellow student, or professor.
Here are some questions you might ask an outside reader:
- What did you take away from the piece? What did you come away thinking the main point was?
- Which parts felt clear?
- Which parts felt confusing or unclear? Were there any points where you felt lost?
- Which ideas/points felt strong or compelling?
- Was there anything that felt like it needed more substantiation or needed to be fleshed out more?
- Any specific concerns you have about your piece, ask for feedback about them. For instance, if you’re worried whether the piece is too long or short, ask. If you’re worried about whether it flows in an organized, logical-feeling way, ask.
- You can also ask your reader to help you figure out what your main point is. Let’s say you’re writing an article, and you feel solid about each of the individual subsections, but aren’t sure if there’s an overall thesis tying it together. Ask your reader what s/he feels about that: did s/he feel the sections tied together? If so, how? Did s/he see an overarching or recurring theme or argument? Often, in these cases, you actually do have an underlying thesis; it can sometimes simply take a fresh set of eyes to tease it out.
2. Incorporate feedback but listen to your inner voice
The whole point of getting an outside reader is to get feedback; of course your next step is to incorporate that feedback into your new draft. But trust your own judgment as well. Remember that feedback is, at the end of the day, subjective: different readers will respond in different ways, and you can’t please everyone. If you get feedback that simply goes against your gut feeling of what’s right—listen to your gut. There are exceptions to this, of course. If this is a paper you’re writing for a class, and the feedback comes from your professor, you may want to prioritize your professor’s perspective; similarly, if this is an article for publication, you may want to prioritize the editor’s perspective. Even in these cases, though, if the feedback you receive goes strongly against your own judgment, it’s worth a longer conversation. And in lower stakes situations—e.g. peer feedback—definitely balance what your reader says with your own instincts.
Some good rules of thumb here are:
- If your outside reader says that anything is confusing or unclear, listen to this. This is likely an indication that, for any audience, it’s worthwhile for you to revisit the sentence/paragraph/section in question. Ask your reader to elaborate on what felt confusing, and what they thought you were saying—this will help give you a sense of what information you need to clarify.
- If your reader felt something needed more substantiation, you likely want to consider this. This is especially (and obviously) true if the reader is your adviser, but this can also play out in other scenarios. For instance, if a peer reads your cover letter and thinks you could give more concrete examples to demonstrate the skills you’re trying to highlight.
- If your reader gives feedback about stylistic elements, balance this with your own judgment. After all, it’s your writing—it should be in your voice. And style is often subjective (assuming we’re not discussing hard grammar rules). Exceptions here include if you’re publishing the piece within a publication that has an explicit style guide, or if the reader is your adviser and the writing in question is your dissertation or class paper (in the latter case, it’s fair to stick to your guns, but it may make your life easier to incorporate your professor’s style preferences).
- If your reader tries to change the direction of your actual content—i.e. tries to alter your basic ideas—run away, fast. This is not a helpful outside reader. If this happens with your adviser regarding your dissertation, then of course this needs to be a more complex, thoughtful conversation between the two of you. And editors may wish you to add or remove content from a piece for publication. But if someone, even an adviser or editor, is trying to change your core ideas and thesis, this should set off warning bells.
3. Take a hiatus; then return and reread
Sometimes you don’t have time for an outside reader, or the people you’d ask are unavailable. In this case, try to put yourself in the place of an outside reader new to this writing. The best way that I’ve found to do this is to put the writing aside for some time (at least a day, if you can afford that), distract yourself with unrelated stuff in the meantime, and then return to it. The more time you can take away from your writing, the fresher your eyes will be when you come back. This is a good chance to switch gears and work on other projects, get life chores done, or give yourself some much needed downtime. Or, if you’re really short on time, try taking a brief hiatus—even just an hour—but do something utterly different in that time, something that distracts your brain. For me, television or reading helped here (as versus, say, walking around the block, during which time my mind still focused on my writing). When you return to your writing, try as much as you can to put yourself in the shoes of someone completely unfamiliar to the piece, and ask yourself how it might read to such a person. You can ask yourself the same questions listed above that you would ask an outside reader. Granted, this system does not work nearly as well as asking an actual outside reader these questions—but if you’re short on time, it’s still better to do this than to not revise at all.
4. Revising may include substantial writing
Unlike editing, which usually focuses on micro, surface-level changes (such as spelling or grammar), revising can really vary in scope. In some cases it might simply entail short, fast tweaks, while in other cases it might mean making significant changes: cutting huge sections and/or adding lots of new writing. There’s usually no way to gauge this ahead of time, so err on the side of caution, and set aside time for significant revisions—if you only need to make small revisions, you’ll be ahead of schedule, and if you need to make large ones you’ll have the time to do so.
I think the value of editing is self evident. The questions I’ve received from students have centered more on how to edit. Here are some tips:
1. Outside readers
As with revision, it really helps to get a second pair of eyes when editing. Often, we’re so familiar with the piece we’ve been writing (and staring at, and rereading over and over) that we easily miss small errors. Outside readers can be a fellow student, family member, or friend—anyone whose grasp of grammar and attention to detail you trust. It helps to let them know at the outset what you’d like them to look for (e.g. spelling, grammar, citation, or other types of errors).
2. Read out loud
If you’re self-editing, this is the number one tip I always give: read your piece out loud. You will catch mistakes that your eyes would otherwise gloss over if you read silently. This is a really effective way to catch numerous errors, especially typos and awkward sentences (if a sentence feels awkward to read out loud, you can likely tighten it). It’s also a good way to catch run-on sentences: if you’re reading out loud and need to pause for breath before the end of the sentence, it’s likely a run-on. Not always. But likely. (FYI, you can fix run-on sentences by inserting strategic punctuation; if, for example, you don’t want to use a period, use a semicolon, as I did here.) Reading out loud will 100% feel silly the first time (and possibly every time) you do it, but it works.
3. Spellcheck, Grammarly, & Writefull
Reading out loud only helps if you know what to look for, though; of course we can still miss spelling and grammar errors, or awkward word choices. I’ve often heard this concern from students who are not native English speakers. There are some tools out there to help. Spellcheck and grammar checks work automatically in programs such as Word; the downside is that they can miss things, such as when your typo is a legitimate word (e.g. “fist” instead of “first”), or when you’re using a word awkwardly given its context. Writefull is a free app that helps you gauge whether you’re using a word, synonym, or phrase accurately in its context. It also offers translation help. While I haven’t personally used Grammarly, I’ve heard many students say that it’s helpful for them.
4. Purdue OWL & Grammar Girl
If you’re looking for online resources that will walk you through English grammar conventions in more depth, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) and the Grammar Girl website are two useful resources (Grammar Girl is not affiliated with a university; I’ve simply found the articles helpful).
5. Citation help
Purdue’s OWL also offers citation guides, as does our GC library. And remember that the librarians are there to assist you; I’ve gone to them with more than one tricky citation (or “Help, Zotero isn’t doing what I need it to do”) question.
Gauging “Good Enough,” or How to Actually Finish
How do you know when you’re actually finished and ready to submit? Many of us (not me. never me.) have trouble gauging when a piece is “good enough” versus the ever-elusive “perfect.” We obsessively revisit and reread and re-edit and rework pieces beyond what’s needed—and sometimes to the point of actually harming the piece and/or our own productivity.
I’ll be honest: this is still a huge struggle for me, personally. I have no easy tricks up my sleeve to make this problem go away. What I can offer, though, are some ideas to be mindful of when the perfectionist impulse or the completion/submission anxiety hits:
1. Perfectionism is the enemy of the good
This mantra is true for a number of reasons:
- Perfectionism regarding one task can prevent you from moving on to your other, just-as-important tasks (after all, our time is finite).
- Perfectionism can sometimes mean overly revising writing—think over-mixing quick-bread dough. (You don’t want to do this. It toughens the bread.) I’ve seen students overthink their writing to the point where they actually make it worse (e.g. by panicking and changing content last minute). Trust that if you got outside feedback, revised, and edited, it’s ready.
- Delaying submission can harm your chances sometimes: e.g. job applications that are reviewed on a rolling basis. Of course, you want to make sure any job materials you submit are carefully edited and typo-free. But once you do so, you’ll want to submit as soon as possible.
- Fundamentally, however, I think the idea of “Perfectionism is the enemy of the good” is about more than pragmatic concerns: it’s about a healthy mindset. It’s easy to fall into the tunnel-vision of perfecting this one piece—but that tunnel vision often hides underlying anxieties or insecurities. “What if my piece gets rejected?” “What if my adviser hates it?” “What if I don’t get the job?” The “Good Enough” mentality is actually a more fundamental overhaul of our mindsets: it forces us to put the worst-case-scenario in a larger context. Saying something is “Good Enough” is, in essence, saying to yourself, “Okay—what if I don’t get the job? What if my adviser hates it? What if it gets rejected? Is that the end of the world? No.” In the scheme of things, whatever happens will be okay (I can’t actually promise this, but my hunch is it will)—and keeping a healthy sense of perspective will serve you better in the long run. There’s a reason we encourage low-stakes writing for our students: lowering the stakes makes writing more enjoyable, and often more productive. The same principle applies here: make your stakes “Good Enough” rather than “Perfect.”
2. Look at your to-do list of next tasks
Remember how perfectionism is the enemy of the good because it can actually keep you from getting other stuff done? One way to make this idea more concrete is to keep your entire spread of to-do tasks—including next projects beyond this piece of writing—in front of you. If you notice you’re getting fixated on editing this current piece, take even just a five-second break to scan your upcoming projects. Remind yourself of your overall goals, in the long run: is it more important to re-edit this one piece to perfection, at the cost of not getting your next work item done (or done on time)? Or is it more valuable for you, in the long run, to hit submit and actually get started on your next task? Projects don’t live in time-vacuums. Our time—and especially our time for work—is finite. Whatever extra minutes your perfectionism eats up with one project, it takes away from another.
3. Ask someone
If you’re not sure whether your piece is ready for submission, ask someone: a writing buddy, professor, career adviser, friend, or family member. Of course ask someone you trust. If s/he says it’s ready, submit it.
At the end of the day, sometimes we simply need an external deadline in order to call something “done.” This is where establishing hard deadlines with someone whom you’ll take seriously, such as an adviser, really helps. Sometimes the deadline will be external (e.g. article submission), and sometimes it’s self-established (see the first post of this series for details on that).
Thanks for reading—I hope this series has been helpful with your writing! If you’d like one-on-one feedback regarding job documents, make an appointment with one of our career advisers. And, during the school year, our graduate writing consultants are available to review any pieces of writing (they are not available over the summer).