This summer I’m writing a series of posts about the curriculum of the research process, from the initial idea to the development of a complete draft. This final week, I’m focusing on how to know when it is really time to hit ‘submit’ on your manuscript – and how to get there.
As scholars, we face a serious challenge when communicating our findings to the world. We can get so in our heads about an idealized perfect draft that may never exist that we can leave our manuscripts in limbo while we endlessly tweak and edit and wordsmith them. Editing is not so much a process of transforming the first draft into the idealized perfect version as moving the draft along until it’s good enough to go out. If nothing else, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Some quick tips to move a draft along are:
- Cut your darlings: The advice my high school literature teacher taught me has stayed with me ever since – at least 20 percent of what we write in a first draft needs to be cut or rewritten. The prose may be beautiful, but it is more important that your work is clearly explained.
- Change the font size and type: If you get stuck on a particular section, changing the font size and type changes the information that your brain is processing. It’s new, and therefore interesting! Don’t bore your own brain!
- Start in a fresh document: If a section is being particularly difficult, open a blank document and copy (never cut) the offending material. Break it into paragraphs and tackle each paragraph. Do the paragraphs flow? Do you repeat yourself? Did you actually explain the concept or are you mentally filling in details? Are you missing transitions? This revision process will destroy the version you started with – and moves it closer to a draft that you can share with others.
I have rarely felt so seen as an academic as with The Good Place’s Chidi Anagonye, a character who spent 18 years working on his ethics manuscript. Another character tells him, “You’re a brilliant guy, Chidi, but you just kept revising and rewriting and adding words to your title. I think you just twisted yourself up into a knot.”
Just like Chidi, at some point we have to make the decision to send our papers out. Sending papers out is especially important for junior scholars, including job market candidates. “Sending the paper out,” however, doesn’t mean sending it straight to a journal for review. I use the following ladder for sending a paper out, which reduces the stakes of each step into low marginal costs:
- Presenting your work and getting feedback from discussants: This is a first-round step that everyone knows, but it’s worth emphasizing. You also don’t have to wait for conferences to send your papers out to friendly eyes who can give you high-level feedback on whether you are missing an important paragraph or to remind you about the new-new-new difference-in-difference technique that just dropped.
- Ask a trusted senior scholar for comments: This step is a free pass at getting comments from someone who thinks like reviewers in your field without the added cost of a possible desk rejection or rejection after a long-awaited round of reviews.
- Proofreading and copy-editing: Pay for a copy-editor to look over your paper! Even strong writers use copy-editors because once we’ve read and re-written our papers ten times, we no longer see the issues with it. Copy-editors are professionals who are there to help. Job market candidates should definitely hire a copy-editor before sending their job market paper out, because the marginal cost of a copy-editor is the same as it would be before sending it out to a journal but the marginal benefits are much higher.
- Journal submission: Just Do It. At this point, it’s off your desk and you can work on the next paper.
I hope this series on the curriculum of the research process has been helpful this summer, and that you find ways to stay motivated and keep writing. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself – everyone struggles with this process at some point, and it’s more important to learn how to improve than to be perfect from the start. As Jason Mendoza, another great character from The Good Place, reminds us, “Be nicer to yourself.”
And happy writing!