4.2 Overview of the writing process
You start to write your second sentence and you realize you need a specific statistic that's in that paper by Jones et al. When you write this way, you also tend to pay attention to just one detail at a time and you lose the big picture scope of the story. It takes forever, and you end up with something disorganized and unfocused because you're paying so much attention to the small prose details that you lose sight of the big picture.
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In this next module, we’re going to change modes. For the rest of this unit, we’re going to talk about the writing process itself. How you approach writing can greatly influence your enjoyment of the process as well as how the piece comes out at the end of the day. I’m going to focus on scientific manuscripts. But the steps I’m outlining here would apply to any type of writing. For scientific manuscripts, I’m talking about the point at which you have done your experiments and you have your data and results in hand. At that point you are ready to write up your manuscript. I like to break what happens next into three distinct phases, and I really do separate these three phases in my head. One of the major problems I think scientists have when writing is that they convoluted these three steps. This makes the writing harder and less efficient and it reduces the quality of the final product. Writing starts with what I call the prewriting phase. That’s when you’re collecting and synthesizing and organizing all your facts, all the information that’s going to go into your story or manuscript. You’re working out the take home messages. You’re figuring out the flow of ideas and the organization. A lot of people just skip right over this step. They think that it will be more efficient and just jump right into the writing and figure out what they’re trying to say as they go along. But when you convolute prewriting and writing, it’s extremely inefficient. It looks something like this, you sit down to write your introduction section, you pop open that blank Word document and write your first sentence. You start to write your second sentence and you realize you need a specific statistic that’s in that paper by Jones et al. Since you haven’t done any prewriting, that statistic is not at your fingertips. So you toggle over to PubMed and try to find the paper. And maybe you can’t find it in PubMed so you switch over to Google and find it there. Then you pop open the PDF, but the statistic is not in the abstract. So you’ve gotta skim through the whole PDF. Finally, you find the statistic and you pop it into your ongoing draft. Notice that at this point, it’s taken you about 20 or 30 minutes to write two sentences. This is a painful and inefficient way to write. Because you’re not actually doing any writing, you’re just fishing around for information. When you write this way, you also tend to pay attention to just one detail at a time and you lose the big picture scope of the story. So you end up with a manuscript that’s very disorganized and unfocused. And of course when you’re toggling over to Google or PubMed, there’s a tendency to get distracted, right? You’re taking your focus away from writing, and writing is something that takes a lot of focus and energy. But once you’re over to Google, well you might as well go to Amazon and order those supplies you need, then you go check your email, then you check Facebook, then Google News. You end up being distracted. So I encourage you to invest time in the prewriting step. Get all your information at your finger tips, and organize it. Lay out what’s going into your piece ahead of time, before you open up that blank Word document. The second step is writing the first draft. This is when you actually sit down at the computer, open up that blank Word document, and compose prose. For most people, this is the most difficult step. This is the hard part of writing, where you actually have to put your ideas into complete sentences. I’m going to give you some tips to make this step a little bit easier. Then the third step is the revision. After you’ve written a first draft, you go back and you revise it to make it sound better. Now again, a lot of people convolute steps two and three here. They try to write and revise at the same time and this is extremely inefficient. A lot of students tell me I can’t move on to the next sentence until I get the last sentence perfect. And I used to be guilty of this too so I understand that impulse to want to be a perfectionist, but this is a painful way to write. It takes forever, and you end up with something disorganized and unfocused because you’re paying so much attention to the small prose details that you lose sight of the big picture. It’s better to write your first draft quickly and efficiently. Just get your ideas down and then go back and revise. Go back and make it sound prettier. I want you to think about your own writing process. Ask yourself, what percent of your writing time do spend in each one of these steps. Prewriting versus writing versus revision. Take a minute and reflect on that. Pause the video if you need to. Think about how you allocate your time. I’ve polled students on this before and most students tell me that they spend the majority of their time on step number two. The writing the first draft step. Actually, I think it’s a mistake to spend too much time on the writing step. The part where you are composing prose at the computer. I’m going to try to shake up your writing process by telling you what I think you should be aiming for in terms of how you allocate your time. This may surprise some of you. This is what I think it should be roughly. Obviously, these percentages are not exact, but this should give you a sense of where I think you should put your emphasis. I think that you need to spend a lot of time prewriting. In fact, the majority of your time should be spent in this prewriting stage. I’ll talk in more detail about what happens during prewriting in the next module but most people aren’t spending enough time there. Then notice that I allocated the smallest amount of time to writing the first draft. That may surprise some of you because here I am, a writing teacher, telling you to spend less time writing. But what I’m trying to get you to do is to write in a way that is more efficient. If you’re ready to write and you’re not trying to revise and write at the same time, you can write much more quickly. Writing prose takes the most focus and energy, it’s the hardest step. So it’s more efficient and less painful if you spend less time in that step. And then finally, I’ve put 20% for revision because I want to encourage you to spend more time revising than writing the first draft. Revision is where elegance happens in writing. I’ll show you some examples of what I mean by this later. But these proportions really do reflect how I allocate my time when I’m writing a piece. Through experience I found that writing is most efficient for me if I divide my time this way. In the next three modules, I’m going to go through each of these steps and tell you exactly what should happen in each of these steps.
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