‘On revision’: editing tips from a scholarly writing instructor

By Kate Jirik

Want to stump a scientist? Skip the technical zingers and ask this instead: Who among your peers do you admire for their writing ability? Whose scientific papers would you read no matter the subject?

Cue the crickets.

Science doesn’t work that way, does it? Researchers typically read for information and new knowledge, rather than style. Professional success as a scientist means advancing hypotheses, publishing evidence, and engaging peers in debate to evolve a field of study. So it makes sense that scholars think of themselves (and one another) as investigators — thinkers who write — rather than writers.

But they are writers, as William Germano describes in a new book about scholarly writing and editing. On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts (University of Chicago Press, 2021) emphasizes the craft of scholarly writing — which includes not only research articles and monographs but spaces where science writers likewise engage public audiences — op-ed pages, magazines, bookstore shelves, podcasts and speaking engagements.

What lessons from scholarly circles can help inform our self-editing practice as science writers? Some of Germano’s core tenets may sound familiar.

Call upon the inner ear

Throughout his book, Germano reiterates the need to listen — to use one’s internal, mental ear to examine, diagnose and deconstruct the work on the page. “Revising is going back to a piece of writing and trying to hear what’s in the words you’ve got so far. What’s missing, what’s in the way, what’s in the wrong place or in the wrong voice.” Read out loud, copy down notes, flag areas you have reservations about.

In editing, we not only revise words but how we think. Seek techniques that put distance between you and your words. “Make decisions about your draft as if it were not ‘yours.’” Imagine your argument from someone else’s perspective. What might be prone to misinterpretation?

Listen to understand what the draft needs, Germano emphasizes. Reshape your sentences, move paragraphs, connect ideas more smoothly. Test phrases for fit the way you would try on clothes or move a couch around a room. Question your work playfully. What can be tweaked to improve your meaning?

Choose with intention

Revising involves recalculating, Germano says — of sensing when you’re off track. Even when you’re lost — when the structure doesn’t quite work or a passage feels drab — you’re learning from being lost. You’re building mental muscles, the instinct, for getting un-lost.

You make many decisions along the way — about the shape of a piece, a core argument, perspectives to include, what voice is appropriate. You develop some points further and let others fall away. “I draft a lot, and I delete a lot. Just because a sentence is pretty doesn’t mean it’s true. And even if it’s pretty and true, that doesn’t mean it’s useful to what I’m writing.”

Stay focused on what you intended to say.

An exercise like Germano’s Writing Bullseye can be helpful in mapping your project.

  1. Outer ring: Describe your subject matter in no more than 10 words.
  2. Middle ring: Write a declarative sentence about your problem of interest.
  3. Inner ring: Ask a question about the problem you’ve identified.

Here’s a set of responses for this blog: (1) editing tips for science writers based on a new book; (2) Academic and science writers approach editing in similar ways when developing works for public audiences; and (3) How can scholars and science writers mutually benefit from sharing knowledge about the editing process? This kind of exercise helps you carry a clearer sense of what you’re doing, especially when tangents and asides tempt you away from your core theme.

Respect readers

In On Revision, Germano stresses that without readers, writing is just words on a page. Readers, even anonymous ones, bring writing to life. “It’s not the research and the knowledge, the judicious sifting, the care with which you organized your findings that counts. It’s what your reader takes away.”

Germano explains how readers want to be drawn into the experience of you thinking through your question or problem. Readers should detect how you’re developing your argument. A good reading experience depends on a well-structured piece and internal coherence. “A reader can get lost, be distracted, lose faith. Your job is to keep the reader focused.” Good structure gives readers a sense of security; they feel they are in good hands.

Try outlining a piece ahead of time, and draft after draft, inspect how the sections of your story relate to one another. Is your original plan still the most fitting? Does the pacing enhance the overall coherence? Where should you move quickly and where can you revel in rich detail? (For more on this, see Jack Hart’s discussion of summary and scenic narratives in Storycraft, another excellent U. Chicago Press book).

One final bit of advice Germano shares: “Always acknowledge your reader and your reader’s intelligence. Especially in the digital world, writing is less a delivery system than an ecosystem.”

Living in a globally connected society, we have big, messy conversations about whatever subjects we write about. Our voices mix with and bump up against many other voices. What is it we want to say? We begin with a blank page, and work diligently and determinedly on the first draft. And the next. We aim for improvement, for “much better,” knowing that perfection always lies out of reach. We revise and revise until we can’t anymore. Then we recognize when to stop.

Readers will see only the final draft. That’s as it should be, Germano says. Presenting the clearest, most persuasive version is a gift to your readers. “Make [your writing] the best you can, from page 1 through all the pages that follow. Then let it go.”

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