Structural Editing: Getting your writing into shape

Okay, editing, or structuring, definitely seems to be a Voodoo thing. You ‘get’ it, or you don’t; and if you don’t… then you are left without much help.  This post was prompted by a question from James Hayton (@3monththesis), and then when I polled Twitter to find out if anyone else wanted a post, I got an immediate and resounding “YES. #capsjustifiedbylevelofneed” and “Yes. Yes. One thousand times yes.”

So, here goes.

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I’m talking here about Structural Editing, not Polishing. There is lots and lots of advice about the Polishing, proof reading, copy editing stage of the writing cycle. This blog alone talks about strategies for polishing here, and here, and here, to name but a few examples. But structural editing…. not so much. A previous attempt that I made, “How do I edit?‘, was a muddle of Structure and Polishing strategies…  So this is an attempt to explain what I do when I structurally edit my own work, and what I do when I give advice to other people to structure theirs.

Your writing in the shitty first draft phase, can be really unstructured.  Maybe it feels like ectoplasm, floppy, disjointed, limp (to quote Iris Murdoch in the Sacred and Profane Love Machine). Or it can feel like a scatter-shot approach: like throwing handfuls of pebbles at the problem, instead of one well aimed rock.  Or it can feel like a messy room, after a tornado had blown through.

All of these are fine, starting out, because it’s your first draft…  but you don’t want to stay there.

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What to do?

Clarify your argument and your findings. This is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO.

You often can’t really be clear about what you’ve proven until you’ve done the writing up, and now you’ve done that with the first draft. So this is the time.

Your argument is your spine, with it, the whole work can finally stand upright.

Once you have the argument, write it down. If it takes more than 3-4 sentences, it’s still not clarified. Try again. (Or try one of the tips in the section below).

When it is clear, you then go through the chapter (or other text) signposting. Your argument is what controls the first sentence of the introduction, the link between sections,  the topic sentence of each paragraph and the conclusion.

Signposting is really simple. You just keep writing variations on:

In this thesis/chapter/section/paragraph, I make logical progress towards my conclusion/findings by demonstrating ……

What you are demonstrating will be different depending on the steps in your argument. In a  paragraph topic sentence in your lit review or methodology, you might write ‘while Big Scholar argues otherwise, he is wrong’, or ‘Foundational Theorist has proposed a useful foundational model which I am accepting, so I can progress to Y’.  In the introduction to a section of results, you might signpost to say  ‘this aspect of my data shows Xi, this Xb, and then Xc’, or ‘After 1945 and the end of the war, the funding for propaganda was reduced, but the institutional models of arts patronage remained.’

You can’t over signpost your argument. (You can totally overdo the ‘moreovers’ and ‘furthermores’, but they are writing tics, and some people trained in the North American model, who are already excellent at signposting, don’t need to do more.) But almost all Australian-New Zealand-British students and almost all Asian students I’ve ever taught, don’t signpost enough.
We feel culturally uncomfortable telling people our argument, as if it is rude to do more than gesture, allude, or ‘thread through’ an argument, as if to do more was to assume the reader was stupid.
As a reader, an examiner, an assessor, I can tell you, I want more signposting. I’m only going to read your work once–unlike you I don’t expect to work on it for days (or weeks or months).  Please be explicit, and please signpost more.

You use your signposted arguments to help you craft your conclusion too:

Having demonstrated X in this thesis/chapter/section/paragraph, I made this much logical progress towards my conclusion/findings.

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If you have clarified your argument, and gone through and signposted how each stage of your writing is helping to build a case for that argument, you find that your work will have to start taking shape. 

Or rather, your argument becomes a narrative. That logical sequence becomes a forward moving, comprehensible way to structure long pieces of prose.  (A caveat, academic narratives aren’t like detective stories. Don’t withhold information to increase interest, and don’t have a twist at the end. )

Some logical ways to structure academic narratives are:

  • Chronology (historical or sequential discovery)–very effective, easy to structure, easy to follow, and sequence often equals causation.
  • Foundational principle and logical unpacking of those assumptions.
  • Start with the effects, and then work backwards to understand why.
  • 3 case studies all proving a part of a central claim.

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At the same time, you are likely to find a whole load of things that don’t seem to fit in your text.

Stuff that is in itself good, interesting, helpful; stuff that you learned, and had to work hard to find out; stuff that some article said was important; extra stuff you are afraid to throw out.

If something central, foundational,  essential doesn’t fit, it may mean your argument /data is wrong. In which case, go back to ‘clarifying your argument’ and make it ‘clarifying your defensible argument’.  Usually this just means moving from ‘therefore xyz never happens’, to ‘therefore, in a small majority of cases, xyz does not seem to happen.’ It’s not the end of the world, and it isn’t worth deleting everything and starting again.

Proportion is another thing to keep in mind here. Getting your structure right also means getting each part to be the right size. Fortunately, it’s really simple, and pretty mechanical.  For your typical humanities text, it looks like this:

  • Your introduction, the bit where you outline the scope, argument, and tell us the findings, mention your methodology or theoretical position… maybe adding in a quick list of things you are going to cover? 10-15%.
  • Context: Background info, definitions, lit review, etc? 10%
  • Body: case studies, data, textual analysis, unpacking the argument step-by-step? 70%
  • Conclusion, the bit where you restate the intro and maybe add something about future research or the relevance to a wider field? 8-10%

With these proportions in mind, you can judge if you have spent too long explaining the background, or haven’t spent enough time introducing your argument.

However, most of the information, paragraphs, ideas etc. that don’t fit are actually footnotes and addenda, or the kernels of another essay, your post-doc project, or a separate journal article. Undergraduate essays often read like a mashup of three separate potential essays.  At the end of the doctoral journey, your post-doc proposal often starts growing organically out of the thesis.  You often think you are writing one journal article that’s way too long, but actually the work needs to be three distinct journal articles. They don’t fit because they don’t belong in this text. 

Cut them out and put them in a separate file. Don’t delete them, just move them. Taking them out of this text makes it easier to structure what you are currently writing. It also gives you a head-start on the next piece.

Of course, sometimes it does fit, but not where you’ve put it, in which case you can move it.  Because you are being so logical and explicit about each step of your argument, it becomes much clearer to work out where it really does belong. The gaps, bumps and tangles are more obvious.  Most of my first draft conclusion gets shifted into the introduction, every single time.  Then I write a new conclusion, and that gets moves forward to the intro. Finally, I write a third version, and it actually works. That’s pretty typical.

If you have trouble working out the order, you may find Reverse Outlining useful here.

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If you are still reading this post, then perhaps you need more help, perhaps things are actually a total mess. They aren’t just a bit shitty, they feel like a natural disaster.

It may take you a few goes to get to the stage where you can clarify your argument and move forward.  That’s okay. Research–>Shitty First Draft–>Edit–>Polish is still much faster and more efficient than other ways of writing.

3 Tips to get to the starting line:

  1. Take a critical distance break.
    As I have explained before, a critical distance break is some time off (overnight, or an actual two week holiday), that helps you distance yourself from your writing.You come back refreshed, with a fresh eye, and you start to approach your work as a reader, not a writer. Things that were hard to see, or hard to articulate, often ‘fall into place’ after a critical distance break. Try it!
  2. Get help. Sorting it out may not be something you can do on your own.
    You might be an external processor, an extrovert, or like to ‘bounce ideas around’. You might not have the academic support you need, or have missed an important foundational article, or misunderstood the questions. In an ideal world, that help is provided by your tutor or supervisor. But the world isn’t always ideal, and early career researchers don’t have supervisors any more. So there are lots of other options.You may have a great writing buddy. Many universities have advisors like me–whose job it is to listen and reflect on your ideas structurally, and analytically. You may need to hire a writing mentor.  Conferences are often good for this kind of work, especially Faculty work-in-progress days and post-graduate conferences.DO NOT expect your mother or partner to be this sounding board. They are unlikely to be sufficiently detached, they may not have the experience or training; and even if they do, it can cause major strains in your relationship (I speak from experience here). Their job is to love you. Let them do their job.
  3. Get physical / visual / tactile.
    Holding 100,000 words in your head is not always the best way of understanding the structure of a text.  I often explain to someone how a thing is structured by :
If your argument looks like this
If your argument looks like this, it’s not yet clear.

i)    Mapping it out on a white board
ii)   Printing things out in hard copy, putting them into piles and then shuffling the piles around until they make sense in an order,
iii)   Walking it through. If it’s steps in a straight line, then I know I’ve got it. If it’s an convoluted dance, then something is wrong.

And a bonus 4th tip:

Don’t forget that just because something is difficult, nuanced, complex, multi-valent and enormous doesn’t mean your writing should be loose, convoluted and incomplete. Instead, you need to be upfront about all the things your text is not going to do.

Academic prose has all sorts of limitations, it can only do one thing at a time… it can only progress in linear fashion… it can only explain certain kinds of knowledge. Accept that, acknowledge it, and make your academic text do what it can do best: a step-by-step explanation of a focused contention leading to a finding that makes an acute contribution to a wider field of knowledge. That is all.

Try these tips, and work out what you are trying to say. Then see where you ended up. This is your argument and your findings… so go and start signposting!

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I hope this helps you to edit & explains the process. 

Further questions or suggestions are always welcome in the comments!  

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10 Comments

  1. Well put! I often tell my academic clients the same thing. (I’m an editor.) One caveat, though: when people rely on a chronological/narrative structure they typically don’t realize that they still need to foreground their argument throughout; without such foregrounding and signposting, this structure feels rambling and shapeless.

    1. Catherine, thanks for that. You are ABSOLUTELY right about needing to foreground and signpost the argument, whichever structure is used. Narrative structures, in particular, can become very descriptive (rather than analytical), ‘and then this happened, and then that happened’.

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