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Streamline, condense, and remove redundancy when editing your writing?


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Hey all!

I've been really struggling with editing the discussion of my Master's thesis (in biology) that is unfortunately quite redundant at times. I have never found editing to be so draining before and I was wondering if any of you all on here had tips on how to edit a piece of your own writing for redundancy to help streamline and condense the writing overall?

At times I really struggle with seeing why the way I have written something needs to be fixed since the way I wrote it still makes sense to me in my head. Reading my writing aloud helps a lot but it doesn't always help me catch stuff. My advisor and partner help me a lot in improving something I have written but their comments can only go so far since it is ultimately up to me to make the changes. I've also not ever struggled so much with redundancy before but this discussion is a style of writing that I don't have as much practice with. Overall, I just struggle with being concise and getting to the point with the fewest words in the most logical order so that the writing doesn't go too long. 

Any tips on how to work on these things or how to make the editing process in general not quite so draining?

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An easy place to start: remove all adjectives and adverbs. Does the text change? 99% of the time, the answer is 'no' and the extra embellishment is unnecessary. A second step: remove hedges: I would like to propose that..., it would appear that [blah] might be the case --> [blah], etc.

Writing papers can be hard. When you got started, did you sit down with your advisor and discuss the overall structure and main point(s) of the thesis? If you haven't, even though it sounds like you're fairly advanced, it would be very useful to stop and do this. Existing text aside, what are you trying to convey to your reader? How do you plan to structure the argument(s)? What does the reader need to know at each step, to understand what you're telling them? If you've done this already, go back to your plans and ask yourself how you're doing with respect to your plans. Things always change along the way, but it's also good to remind yourself of where you started and where you want to go. The thing about edits is that they get into the nitty gritty details and you can easily forget the forest for the trees. Take a step back to remind yourself of the bigger picture. Then make a pass with this in mind. For each sentence/paragraph, does it need to be there or can it be cut? If it stays, what's it doing there? Is it doing its job well or can it be trimmed? Maybe it'd serve you better in another part of the essay. 

It's useful to read things out loud or have them read to you (there's software that will do that for you). It's also often helpful to print things out and read them on paper as opposed to on the screen. At the end of the day, you have to learn by doing, there is no other way. Look back at edits you've gotten: are there common themes to things that get corrected in your writing? Are there things you particularly appreciate about other people's writing that you can emulate in your own writing? I find that going back and forth between the details and the big picture helps me avoid some frustrations.  

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You're already covered on the usual advice, which is to read things out loud. I'm not sure what your 'reading aloud' process looks like, but any sentence you stumble over in speaking is a candidate for revision. You may already know this, but I thought I'd say it just in case.

Leaving a section for 3+ days helps, too. Once you've slept on it, you'll be less habituated to what you want your writing to mean, so you'll be able to hear what you've actually written on the page more clearly.

Sometimes I print things out and re-write whole pages by hand. I am not that quick at penmanship, so that is nice incentive to reduce my writing to the essential points! Obviously this isn't workable for an entire thesis, but the trick is not so much learning general tips, as learning your general writing habits. For example, I tend to bury the lede, so my re-writing process almost always involves fishing up topic sentences from wherever they've hidden in the body of my text, and placing them on top of each paragraph instead. Writing by hand gives me a sense of what sub-optimal writing habits have been expressing themselves lately, which I can then use as a guide for going back through the entire text on the computer. It's also a good way to power through any particularly knotty passages.

For example, it looks like one of your tics is unnecessary lists. Do you really need to say "Streamline, condense, and reduce redundancy when editing your writing"? What if you just said, "Reducing redundancy in your writing"? You could start by picking out a random page—say, page 15—and seeing if you use any pairs (or triplets) of synonyms where only one would do.

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@fuzzylogician thank you so much for the great advice! I've gotten a lot better at not using the extra adverbs and adjectives but I definitely use hedges (also thank you for informing me as to what that type of phrasing is referred to as!). I have been doing my best to catch those when editing. And the little stuff like that isn't the part that I think I struggle with. Instead restructuring ideas and sentences seems to be where I get hung up on.

My advisor and I have discussed the main points of my thesis and I think I've done a decent job of conveying these during my Introduction, Methods and Results but I think I needed some more structural tips for the Discussion and I didn't get a lot of those. She said my Discussion content is solid, I just have it organized to where certain ideas definitely get repeated, just in new contexts. I think most of my redundancy right now is structural, so I have to figure out which paragraphs can be condensed/reordered to streamline and remove redundancy.

What software reads writing aloud for you? I have heard it was a thing but I hadn't looked more into it. I think I benefit from hearing someone else say rather than hearing myself. I also definitely plan on re-reading discussions from papers I have really enjoyed and use them as inspiration during the revision process.

@hats thank you!! Also I was very aware that during my post and even my title I was likely being a bit too wordy... Oops lol. Yes, when I or someone else reads my work aloud if there is a stumble or I get lost during a sentence I am sure to revise that sentence. Also I definitely have found that leaving writing for 3+ days (sometimes I need a week or so even) helps me see the flaws of my own writing a bit more clearly. I hadn't thought about handwriting my writing to help with the editing process. I will definitely have to try that.

As for "burying the lede" what do you mean by that? I think I understand it by when you say you have to find your topic sentences and move them to the top of your paragraph. Is there somewhere I can find an example of this? A comment my advisor made to me makes me think I might also have a tendency to do this so I think I need a concrete example of how this problem might look. Maybe I will go to Google and see if that gets me anywhere.

 

Thanks so much to both of you! You've given awesome suggestions that I will definitely keep in mind during the revision stage.

Edited by FishNerd
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Does your university have a writing center? Often, there's one or a few folks who specialize in working with graduate students. If you can find someone there, try to meet with them regularly (e.g., once a week) to go over your writing. They may be able to help you identify specific patterns in phrasing which you could eliminate to make your writing more concise. 

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@rising_star My university does have a writing center but I'm not sure how many people specialize with working with grad students since the grad student body at my school is pretty small. I can definitely ask though to see if that could be a possibility. I hadn't actually thought of that! Thank you!

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Seconding the writing center advice.

If your problem is with the discussion, you might ask yourself if you have a plan before you start writing. You have described your project and findings, now your goal is to communicate how to situate them in a broader context, how we should interpret them, what really matters out of what you found, and what we should take away from that to inform our science more broadly. It's useful to sit down and sketch in bullet points what the main points to be discussed are. E.g., finding 1 -- teaches us that [blah], is evidence against [this thing], lead to broader conclusion that [something]. Same for other findings. Now, are there themes? Group the discussion so you stress those recurring themes instead of scattering them. Remember that your goal is to tell the most compelling story; that may not (very often, is not) your personal story of how you made the discovery, which means that you may not introduce everything in the chronological order of which experiment happened first. Work by main conclusions and themes instead. Create that sketch on a piece of paper *before* you start writing and have a plan and a skeleton for your chapter. This should help with repetitiveness and with scattered ideas that are hard to pinpoint. 

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@fuzzylogician That is definitely something I probably could have done a better job of before writing, but I did try to outline the main points and group them in a way that seemed logical before I started writing. I definitely didn't start my discussion without some sort of plan but it seems that the plan I had may not have been the best. I think I will try to pull out the main points of it all and see where ideas/conclusions get repeated and see how I could restructure them to condense those scattered ideas. Yesterday I was really struggling with this (hence this post) but already today I think I have more ideas on how to tackle the structural issues. Obviously the revision process takes time, since coming at things with fresh eyes helps a lot and, unfortunately, I did probably hurt myself in not having the clearest plan on how to address all the points I wanted to cover in my discussion.

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Time away from the work also helps a lot, so you can come at it from a fresh perspective. 

13 hours ago, FishNerd said:

What software reads writing aloud for you? I have heard it was a thing but I hadn't looked more into it. I think I benefit from hearing someone else say rather than hearing myself. I also definitely plan on re-reading discussions from papers I have really enjoyed and use them as inspiration during the revision process.

I've used the Abode "Read Out Loud" feature (under View). Works alright, kind of painful for formulas, but otherwise not bad at all. 

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On 3/23/2018 at 12:02 PM, fuzzylogician said:

It's useful to sit down and sketch in bullet points what the main points to be discussed are. E.g., finding 1 -- teaches us that [blah], is evidence against [this thing], lead to broader conclusion that [something]. Same for other findings. Now, are there themes? Group the discussion so you stress those recurring themes instead of scattering them.

I know that I should have done a better job of this before writing my discussion (though I really thought I had approached things in a logical fashion), but I did do this during revision to help figure out redundancy/flow issues and it helped a lot! I will likely do it again after I let this revision round rest for a couple days. Thanks again!

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I usually print my papers and get a pen and just start crossing every word that doesn't add value as well as sentences that add nothing extra (including redundancy). Somehow seeing it in print vs. on a screen helps.

If you have any sections that are especially long/big in comparison to others but in terms of content are not that different, you should also have a look at HOW you have written things down in the long paragraphs. Can you restructure something there that makes things flow easier and thus shorter?

If you need to come back to the same point at numerous times then this is usually a structure problem. I always plan my papers in terms of flow/structure (i.e., which topics I discuss first, sometimes even transitions) and then outline this more or less in headers on my doc before I start writing. I may take a little while to plan (getting faster with it) but it saves a lot of problems and time in the end.

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@Psygeek when I was figuring out my structural issues/redundancy I printed out a copy and that helped a lot. I agree that seeing it on paper somehow helps. Also I like your point about maybe finding the paragraphs that are extra long and figuring out if they really need to be that long. That makes a lot of sense and will be something I look at in the next round of revisions.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Hey guys I just wanted to say thank you again for all the tips and give an update. I'm not done yet with my written thesis but I did just successfully defend it with my committee and got their comments back on it. They provided really good feedback that I think is really gonna help improve the final product. Apparently one of my committee members who rarely hands out compliments on peoples writing told my advisor that he was impressed by it, so I guess I did something right. I'm going to take their edits and start working on them now before it gets submitted to the graduate school, but also while I'm revising still I will keep all of your all's wonderful advice in mind as well!

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