Revise!

“Revise and resubmit” are three words that fill academic writers with dread. My own PhD wasn’t ready when I submitted it first. Second time round, it was, because what was on the page more closely matched what was in my head. Two decades later, I remember how that process of reworking feels. Now, editing and translating, I reshape other people’s academic texts for a living. Revising your own is always harder.

This book helps. Reading Pamela Haag’s Revise: The Scholar-Writer’s Essential Guide to Tweaking, Editing, and Perfecting your Manuscript (Yale UP 2021), I found myself crowing in delighted recognition. Like mine, her mantra is “who is doing what to whom?” If a passage is in the passive, it might not be clear in the reader’s mind – or even the writer’s head. A developmental editor like Haag can help you restructure. But you can do a lot to your manuscript yourself by asking the same questions.

You can use this book to turn the vague writing feedback into concrete action. What does it actually mean to “smooth over” or “tighten up” a text for better “flow”? Turn lists into linked text, take out subheadings, shorten chapter titles (stop before that colon!), or cut examples and block quotes. Check your verb, subject, and object are clear. Humans do things to other people or things. Who or what are they? “Policymakers” or “citizens” are still large categories that you need to define. You can make a watchlist of words you overuse (“interesting” and “clearly” are on mine).

Moving through the text is another huge issue. Ideally, “your manuscript’s inner logic makes its explicit articulation unnecessary.” Haag spends a lot of time on making segues, or transitions, effective. She gets her red pen out for “traffic direction” or “hand-holding” (“As I said in section 1, I will next…”) and “emcee words” (“its devastating impact shocked us”). She advises against restating your argument too often and for techniques more used in narrative. Tell the reader what they need to know, in the order they need it. Right down to the sentence level.

Haag makes all this easier by defining terms. She is precise – do you need rhetorical questions? No. And figurative – is your manuscript a “sleek jaguar with no bones”? If it sounds good but has no skeleton to hold it together, you need to choose one, based on your main point. Then you can “walk down the vertebra” of the book to check they’re in place. “Tofu syndrome” means you’re writing like your sources, as tofu absorbs any flavour. I see this often in writing about the European Union, in fluent EU-speak. Like “asparagus” you can feel the point where a section should snap off so you don’t have to eat the long woody stalk. Scare quotes are an “eye roll” on the page, so it is more effective to tell us what is wrong with “that term.”

Blocks in your writing might have underlying “psycho-editorial” causes, which Haag lays out. If claims don’t sound confident you may not be feeling confident. You might use jargon to avoid making your own argument, or put conclusions first because you’re tired. Did you only put that long literature review in because someone else said you had to? If you know why, you can do something about it. “Force yourself to put the theory into your own words.”

Haag illustrates every point with real text she’s revised, and ends with a comprehensive checklist. Have you read your text aloud, checked that figurative language obeys the laws of nature (begone, actors mapping interwoven frameworks!), and made your antecedents clear (shown what “it” is)?

A colleague recommended Revise to me. Now I am recommending it to you. In the days after reading it, I found myself remembering Haag’s prompts, as if she was revising my writing alongside me. I made better decisions. It was easier to untangle those knotty sentences. Next time I have a big, shapeless text that needs trimming, I will start from her checklist.

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