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The Writing Roundabout:

Academic writing is a recursive process that involves prewriting, writing, revision, and editing. The writer may loop back to previous steps again and again, revisiting the idea, the research, and the focus over and over during the drafting, revising, and editing phases.

The Writing Roundabout:

Academic writing is a recursive process that involves prewriting, writing, revision, and editing. The writer may loop back to previous steps again and again, revisiting the idea, the research, and the focus over and over during the drafting, revising, and editing phases.

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Prewriting

Idea: Generate the “big idea”

Idea: Generate the “big idea”

The first challenge is coming up with an idea for your new writing project. Consider all the possibilities for your project and select the one that best matches your interests and research agenda.

You may already have a research 'agenda' that provides a broad outline of the direction your scholarship will take. New faculty members often begin by repurposing their dissertations, but fairly early in your journey toward tenure, you may need a new direction that either spins off from previous research or tackles a new area. If it is still early in your academic career, you may want to pursue 'spin-off' research. Think about your goals for publication and be strategic. Do you need to complete a manuscript fairly quickly and get it in the pipeline? If so, choose a project that will not require extensive data collection. Do you have a chance at a summer research grant? Choose the project that is the strongest candidate for the grant proposal.

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Read: How does my idea fit with the literature?

Read: How does my idea fit with the literature?

Once you've come up with an idea, the next challenge is to find out what other scholars have written on your topic and how your research fits.

The first step in focusing your topic is to determine how your research interest fits with existing scholarship. Some of the reading you do will become part of the literature review for your article, dissertation, or book, so keep track of complete citations. Begin with fairly specific searches and widen your searches as necessary. You may need to look outside your own field for related research. At this stage, it's not too late to shift your topic if you find that your initial idea has been thoroughly investigated, or if the research literature indicates a stumbling block, such as inherent methodological problems. Continue searching the literature until you keep turning up the same sources. Once you have discovered which references are cited multiple times and have collected articles most relevant to your topic, it is time to move on to the next challenge.

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Focus: Limit the scope of your topic

Focus: Limit the scope of your topic

The next challenge is to convert your big idea into a researchable question by focusing on one aspect of your topic and situating it within existing scholarship.

In this step of the writing process the task is to narrow down your 'big idea' into a researchable question within the larger topic. For example 'Facebook and friendship' is too broad a topic for your writing project. Whose Facebook use will you study? Which posts will be relevant? How long will you monitor Facebook use? Where will you get this information? Why would Facebook help maintain friendships? As you bring your research question into focus, shape it so that it ties into and expands on existing research. For instance, if most research has focused on college students, you may choose to study high school students. If most research on friendship has focused on girls, perhaps you will look at boys' use of Facebook. From your reading of the literature, you know that theories regarding friendship suggest male friendship is built around activities, so you expect Facebook postings to focus on that aspect of relationship-building. Now you have a research question: Does boys' use of Facebook serve primarily as a way for them to learn about and participate in their friends' activities?

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Writing

Plan: Break your project down into small assignments

Plan: Break your project down into small assignments

Now that you have your research question, the challenge is to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the large writing project. Create a project plan with specific goals, small manageable tasks, and a timeline.

Most experts agree that the best way to approach scholarly writing is to devote regularly scheduled time each day and to limit your writing sessions to no more than 90 minutes each. To do so, you need to break your project into smaller segments (or chunks) to focus on one small part at a time. How you choose to do that depends on your personal preferences and work habits. You may want to outline your project using the guidelines provided by your target journal or dissertation guide, beginning with the introduction and moving on to the literature review, methods and so on. If you need to submit a paper to a conference and have a deadline, you might set targets for page production each week. Perhaps you already have detailed notes on your topic, so you need to organize the notes and pull related information together. Organizing before you begin to write makes your writing project seem manageable. It is too easy to get discouraged if you sit down and say to yourself, 'Today I'm going to work on my research project.' Learn to break your project down into SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time- Bound) goals to focus your writing.

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Draft: Do not be overly critical of your drafts

Draft: Don't be overly critical of your drafts

When you are ready to write, use your first draft to sketch out your ideas without revising and polishing the prose as you go. Leave that for later.

As you begin to write, move through your paragraphs and sections without revising and editing as you go. Your dissertation, research article, or academic book will need to be a polished, scholarly piece of writing when you submit it, but it does not need to start that way. You sabotage your progress when you second guess your ideas and agonize over every word choice. By letting go of the need for instant perfection, you can produce a 'quick and dirty' version of your manuscript that has most of the parts in place. You may want to reread the last bit of what you wrote in your last session, but do not get caught up in reworking a section you have completed. Perhaps later you may throw out some of your work, but recognize the vale of writing as an exercise that help you refocus on the project. Many writers also find it helpful to think of the techniques of 'mindful meditation.' Become aware of thoughts and worries that distract you from writing (Should this part go later? I need to look up this citation now. I ought to be grading papers.). Instead of giving in to these worries, acknowledge them and then let them go. If necessary, jot yourself a note to review the organization, look up that citation, or schedule time for grading. Then get back to your writing.

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Revise: Revisit your main idea and argument

Revise: Revisit your main idea and argument

Once you have a draft, your next task is to review your sections and paragraphs for consistency and reorganize, cut, expand, or condense to focus your argument.

When you have drafted a complete manuscript, the challenge is to revisit the main idea and the argument you have developed by reviewing the sections, paragraphs, and sentences to focus on consistency and coherence and to tighten your argument. Cut material that is not relevant to your thesis, expand or condense sections as needed for the development of your key points, and reorganize material for a logical progression of ideas. Do not focus on sentence-level issues until the final editing stage. When you are satisfied with the organization, review the transitions between the paragraphs and sections so the reader knows how your ideas are connected. Don't assume the reader knows everything that you do about your topic. You may have used the draft to get down your ideas and your argument, and now you need to make the adjustment for your audience.

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Postwriting

Edit: Shift the focus from the ideas to the sentence-level details

Edit: Shift the focus from the ideas to the sentence-level details

You need a fresh pair of eyes for the editing process and a mental shift from thinking about the big idea to focusing on the sentence-level issues.

Editing is a different process than drafting or revising. The editing process requires you to distance yourself from your writing and approach your work as a reader would. Shift from considering the big picture to concentrating on style and on sentence-level issues of grammar, spelling, and word choice, as well as checking references and citations and formatting issues. You may fail to see your mistakes because your mind automatically understands what you meant to say. Take time to read aloud one sentence at a time. Look for ways to rephrase awkward sentences. Replace weak verbs (the moon came out) with strong verbs (the moon rose). Change passive constructions (the data will be collected) to active sentences (I will collect the data). Choose words appropriate for your academic audience. Double check your spelling and punctuation. Spending time on the editing process now will save you time on revisions later. Ask someone else to proofread your work to find anything that you may have missed.

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Submit: Let go of your manuscript.

Submit: Let go of your manuscript.

Many writers have a hard time 'letting go' of a writing project. When it's time to stop editing, send your manuscript to your readers for review.

Deciding when a manuscript is 'finished' and ready for submission is a challenge for writers, especially if you're a perfectionist. Although you need to have a polished work, you also need to be realistic about when your work is ready to receive feedback from others. Until now your writing process may have been a private experience, and you may feel some reluctance to make your writing public. Yet, if you aim to publish, you need to take the next step. Before sending your work out to be read, make one last check to see that your submission meets the requirements for length, documentation style, and format. The act of 'letting go' is challenging, but now is the time to send your project out to your reviewers and wait for their feedback.

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Revise and resubmit (or R & R): Accept criticism and move on

Revise and resubmit (or R & R): Accept criticism and move on

It's hard to receive criticism, but most scholars will be asked to revise their work and resubmit it. Use feedback constructively to revise and strengthen your writing.

After all the hard work on your manuscript, it can be crushing to get anything less than a note reading, 'Your manuscript has been accepted for publication.' Prepare yourself to receive a response that asks you to revise the manuscript and resubmit it for consideration. One response to reader comments may be to reject the criticism by arguing that the reviewers do not understand your research area well enough. Another response is to over-react to criticism, decide the project is unsalvageable, and abandon it. Find the middle ground. Look for the value in the criticism and move forward. If you can defend your work, do so. If you think the comments are valid, address the concerns. Work through the revisions quickly to get your document back to the readers. Keeping your publication objective in mind will help you through the revision process.

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