Dissertation

Your Minimum Editing Route and How Fonts Can Help You Spot Typos

Your Minimum Editing Route

I work with words all the time. I have to be careful not to gloss over my writing. If I do, I risk missing typos and worse.

Even with a clear focus, it’s bad enough. Your focus is on conveying meaning more than it is on uncovering typos.

But there’s hope. When you edit your work, go through several runs at the text. First, read for overall flow. Second, read for clarity. Third, read for typos. This should be your minimum editing route.

Editing for different reasons each time helps you to focus on the particular task at hand. These tasks require thinking processes that do not gel with each other. If you tackle them all at the same time, it’s like ineffective multitasking.

Read out loud and look at each word, no matter how trivial. When you read with purpose, you’ll trip over sentences that clearly need reworking. When you look at each word, the mistakes stand out.

letter blocks

There’s another magic trick that’s easy and effective. Change font!

Yes, simply change the look of your text so it looks new to you.

Copy and paste your text into another document…You don’t want to mess about with your sparkly live document now, do you?

Then change the font. It doesn’t matter which font you choose, so long as you can read it. As you read through the draft, you’ll notice new things (both good and bad) as your brain is tricked into thinking it’s looking at a new document.

Try with different fonts until you find one that’s a good combination of readable and accessible for you to review. After a few uses, you may want to find a new font so you don’t get too familiar with any particular typeface. Once you’re used to it, you won’t be so effective when reviewing your draft.

My own method is to use a few good fonts and rotate their use. That way, I can use the same fonts and not get too familiar with them. I can even throw a curveball and use a completely different font on a particularly challenging piece of text. Anything to get me focused where it counts.

Which fonts would you recommend?

typefaces

Is “Just Get Words Down” Good Advice When You’re Struggling to Write?

When you’re struggling to get an essay written, should you just write whatever comes into your head? Does the advice to write first and think later really help?

James Hayton isn’t a fan.

My main issue with chucking out words in a rush is when there is a lack of context. Freedom to write anything in a quick burst has a time and a place.

When you’re faced with a blank page, you may be tempted to start writing, no matter what the outcome.

Free writing can work out, but there are caveats:

  • It depends on what you do before and after the free writing – Just like an all-nighter only allows a single draft with simultaneous editing (if you have the time for that at all!), rattling off an essay in a flash without giving it much further attention is a mistake. Rapid writing of a first draft (or any piece of text) should only ever be considered a rough start. If you lose the drive to work with the text after your initial approach, rapid writing is not for you.
  • If you don’t have enough understanding or knowledge beforehand, the rapid writing won’t help – You need to be clued up on the subject you’re writing about. A lack of plan means a lack of content, no matter how quickly or slowly you choose to write.
    If I had to write an essay on the fifteen century, or astrophysics, or igneous rocks, or symbolism in Shakespeare’s tragedies, I would be crazy to blast off some random text in hope that something may work. I don’t know about these topics enough just to start writing. In fact, I’d be unhappy writing an academic text in any field straight away, even if I knew a lot about it. At best, I’d make a few brief notes on what I aim to argue alongside the points I wish to make to support the argument as well as discussion of counter arguments and potential issues that arise.
  • The individual isn’t equipped (for whatever reason) to edit the content once it’s written – This can pose a problem when half the material is rubbish or guesswork or errors or a combination of all these things. Without a clear grasp of how and why you need to edit, a bunch of text spewed out as quickly as possible is not a good place to begin.
  • Should you be writing down whatever comes to your head, or making brief notes and outlines based on what you wish to include in the work? – Preparation is key. The advice to ‘just write’ is problematic because people can assume it means to write stuff without a plan. Even a bare minimum can make a huge impact. Think before you type.

I see no problem with getting the words written down when you are confident that you have editing capabilities (and are not just looking to hit a certain number of words). Likewise, it’s no big deal when you already have a clear idea of what you want to say. As Hayton explains, the writing needs to be tight. Just one misplaced observation or assumption can drastically alter the tone, impact and clarity of your writing. However, the first draft doesn’t have to be a place for that.

Any piece of advice, no matter how popular, is not going to work for everyone. And just because ‘everyone’ does something, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Getting the words down fast shouldn’t be recommended to everyone, but I’m equally sure that it is a mistake to recommend it to no one.

What do you do?

Outlines Are Not All Equal

A short essay is not the same as a long essay. A presentation is different too. So is a dissertation.

That means your preparations need to vary. How you approach each assignment is important.

Outlines are a great way to build an idea of what you want to produce. Here are some brief notes on how your outlines could differ, depending on which type of coursework you are working on.

(photo by anselm23)

Post-It Outline. One way to prepare that essay. (photo by anselm23)

Short essay

Start with bullet points of the major arguments you wish to make. If you have too many ideas, either condense them into themes or brutally remove all but the very best. Your main tasks are a clear focus and awareness of key points.

Be aware of brevity needed in such a short space and plan accordingly. There’s no need to outline with the aim to cover every possible base. Highlight your most important areas with one or two clear examples.

Work from there and continue working concisely and to the point. When you’re getting too detailed, it’s time to scale back.

Long essay

This essay contains more room to explore. Most essays tend to come under the ‘long’ description, so stay focused. It’s easy to ramble and move away from the question under discussion.

An outline allows you to stay on track and on message.

Ensure each bullet point you make is related to addressing the question. At each stage of the outlining, refer back to the question.

For every major argument you wish to tackle, give sub-headings that relate to proof, examples, counter-arguments (and how you’re dealing with them), quotations and references, and key descriptions of topics and themes.

Presentation

You’re dealing with more than text here. You’ve got your voice, use of technology and slides, interacting with an audience, and so on.

In terms of outline, you need to prepare for all these things. That means a sharp eye on admin and peripheral issues. Your initial outline must cover use of equipment, size and layout of room, handouts, software use, Internet availability, and so on. While none of this is about your actual subject, it’s all relevant to the way you’re conducting yourself. Best assess the situation early, rather than five minutes before you’re due on stage!

As for content, think like you should a short essay. Your main aim is usually to highlight major arguments and workings as effectively as possible. Alternatively, you might be discussing an experiment or some findings you’ve made. All these examples require bold points and clear detail.

If you need a vague outline to play with, pick a start, middle and ending. In other words, introduce, elaborate (tell stories), and conclude. You may also like to quote something in keeping with your presentation at the beginning in order to set the scene.

Dissertation

Assuming you have agreed a dissertation topic, the most important initial outline is the structure. In what order will you present the themes and arguments? Work out the flow of the dissertation before anything else. Each part should follow on from what has come beforehand.

Spend considerable time outlining for your dissertation. It’s worthy of a post in itself, because a dissertation outline is far more detailed than that of a single essay.

Thankfully, in finding a topic, you should have developed some form of basic outline as part of the process.

Practical work & experiments

First off, develop a plan of action and a rough order of play. What needs doing, how should you prepare, and why are you doing this?

Next, explain what comes afterwards and what you’re going to do with your results and outcomes. If you are being assessed for a written element of this work, make another outline plan for that subsequent assignment.

Seminars & weekly reading

Advance outlines work for some students. Think of it like a timetable without rigid times. The timetabling aspect can come later. What matters in your outline is getting to grips with what you want to know at the end of your week, the books and papers you have earmarked, the questions you want to cover before, during and after seminar sessions, and any problems you may encounter.

You may have a better way to prepare for your regular work. If so, great. If not, see if an outline helps get you closer to the work at hand.

For some, a list is enough. For others, a strict timetable is required. Whatever the case, you can outline anything, so give it a go no matter how small your project is.

Are you a keen outliner? Share your outlining tips in the comments below.

Make Your Work Compelling

The difference between compulsory and compelling is huge.

Compulsory sounds negative. You must do something, whether you like it or not.

That’s enough to put you off most compulsory stuff. The psychology is all wrong.

Compelling sounds great. You must do something, because you’re excited to keep going. You’d hate to stop.

Zen at work

University involves a lot of work, so it helps when you want to do it. But when you have deadlines to fulfill and the need to submit thousands of words, it’s easy to switch your attention to what’s compulsory.

Do yourself a favour and concentrate on the reasons why you’re interested in your work. The more compelling you make it, the easier you’ll find the less savoury points.

Terry Anderson sees possibility in this through self-paced learning, especially through “sophisticated social networking contexts” that let students discover each other and interact in realtime as well as through past comments and artifacts from previous students on a course.

You may not have this luxury on your degree for most, if not all of your assignments. But there are other ways to turn your attitude from plodding to probing.

Regain Your Enthusiasm

  • Start with an interesting question – What makes you tick? What would you like to know? Where do you want to explore today?
    Thinking about word counts and submission dates will only fill your mind with stress points. Bring your focus to the assignment itself, not the logistics.
  • Don’t overthink it – Once you’ve asked interesting questions, keep working on them until you start to grow tired of it. When you feel things dragging, stop right there. Pack up. Do something else. Even the most fun activities get boring when you don’t stop. So learn to let go.
  • Team up with others – Deconstruct, discuss, debate. Five minutes may be all it takes to uncover talking points that get you enthused about the task at hand. Whether or not you like to work in a group, an academic chat can get the creative juices flowing. If you’d prefer to do the actual work on your own, that’s fine. Once the urge is there, your mission is to stay in the mood to work with a spring in your step.
  • Space things out – The nearer you get to the deadlines, the more you focus on the compulsory aspect of your work. You avoid this by starting early and doing the work bit by bit. Not too much in one go, and certainly not all at once at the last minute.
  • Make it a habit – The longer you procrastinate, the more likely you’ll see the compulsory over the compelling. As well as spacing things out, as I mention above, find ways to develop habits to ease into the work. Habits can be different for everyone and is enough to be the subject of many texts, including Charles Duhigg’s recent book, The Power of Habit.
    Duhigg says that you should identify current routines for habits you would like to change. What is the cue that leads to your habit taking over? Next, choose different outcomes (it doesn’t really matter what they are) to work out what cravings are truly driving the routine. Then isolate the cue. Are you reacting to your location, the time of day, how you feel, what happened just beforehand? In time, you’ll find a pattern will emerge. Finally, have a plan. Commit to a new habit that you feel is better placed for what you want to change. From first-hand experience, Duhigg found embedding a new habit to be a challenge, but it was worth persevering.

Let the subject excite you and stop the admin from getting you down. So much of the change from compulsory to compelling is in the attitude. Set things up for an activity you don’t want to stop doing. And when you do stop, you’ll miss it.

That will make a change from never wanting to see it again, eh?