Editing Efficiently

Aug 23 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

My regular readers are aware of some of my issues with my PI's time management skills. One particular issue is how long it takes him to give feedback on data and manuscripts. His approach is to immediately starting editing sentence by sentence, refining every detail, without reading through the overall paper.

Because he's a) busy and b) been busy so long he's got a backlog, this can mean that even if he's actually working on the paper (which is a whole separate can of worms), it can still be two months before you recieve *any* kind of feedback except by accident. Accidental feedback is things like while jetlagged, he mentioned that he was working on my paper, but the flow was rough. When I went and re-read it, my paragraphs were jumping all over the place like bunnies on speed, which is just how my brain seems to work. So I calmed the bunnies down, reorganized some thing and sent it back the next day. This apparently surprised him. I just thought it was the point of feedback...

This is also a problem because it means that he doesn't look at the data or conclusions until he's had the paper for quite awhile, and that's the feedback most of the students in my group are looking for. Does the model seem reasonable? Do the conclusions make sense? Are there more experiments/simulations I should be running?

When I'm editing for others, I usually try to read through once to get a feel for the overall flow, and then go back and start fixing the little things. I read absurdly quickly, so I find this technique rather helpful. It also gives me a chance to spot any big problems more quickly.

Editing my own stuff, I do it the other way around (since I already know where I'm trying to go). I have to take time away from the document before I can edit for flow, because otherwise my train of thought just follows the same tracks.

What's your editing strategy?



3 responses so far

  • tideliar says:

    I think my strategy is similar to yours. When editing someone's writing I read through once first, perhaps making a few general notes. Once I have a feel for the overall piece and the writer's style, I make a much more fine grained series of notes and comments.

    If something is very rough though I tend to just leave notes rather than attacking and fixing smaller issues. If the foundation isn't level there's no point in worrying about the walls, right? In addition if it's a PoS and I'm charging by the hour its' not really fair to waste their time and money when the work isn't worth it yet.

    For my own writing, I'm firmly of the opinion that 1) all first drafts are shitty and 2) just write the damned thing. I mind-dump hundreds of words or more before I even begin to think about editing. Once the body is of work is done (say a chapter, or a manuscript, or a book review) I give a rough overhaul and make sure the general flow is OK, that arguments flow and are resolved etc. Once this is done it's time for a cup of coffee and a very, very, very anal/OCD word-by-word review. Sometimes this takes multiple read-throughs and edits and can be the most time consuming part of the process.

  • Steve Bennett says:

    Your PI might be using editing as a way of understanding the paper on a deeper level. I've done a huge amount of Wikipedia editing, and still have the habit of editing articles when I really want to absorb the content. If I think a concept hasn't really sunk in, I reorganise the paragraphs, trim words and think how best to express what I've understood. I've tried this in the office, and sometimes it doesn't always go down well 🙂

    You do of course run the risk that by the time you get to the end, you've found major issues that make a mockery of the nitpicking you've just done. Whether that's a problem depends on how fast your editing is...

  • GMP says:

    (also posted at your place) From a professorial standpoint: sometimes you have the best intentions to get the draft back quickly but it doesn't happen because there are many deadlines in between that are invisible to group members (white papers, full proposals, NSF panel reviews, DoD program reviews...) I am usually good at returning the manuscripts promptly, but you are right that when there's a backlog, well...

    I have found one thing to make me faster to turn the paper around -- the better it is, the less it takes me to review it. So try to reread and edit it a few times on your own before giving a draft. In other words, don't submit an unedited draft (I am not saying you do, but I know several of my students do, so I am just putting it out there). If you can round up a few postdocs or grad students to give you preliminary feedback before you send to your prof, I think many rough edges would already be smoothened.

    Also, try to discuss the paper outline and main message before you start writing. Not that it won't change, but this does help if your vision and prof's vision of what the paper is about turn out not to be well aligned (happens a lot).

    My PhD advisor was very quick with returning manuscripts and I strive to be like him; he didn't edit my manuscripts extensively, though -- maybe they were just really awesome ;D or, more likely, his editing style was simply non-invasive. I am not like that, I edit extensively, which doesn't help with the speed...

    Anyway, I have totally dropped the ball on several papers when I had the baby, so they are all about 3-4 months delayed, but we're getting them out (I am proud to report I am done editing 2 out of 4 and they have been submitted). I am working on them, but at a snail speed. I also find that guilt-tripping me works! I have told students to feel free to nudge me if I am taking too long; it shows they care!