I've got a personal professional goal - I want to write a thesis, build a system, change the world. That's my way of saying that my thesis needs to be something I can develop into a functional system, and the system has to be significant enough to be life-changing - for at least one person; that's what makes it a good idea.

My difficulty is that even though I can type, I can't effectively write. I find that I'm not capable of editing beyond minor corrections of mechanics. I've got over 100K words of notes and ideas, but they're a hill of beans rather than a garden of planted saplings. Clearly, I need to overcome this before I can go much further.

I was thinking about looking for a thesis adviser or an editor, but what I really need is better understanding. This seems like a skill a person needs to develop himself, but as "A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study," so I want to ask for some guidance and direction.

So the question is, what help is there for a technical researcher/writer that can't edit? How can I get better at recording my ideas - in communicating them clearly; in recording how I got to the ideas; and in working to support and develop them?

  • writers.stackexchange.com/questions/1104/… is related but i'm not at the stage where i'm considering those options i'm more at the i've got 100K words in notes and more on the way and want to make some sense of what i'm doing and i have no guidance on it
    – Dan D.
    Commented Feb 16, 2011 at 1:10
  • This entire question can be reduced to perhaps a third of its length. I was going to edit it down, but it occurs that it's a wonderful demonstration of the problem. Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 14:32
  • Dan, since this question rose to the front page, I did some cleanup. I hope I've understood your question correctly, and that my edits get across what you were trying to ask (if not, you can revert).
    – Standback
    Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 14:36
  • 1
    @NeilFein : whoops! I hope I didn't ninja you! Hope you like my edits. :P
    – Standback
    Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 14:37
  • @Standback - No worries, here's the original text for anyone who is interested. Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 14:40

2 Answers 2


The following is based on both the content of your question, the way it was written, and your comment on your question.

Your primary problem is not editing. Editing is your third biggest problem, Writing is the second, and your biggest problem by far is Organizing (and Developing) Your Thoughts.

Organizing your thoughts
I can tell from your writing style that you're a stream-of-consciousness kind of guy. I can tell from the content that you're a big-picture, big-ideas kind of guy. Fortunately, I know someone just like that, and have advised them on this issue. I'll focus on two points here -- a small point and a large, core point.

Organizing -- the small point
You need to use something to manage all these ideas. If you don't, it just becomes a giant cluster of files that, frankly, are useless. If you have MS Office, checking out it's app OneNote. Nutshell: it's an electronic notebook. It doesn't seem like a big deal at first, but once you use it you'll wonder how you ever lived without it. Even through I stopped using MS Office, I bought the standalone OneNote 2010 because I can't live without it.

Fire that up, and start pulling in that 100K words of ideas into it, bit by bit, organizing it as you go.

If you don't have OneNote, check out EverNote, It's a free, online, and works similarly, just not quite as well as OneNote.

Also, google "Mind Mapping". These are concepts of how to lay out ideas and interrelate them, on the fly, so when you're done generating ideas you don't have useless gobs of text; you have something with some structure that can be built onto.

There's software for Mind Mapping, but learn the techniques first.

Organizing & Developing -- the huge, core point
One thing a fellow like you needs to do, when you have an idea, is develop it. That 100K of notes is not a finished product, and no amount of editing is going to make it so.

You see, what you have in your head are these big ideas, complete ideas, but I guarantee you, what you have on paper is NOT complete. No one would be able to pick up those notes and fully understand your idea -- it has nothing to do with writing or editing, it simply won't all be there.

So, you have to complete your ideas on paper. The goal is that someone could pick it up, and understand all of it, without you standing there interjecting or explaining verbally.

Now, when you do this you're going to discover something interesting -- that your ideas are not complete. You see, when you're thinking about something, your mind makes assumptions and leaps that you don't realize you're making. It's like the underpants gnomes in South Park: Step 1) Steal Underpants. Step 2) ???. Step 3) Profit!!!

This also happens when you're verbalizing your ideas. Conversation is remarkably incomplete. That's why, for instance, they can't take transcripts of pundits talking on tv and publish them as essays. Conversation looks silly and choppy written down, because it IS silly and choppy. We don't say half the things we think we say -- or hear.

There is a concreteness to attempting to communicate an idea entirely on paper. It'll help you see the bits that are not there, that you need. It forces you to lay out the idea linearly and logically -- step 1, step 2, step 3, with no unexplained leaps in between.

Now, you probably think this is exactly what you've done with all those notes. That they're all crystal clear, except for some of this editing nonsense. But if someone else can't read it and understand the idea, you're wrong.

So, you need to develop the idea on paper. Here's how you do that:

  1. Pick one (1) idea out of that pile you have. It doesn't matter which one; go ahead and pick the one that interests you the most. Dollars to donuts, it'll be the latest one. :-)
  2. Transform that stream of consciousness idea into a single paragraph, summarizing the whole thing. Yes, it can be done. And yes, you must do it. If you cannot, then you do not sufficiently understand that idea. Study it until you do. It's hard, but don't feel bad -- if this were a novel, you'd have to take it down to a single sentence.
  3. Some options here. Depending on what the subject matter is, you can:
    a) Expand the summary to a page or two. This is still a fairly high level view, but now you can flesh it out with more detail.
    b) Break out the steps of the idea into an outline.
    You may want to do both.
  4. Add in steps or pieces that are missing.
  5. Flesh out the individual components. This can be more explanation, references or proofs for factual claims, and so on.
  6. Organize it a bit. Rearrange the various components so you end up leading your reader logically through you concept.
  7. Go back and write a separate why for the idea.
  8. Repeat steps 4-6, honing, revising, clarifying, and adding as you go. Do this at least twice, with some rest time in between away from the project.
  9. Reduce your manuscript. Here we have the first step that involves any editing. This is where you cut out the fluff, tighten up your writing, and cut out any points that aren't absolutely necessary and are bloating the thing up.
  10. Give it to someone who knows nothing about your idea, let them read it, and see if they understand it. Don't talk to them until they're done reading, and no verbal explanations like "oh, but what I really meant was..."!
  11. Based on that feedback, go as far back up these steps as necessary to improve the work.

If all of that seems like a lot of work, that's because it is. Having the grand idea is the fun part. Making it useful, even "world changing" as you say, well, that takes a lot of effort.

Final Note
Where writing and editing, as skills, are concerned, do not underestimate the usefulness of taking classes and/or workshops to develop these skills. They'll make you write, give you feedback, then make you write (communicate) more clearly. Forget about trying to write your grandiose ideas in these classes. Write about meaningless things, so you can focus on improving those skills.

  • 1
    Nice, but I suggest to consider step 9 for yourself :) Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 17:02
  • 2
    @JohnSmithers ug, yea, no kidding. I hate giant answers; I'm going to have give myself a stern talking too. (talking to? one 'o' or two? Do I dare brave the hair-splitters at English.SE and ask?)
    – Patches
    Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 21:51

It's not clear from your question if you're in academia or not, and my advice differs depending on whether you are or aren't.

But overall: many freelance editors are looking for gigs—hire one.

  • 3
    Dori, I think the problem is more foundational than just editing. If a client sent me text like this question for editing, I'd probably reply, "are you sure this is ready for me?" Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 14:35

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