I'm a PhD Student in the social sciences. When I do focused free-writing on a topic, my thoughts just fly out and I can easily generate 600-800 words an hour of relatively high quality text. However, whenever I think of starting to revise, I freeze up.

EDIT: I love free-writing, it is often very liberating to just let my thoughts out, and I'm often astonished and pleased with the thoughts that I generate. I'm not very picky about grammar/punctuation/word choice, and I'm not particularly afraid of being judged. However, when I start to revise, and the changes are bigger than correcting grammar or clarifying sentences, things get difficult. When I think of restructuring a text (deleting/adding major constructs, changing the flow of the argument) I feel stuck. It feels as if the task is too great to take on.

Am I perhaps making a mistake in thinking that I can "revise", when actually what I should be doing is to delete my text (or at least certain paragraphs) outline it again and rewrite it completely?

Does anyone have any advice/recommended literature/techniques for revising (or perhaps reconstructing) academic texts effectively?

  • 2
    A little more detail: What about revising do you object to? Do you love to write, but not to read what you've written? Are you self-conscious about your grammar/punctuation/word choice? Do you feel like you're being judged against an impossible standard? Are you afraid of your adviser? Can you revise non-academic texts easily? Do you hate sitting at your desk? If you can talk about what's bothering you, we can suggest how to get past it. Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 17:28
  • Thanks. I added a section on what is bothering me, and a potential solution.
    – histelheim
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 18:25
  • 1
    Use Scrivener for text editing if you don't already. It is an excellent text editor that lets you move text around with great ease.
    – erikric
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 20:21

4 Answers 4


You've got the seeds of your answer in your edit. When you write, you're just dumping. Whatever comes to mind, without structure or discipline, and who among us doesn't love the sound of your own voice?

But when you're done, now you have to shape your thoughts into a coherent argument. And for some people, that's not particularly fun. (In fiction, this is called "discovery writing" or "pantsing," as in "writing by the seat of your pants.")

Reverse-engineering an outline from your logorrhea sounds like the simplest plan. Take each sentence or thought of your dump and figure out what topic it belongs to: psychology, talk therapy, pathology, chemical treatment (or whatever your topics are). Make one document for each topic idea. Copy each sentence or thought into the relevant document. (Scrivener is fantastic for this.)

Now you have four or five separate documents with a paragraph each. Move the individual sentences around until you have something coherent, and add transitions as needed. Thread the paragraphs back together and you have a more structured essay.

This is essentially the reverse of the technique I described in my answer to this question. See if that's useful to you.

  • Thanks! Do you have any advice on books etc. that describes outlining, "reconstructing texts", revising etc?
    – histelheim
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 21:11

I think your problem is procrastination, given that revising is no fun (imho).

Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes. Promise yourself to work fully concentrated for those minutes. No e-mail, surfing or whatever you distraction poison is.

When the minutes are over, take a break. Get a coffe, play a round of Starcraft, do something fun.

After a while, start over again. I usually do 20 minutes work 20 minutes fun.

"But you're wasting half your time!" No, i get something done for half of the time, instead of procrastinating it all away.

But the best part is that your subconsciousness keeps on working while you are on a break, so if you got stuck at the end of the work session, you'll be surprised at how often your brain has found a solution in the meantime.

And don't focus on the end of the large task. Focus on the next step (easier said than done, I know).

Another good tip is to read Ken Rands The 10% solution. It is a mechanic editing technique that gets a lot of nasty language problems out of the way.

  • This is a brute force solution that has its value, but it is also highly generic. Are there special techniques/approaching for "reconstructing" text? I think part of my issue is that I don't really know how to approach the task.
    – histelheim
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 20:26
  • I mostly write fiction, so I'm not that into the structure of academic papers, unfortunately. I guess a google search like 'structure of non fiction text' would provide som useful hits. When you have that, just keep free-writing, and the material will sort itself out in a logical structure (at least that is what it does for me). Keep writing, and you'll often get a 'vision' for what goes where.
    – erikric
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 22:39

Based on the great comments I have received I decided to take a stab at answering my own question.

A large part of the problem I have is that I have been procrastinating as @erikric suggested. However, I think that just solving it using brute force time management techniques duck the real issue here - that I feel uncertain as to what to do when I'm done free-writing. Thus, I outlined a process that could potentially describe how to cycle between the different stages of writing.

Graphical representation of writing process (can someone insert this picture in the post?)

Generative Writing. This is focused free-writing, or generative writing. Essentially a stream-of-consciousness focused on the particular topic or question that I am working on for the moment. Often this is based on weaknesses in my arguments that has been pointed out by those who reviewed the last draft.

Read & Develop. This is a first review of my free-writing. It is not an editing stage but rather a way of a) getting an overview of what I have written, and b) an attempt to squeeze some further thoughts and arguments out of my mind before I move on to editing.

Outlining. Here I start to outline the paper chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph. This means that I need to describe the major points of each section (i.e. chapter or paragraph) so that I get a clear view of what each section accomplishes and how it fits into the paper as a whole.

Rewrite/Reconstruct. After I have created the outline I can start to rewrite or reconstruct each section. I use the term rewriting for a section whose basic integrity or structure can be retained with changes only made to the way the section accomplishes its goals. The term reconstruction is used for paragraphs that, according to the new outline, needs to be rewritten from scratch, because the basic logic of the paragraph as it stood before the outlining process does not make sense any longer. While particular thoughts or sentences will be retained, it is easier to write it from scratch.

Gather feedback. I will send it to my advisor and/or research group for feedback. The whole process continues until the paper has been published.

Upon reflection, I realize that I have often not done the outlining stage (meaning, I have skipped it completely). Also, I have often attempted to rewrite when I should have been reconstructing. It makes sense that if someone just tries to make minor changes within a structure that no longer works, not much good will be achieved. All that will happen is that I will have this feeling in my stomach that something is wrong, but not knowing how to deal with it.


I hope this is helpful. It's something that I discovered during the process of writing my first book. Like you, I love the process of initial creation, and I did that for a while, just setting aside editing for content-generation. When it came time to prepare the book proposal (non-fiction), I had to go back and do some editing to get the sample writing solid.

What I discovered was that editing is a completely separate process from writing, and if I held them in comparison, I was screwing myself. So I started to just treat editing as a fun thing to do, and instead of focusing on creating, I focused on finding rhythm and polish. I imagined reading it out loud to a group, and feeling how it flowed. Did it trip up my tongue? Was there a sentence or a paragraph that just didn't flow? Was there a section where I felt like I was losing the audience? How could I make it flow so that it would be fun for me to stand up and read it out loud?

Just as I used imagination to generate content in the first place, I used imagination differently during editing, and found that I was having just as much fun that way. Starting a session feeling what I would feel reading the early draft to a group, and then noticing how much better I felt imagining reading my polished work out loud, was all the motivation I needed. Now I actually look forward to editing just as much as I look forward to writing, sometimes even more, depending on the day.

It's all art, it's all craft, and it all comes from imagination....

  • Thanks. I'd vote your post up, but I don't have enough reputation to do it. Did you use outlining (either before or after initial creation)? How did you go about reconstructing entire sections that needed to be revised?
    – histelheim
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 20:58

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