Tutorial 22: how to get a “nearly finished” paper over the finishing line

April 4, 2013

There are probably many ways of getting a “90% complete” paper finished and ready for submission, but here’s the way that works for me. (It’s working for me right now: I’m in the middle of the process, and broke off to write this just for a a break.)

You will need:

  • A printed copy of your manuscript
  • A red pen
  • A CD of Dar Williams songs that you know inside out
  • A bottle of red wine
  • A bar of white chocolate (optional)

Method:

Take the printed copy of the manuscript. read it through, with the Dar Williams CD on in the background. Every time you see anything you don’t like, scribble on the printed copy with the red pen. It might a typo, a misspelling, an infelicitous phrasing, a missing reference, a taxonomic name needing italics; or it might be something bigger, like two sections that need to be swapped.

Do you really need a printed copy for this? YES YOU DO! Can’t you just do it on the screen? NO YOU CAN’T! For one thing, you’ll keep breaking off to read email, which is a complete killer. For another, you’ve been working on this manuscript on screens for months already. Your poor brain is inoculated against its on-screen appearance. You need the mental jolt that a shift of format gives you. And you need the freedom to scribble. When I do this, I often write in suggestions to myself of what alternative wording to use, but I feel free to ignore them when I come to make the edits.

Do you really need a Dar Williams CD? I am prepared to concede it doesn’t necessarily have to be Dar Williams. But it does need to be something that you know so well that it won’t surprise you, it won’t grab your attention away from the work you’re doing. Much as I love Dream Theater, their music is really not the way to go for this. What you want is music that will keep feeding you without distracting you.

Do you really need the red wine and the white chocolate? Perhaps not, but you don’t want this to be a boring, unpleasant process, do you? Treat yourself. (DISCLOSURE: I have moved on to beer.)

What next?

As soon as I’m done posting this, I’ll be going to Step 2, which is to go through the manuscript, making edits on the master copy. Most of them are trivial to do. A few are going to need real work. For these, I just leave a marker in the master copy, “###” and a note saying what needs doing. I will later search for these and do the work. But not tonight.

The goal of this process is to capture all the information that you wrote on the printed copy, so that you can throw it away and move on with your life.

That’s it — it’s all you need to do. For the record, I expect to submit in the  next three or four days.

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