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Fast Writing, Slow Revising

Fast Writing, Slow Revising Just as you keep up with aspects of your field to be able to give more to your teaching and research, I am always looking for peak performance tools that will support my faculty coaching clients and audiences. I have recently come across the excellent work of Drs. Sonya Foss and William Waters on how to write more easily.

I heard them speak on a teleconference sponsored by the Textbook and Academic Authors group, a small professional organization dedicated to supporting teachers who write books. Dr. Waters and I will both be presenters at the TAA annual conference held this year in San Antonio from June 27-29, 2009 (see end notes for how to register). Foss and Waters have published an excellent book entitled, “Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation.” In a way it is too bad the word “dissertation” is in the title because you might pass this book by as having no relevance to your life as a professor and scholar. In fact, if you cross out the word “dissertation” and substitute the word “book,” the book is an excellent guide to writing any academic book. You might even find it useful for writing on shorter projects such as articles.

Fast Writing

Just as the title suggests, the first stage of writing described by Foss and Waters is fast writing, writing that generates text without a lot of regard to spelling, punctuation, or references.

During the fast writing stage, do not go back over what you write except to familiarize yourself where you left off. The authors even have a technique to short cut that task. When you finish writing for the day, give yourself a phrase or two of what you intend to write next, a bit of your thought processes so that you can get back into the thoughts immediately and begin writing where you left off. To prevent the temptation of rereading what you have written Foss and Waters suggest turning off your computer monitor while you compose. I tried this and realized that you have to make sure that you type with your fingers on the correct keys. Otherwise you have a paragraph of text like mine: “ion xrcvr;;rym yrsvjrtd str brtu jstf eptloh smf jstb ytpib;r hryyomh s;;.” I hadn’t realized that most keyboards have little raised ridges on the F and J so you can find your way in the dark.

Contrary to the common sense we may have picked up in our seventh grade English classes, these writing experts do not recommend spending time reading, taking notes, and outlining. Those activities belong in the later stages unless the piece you are working on is a literature review. Their advice reminds me of similar advice from other writing experts such as Robert Boice who suggest that academic writers begin writing before they are ready, not getting bogged down thinking about writing but rather writing on what you already know about your topic. You can backfill later with profound insights and relevant references. Pater Elbow talked about freewriting, writing rapidly and continuously without lifting the pen from the page or the fingers from the keyboard. Other writing experts have talked about the importance of getting the “internal critic” part of your brain off the job temporarily until you are ready to ask for help during the editing phase.

Foss & Waters call the product of the fast draft a “spew draft.” You are just spewing the words off the ends of your fingers. Anything that interrupts the flow is to be avoided. You are aiming to generate lots of bad text. This expectation will take off the pressure of perfectionism so that you can keep writing. For example, if you are fast writing and a question comes up don’t stop to look something up. Instead, use some sort of notation that you will recognize later right in the text that prompts you to insert a reference or vocabulary word. They recommended caps as a notational device; I use brackets with question marks like this [find better word later???]. Their advice is supported by research from writing and creativity experts and researchers such as Boice who found that quantity begets quality. Somewhere in the mess of several paragraphs will be some gems worth mining for publication.

Don’t stop and agonize over word choice. Why fix a phrase when it might be edited out later? Instead just make a note indicating that you don’t like a reference or word choice and keep on writing. Schedule these fast writing sessions fairly close together so that you can maintain continuity of thought. Writing expert Tara Gray (also a presenter at the TAA conference) recommends daily writing so that you never get more than 24 hours away from your projects.

While Foss and Waters claim that fast writing can produce 6-7 pages per hour, I can’t get up to that much speed. I’ve always suspected I have a slower brain microchip compared to other faculty. In the bell shaped normal curve of Ph.D.’s someone has to fill in the bottom half of the distribution; I hold that place proudly while at the same time always trying to improve my own work habits. These experts have solved a number of problems we all run into:

  • Feeling stuck: Try some free writing with a short non-stop piece about your stuckness. I have recommended in my workshops that you change the voice for this free writing from your academic voice to one you might use to write Aunt Tillie. “Dear Aunt Tillie, I just can’t figure out what this 2 by2 interaction effect means and I can’t write my discussion section until I do. On the one hand…”

  • Feeling bored: Jump into another section and write on that topic for awhile.

  • Feeling frustrated with your writing speed compared to your talking speed: Talk your ideas into a tape recorder especially if you can do so during a class or a presentation. You might have an assistant transcribe the tape and then you can write over that draft or you might listen and add additional ideas as you listen. Before I become a smoother draft writer, I used a taped version of a writing piece and a foot pedal so I could pause and restart the tape while keeping my fingers on the keyboard.

  • Feeling disorganized: Write some key concepts for the section you are working on and then write the explanations and subpoints under each concept.

Literature Reviews

Foss and Waters have a simple clever way of doing a literature search that makes the first chapter or section of research reports almost write themselves. Gone forever is any version of the dreaded 3 x 5 cards including any electronic copy with highlighting, etc. Here is what you will do instead. Once your search has turned some juicy materials, make photocopies of any relevant pages from the books or articles that contain the information that you wish to quote or cite. Then come up with a code for each reference. It might be the author’s name and publication year (like Boice, 2000), anything that can identify the source later. Cut apart each paragraph or sentence that you want to save and write the code on the slip of paper so you know its source for later.

On a large table or floor, sort the slips of paper into relevant piles with like ideas together. Make sure you have no pets or toddlers nearby nor windows open while this process goes on. You might already have a logical first draft of an outline ready or it might evolve as you sort. Often a logical order of the subpoints will begin to emerge as you sort the slips into groupings. Some of the groupings will begin to subdivide into outline subpoints and sub subpoints. Support for the points will begin stacking up. After you like the groupings, collect the strips of each grouping and secure with a paperclip so that you have the order you want. Put a sticky note with the point or subpoint on the front. The sticky could also contain a lettering or numbering system corresponding to your outline point.

Start with the first grouping and begin to write and describe your concepts using the slips for support, quotes, and references (using the short code for now). Just keep writing while turning over the slips as you finish with each slip appearing in the order you established. All can be revised later.

Slow Revising

Foss and Waters suggest editing in waves from a macro level to a micro level. They urge us to run a hard copy of our rough drafts so that we can cross things out and scribble on the copy. I save junk mail with blank backs to run these draft copies so that more trees don’t have to give their lives so I can edit my bad drafts.

Here are some of the macro level revisions:

  • Decide what stays and what goes.

  • Rearrange essential pieces into the best order such as the points that build an argument.

  • Add missing information you flagged earlier with caps or brackets.

After the big picture of your writing begins to shape up, you can do the micro level changes by a sking:

  • Do paragraphs follow logically?

  • Do the paragraphs transition from one to another through the last sentences of one and the first of the other?

  • Does each paragraph have a topic sentence?

  • Do all of the sentences support the topic sentence?

  • Do all the individual words in the sentences belong?

  • Is the word choice appropriate for what you want to say?

  • Is the punctuation and spelling accurate?

The final level of revision is the proofreading level. Foss and Waters suggest that letting the draft sit for a few days and then:

  • Make several passes, looking for only one thing at a time such as spelling or puncutation.

  • Copy and paste all topic sentences into another document so that you can see the flow and logic of your presentation of ideas.

  • Read aloud. Read pointing your finger at each word. Read using a ruler on each line to slow your brain down to catch the smallest errors.

The Writer’s Life

Foss and Waters have suggestions on how academic writers can make writing more a part of their work lives:

  • Write regularly 3-5 times a week for an hour at least.

  • Write at your peak energy times such as in the morning if you are a morning person.

  • Examine how you procrastinate through the “incomplete scholar roles” you may attend to instead of writing, such as the Housekeeper who cleans instead of writing or the Model Teacher who rewrites her class notes instead of writing.

  • Start a “personal style sheet” for your most common mistakes and check these in the proofreading stage.

  • Keep a record of your times/pages so that you are accountable to yourself.

  • Share the record and your drafts with a writing buddy.

  • Quit when you have done your time but leave clues where you were going with the next sentence or section so that you can quickly pick up where you left off.


Write quickly, revise slowly.


Foss, Sonya & Waters, William. “Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation.”

© Copyright 2009 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

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