When Writing Gets ‘Overdone’

The best technique for making muffins seems counterintuitive.

You combine your dry ingredients in one bowl, and your wet ingredients in another. In their separate bowls, you can mix the ingredients together as much as you want. But once wet hits dry, the experts tell insist, you must hold back. Stir minimally, so that the mixture is left slightly lumpy. Because if you stir and stir until the mixture is smooth, the muffins don’t rise properly and the tops don’t get that characteristic ‘dome’ look.

As a keen baker and a perfectionist, this rule rankles me. I want a smooth batter! Smooth! Deliberately leaving lumps? Unthinkable!

But as a writer, I understand the rule.

Thesis writing, too, is about combining a whole lot of ingredients (hypotheses, existing knowledge, research findings) to create something new. You’ll need to mix these things together (drafting), and you’ll need to ensure that the ingredients are combined well (editing). But if you overmix — editing over and over again — not only are you creating a whole lot of work for yourself, you also risk beating all the air out of your writing.

All thesis drafts need some level of editing. They need an attentive eye to pick up any spelling or grammatical errors, and they need careful consideration to ensure that they flow well and make your arguments effectively. But there is a point of diminishing returns. Once your writing is well-edited, there’s little to gain from reworking it. In fact, there is potentially something to lose.

Consider your motivations for revisiting a piece of writing that you’ve already polished. Are you updating it because something has changed or new information has come to light? Fine. Are you reviewing it because the context of your research has changed, and you need to recontextualise the writing? That’s understandable.

But if you are re-editing from a position of fear or perfectionism? That can be dangerous.

Re-editing to try to make something perfect is often ineffective because the ‘perfect’ piece of writing doesn’t exist. No matter how well you write your thesis, someone could disagree with it, refute it, or debate it. If you spend 5 hours re-editing an already edited chapter, and end up changing 10 words, that’s hardly a productive use of time.

Excessive editing also risks making the writing worse. Inevitably, when you edit, you have more ‘distance’ than when you first drafted. It’s been longer since you performed the research, and longer since you were deeply embedded in thinking about the subject of the chapter. Distance can bring clarity, but you may also reach a point where you’ve lost touch with the immediacy of the subject matter.

There’s also the risk of editing with imaginary critics in your head. If you’re imagining a hundred ways in which a hundred possible examiners might critique your work, then you can get paralysed trying to edit the writing to be unobjectionable from a hundred different perspectives. That can lead to editing which weakens the impact of your writing.

And ultimately, a lot of people (myself included) spend too much time editing a thesis out of a fear of letting go.

So how do you know when you’re done editing your thesis? Our guest blogger Dr Ian Brailsford wrote for Thesislink about when to let your thesis go. His advice? Go for 90-95% ‘perfect’: “If you can fix the thesis’ ‘bugs’, minor corrections, in a day or two then you abandoned your thesis at the right time. Not too early, not too late.”

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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