Finishing touches for the academic writer

A while back I was consulting a book called Finishing touches for the Handweaver by Virginia M. West. This book provides instructions for how to finish handwoven fabrics using various hemstitching and fringes. I consulted the section on ladder hemstitching in order to complete the stitching needed for the hems of the towels I was making. As I carefully hand stitched across the width of the fabric, I had to concentrate very hard in order to count a specific number of threads for each stitch. It was slow going, and I was not able to ascertain the effects until I had completed weaving the full length of fabric and wet-finished it (another aspect of “finishing” handwoven fabric). Fortunately, all was well!

I was struck by the idea of “finishing” something. Many activities entail finishing touches – consider cooking and serving a gourmet meal, sewing a garment, turning a wooden bowl, or crafting a piece of jewelry or a ceramic pot. All of these tasks requires various processes that refine, polish and finish the item. Finishing a manuscript typically takes the same kind of attention I needed to finish that piece of cloth. Similarly, it also entails multiple processes. What does it take to “finish” a manuscript?

After one gets one’s ideas and argument laid out and the content of a manuscript is structured in a way that meets the criteria for the audience to which it is to be submitted, an author must do another sort of editing that takes in both form and content. This fine-grained and meticulous editing must be done slowly, carefully, and with attentiveness.

When reviewers and editors read a manuscript, their attention will be distracted from the content if a manuscript contains multiple typing errors and grammatical errors, and if it does not conform to the specified style guide. Authors do not want their readers’ attention to be distracted from the content by these easily rectified errors. In some cases, poorly formatted manuscripts will be rejected outright, and it is commonly understood that in the grant application process, proposals must be formatted precisely as specified, and will not be reviewed if they are not (this includes margins and fonts!). Further, if a manuscript submitted for publication does not conform to the style guide provided by a particular press or journal, it may take many hours for a copy editor at a publishing house to reformat it. This slows down the publication process, and increases production expenses.

Editing must attend to different sections of a manuscript for a journal. These include:

  1. The body of the manuscript, including:
  • Sentence by sentence for grammar, spelling and clarity.
  • Formatting of manuscript – font style and size, paragraph format, line spacing, formatting of headings.
  • Exclusion of the authors’ names to allow for blind peer review.
  1. The reference list, including:
  • Checking that all references cited in the manuscript are included.
  • Accurate citation and formatting of references to conform to the specified style guide.
  • No extraneous references are included in the manuscript.
  1. The title page, including:
  • Full names, addresses and contact details for all authors

It typically takes me several readings before I have paid sufficient attention to these different areas of the manuscript. Yet, such careful, step-by-step attention is warranted. Recently I heard another writer say that they typically aim to rid their drafts of about 50% of the text as they revise and refine their manuscripts! Howard Becker’s book on writing (1986) provides some useful strategies for closely editing and revising drafts of manuscripts, especially if you find it difficult to revise your drafts. Another reference that provides strategies to help in this process is Goodson (2017).

Here is a check list of questions to ask to see if a manuscript has been through appropriate “finishing” details.

  • Has the style guide been followed?
  • Are heading levels accurately formatted according to the style guide?
  • Does the manuscript follow the style guide with respect to
    • Line spacing
    • Font and font size
    • Formatting of paragraphs?
  • Are citations accurately formatted according to the style guide?
  • Is the reference list complete and accurate?

Once an editor has accepted a manuscript for publication, authors must also respond to queries from the publishing house. Sadly, I have yet to catch all of the errors in a manuscript that I have submitted. When a manuscript has been type-set, authors will receive a copy of the finished manuscript along with queries. These might include questions about citations or sentences that require clarification. Typically, authors must respond to these sorts of queries in a matter of days – so it’s useful to watch out for these sorts of emails, and answer them promptly.

All the best with finishing up your manuscripts!

Kathy Roulston

References

Becker, H. S. 1986. Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago.

Goodson, Patricia. 2017. Becoming an academic writer: 50 exercises for paced, productive, and powerful writing. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Sage.

West, V. M. 1988. Finishing touches for the handweaver. Rev. Ed. Baltimore, MD: Virginia West.

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