By Kareem Carr
I write best when I have some inspiration. Therefore, I often prefer to write when I am in the mood and stop when I am not. When I have a deadline, or some other external reason, however, my normal process of writing isn’t fast enough. At those times, I need to force myself along. This is how I do it.
Get everything in your head out on paper as quickly as possible. If you get to point where you don’t know what to write just write your best version of the idea. I often write something like “[some proof here]”; or, after writing my first point, if I’m stuck I might say “[second point here]”. I try to avoid writing something like “…” without labeling it, because something more explicit helps me know what should go there later.
Rearrange the paragraphs to make a simple structure. Some basic arrangements are: logical, chronological, specific-to-general or general-to-specific. The idea is to have your thoughts progress on the page in some simple way that makes overall sense. This doesn’t have to be perfect. If the best you can say about a paragraph is it belongs “somewhere in the middle” then just put it somewhere in the middle. If I can’t quite figure out how things fit together yet, I break my essay into pieces composed of paragraphs that fit together and set off the fragments with whitespace. So my typical disorganized essay looks like this:
At this point, you probably have a lot of gaps.
In a sequential way, fill out all the gaps at the sentence, paragraph and section levels. For each sentence, if you don’t have the right word at some point, put your best guess. However, keep going over it until all the sentences are grammatical and complete. After that is done, go over all the paragraphs until the sentences make sense together as paragraphs. This means figuring out what idea you are trying to put across in a paragraph; and making sure the paragraph says all the things necessary in order to get that point across. After the paragraphs all make sense, rearrange the paragraphs until they are in the right place. After the paragraphs are in the right place, make sure all the transitions work. Transitions can be sentences that start with “however”, “although” or “my second point is”. There are also more subtle ways of transitioning and you should read your piece to see that each paragraph follows from the previous one in a sensible way. At this point, you should have a composition that is readable. All the sentences make sense; all the paragraphs make sense; and they follow one after the other in a way that makes it possible for the reader to make sense of what you have written.
Work on the language. One easy trick for working on language is to try to reduce the number of words. Most people prefer a high amount of information in a few words. (Note, this is not the same as writing so few words that the reader has to reconstruct most of your reasoning.) Another idea is to use a thesaurus to reduce repetitive word usage or to increase the information conveyed by a word through exploiting nuances of meaning. It’s best not to use a word unless you know both the explicit meaning, the connotations and the typical usage. Often you may have settled for a vague word like “good” instead of a more meaningful word like “beneficial” because “good” is what came to mind. You should also try reading your piece out loud. Any awkward sentences should be fixed based on your best guess of what to do. If a sentence seems too long don’t be afraid to chop it into two parts and see what happens. Having an experimental approach helps.
Work in teams. The mental model for what I am thinking of is leapfrog, the childhood game where you spring forward using the backs of playmates. You should ask your writing partner to read through your piece and just change anything that looks wrong then pass it off to you. You then fix anything that you think looks wrong about the piece. This works best if you trust the other person is of similar writing ability and you are willing to accept that if they make a change, then most of the time, it’s probably either an improvement or at least roughly as good as what you did. The few times I have done this, it actually made writing a lot of fun.