The “four drafts” approach to speed writing…

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If you’re like me, one of the main things that stresses you out about technical writing is never feeling that you have enough time to do it well.  Most people have totally unrealistic expectations of how long it will take them to write a technical report.  I know that from first-hand experience.  Many years ago I did my Masters part-time while holding down a full-time job. After two long years of working on weekends and evenings I finally finished my lab experiments, so I decided to take two weeks’ vacation to write my thesis and get my life back.  I sat down at the desk the first morning and started writing – not outlining mind you – back then I didn’t know that I was supposed to outline first… After about an hour of scribbling and struggling with the overwhelming task ahead of me – it gradually dawned on me that this was not going to be a two week job, it was going to be a six MONTH job!  I hopped in the car and ran out to pick up some beer and movies.  I decided that I might as well enjoy that two week vacation because I knew that the next six months were going to be pure misery.

That thesis did end up taking me about 6 months to write, but today I could easily do it in two weeks.  It’s not only because I am now much older (and thus a tiny bit wiser).  It’s because, over the intervening 25+ years, I have developed strategies for writing reports quickly and efficiently.  I already told you about one key strategy in my first post – planning and outlining.  In this post I am going to tell you about the “four drafts” approach to speed writing.  Hopefully you will find it, or some adaptation, saves you time as well.  

The basic premise behind the “four drafts” approach is that people waste way too much time tweaking their text.  If you’ve ever found yourself struggling with the same sentence or phrase for 10 or 15 minutes, you know exactly what I mean.  The problem is, about 90% of the text you tweak either ends up getting deleted – or it should be deleted but you’ve invested so much time on it that you can’t part with it, no matter how bad it is.  In the ‘four drafts’ approach, your goal is to make every minute count, primarily by postponing your text tweaking until you really need it.  Here’s how it works, for me at least…

First of all – I find I need to be “in the groove” to write productively – and that in itself can waste a lot of time.  I can’t just sit down at the computer and dive into meaningful technical prose.  So, I do two things to minimize the time I waste on warming up.  First, I always set aside at least three to four hours for each writing session, so that I have fewer start-up sessions overall.  Second, I start each of my technical writing sessions by preparing a few figures or tables for the report or paper I’m working on.  Getting a table formatted or a figure prepared is never a waste of time – you’ll need to do it sometime – and most engineering and science students are pretty comfortable with that side of the work.  I find that starting my writing session in this way gets my mind in gear for the task of writing about those figures and tables, and by the time I’ve got a few sorted I’m all warmed up and mentally ready to start writing.

The task of writing itself is broken down into four stages – the “four drafts”.

Draft 1 – If you read my first post in this series, then you’ll recognize this as the ‘outlining’ stage.  In this draft I list down the complete table of contents, from chapters right down to the lowest sub-sections.  I then go back through and jot down some ideas under each of these sub-sections to remind myself of some of the key points I want to make in each case.  I also note down the key tables and figures I’ll need.  (This gives me a good list of figures and tables to work on when I begin my future sessions.)

Draft 2 – This is the ‘brainstorming’ draft.  The idea here is simply to dump all your thoughts and ideas.  Don’t worry about sentence order, grammar, spelling or punctuation – that will just slow you down and interrupt the creative flow. Just perform a ‘core dump’ of every bit of information you can think of under each of your section headings.  Likely you won’t be able to do it all in one sitting. I usually focus on the bits related to the figures and tables I’ve just been working on during my warn up.  The important thing here is not to get bogged down by phraseology.  Focus on getting all the facts down onto paper as quickly as they come into your mind – don’t let anything inhibit the flow of ideas.

Draft 3 – this is the ‘sifting and sorting’ stage, where the first seeds of paragraphs germinate, grow and flourish.  First, go through everything you dumped during the brainstorming session(s) and collect ‘like’ ideas into groupings.  Next, start thinking about topic sentences for these groupings.  Then, flesh out the supporting facts into full blown sentences.  Organize these supporting sentences into a logical order under their respective topic sentences.  Don’t waste any time trying to get the wording absolutely perfect –  but do make the effort to form proper sentences and paragraphs. If you find yourself struggling over a word or a phrase, just write down something similar.  It can be wordier or less articulate than you’d ideally like to end up with.  That’s okay – just make sure you’ve got enough there to document your ideas.

I call Draft 4 the ‘preening’ draft.  This is where you turn your excellent technical content into excellent technical prose.  Check your grammar, spelling and punctuation.  Perform your paragraph checks (as described in my last post).  Permit yourself the indulgence of a bit of text tweaking, go ahead and torture a bit over the phraseology – but don’t get too carried away with it.  Generally, we are aiming to be succinct and articulate in technical writing, not verbose and flowery.  In particular, avoid adjectives as well as any qualitative descriptions or assessments. Quantify wherever possible and eliminate any repetition of words, phrases or ideas.  Be ruthless – if a sentence is vague, fix it. If it doesn’t add anything new – delete it.

That’s it! From blank page to polished draft in four steps.  The trick is to not flip flop between stages.  It takes a lot of discipline, but it works.  It also helps if you can leave at least a few days between each of the four stages.  If you decide to give it a try, please let me know what you think using the comment feature below. Chances are, as you get more experienced, you develop a modified version of this that works best for you.  Hopefully, in the meantime, it will help you to speed up the writing process and make it less stressful.

In upcoming posts I’ll talk a bit more about the ‘preening process’ – specifically, I’ll talk about consistency and content. I’ll also provide some general advice on how to use figures and tables effectively.


2 thoughts on “The “four drafts” approach to speed writing…

    Rafael Moreira said:
    February 10, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    Hi Prof. Faye. Liked very much your blog, has some really interesting things I need to know, as I’m writing some report paper, from my Master thesis research, and in the meanwhile writing to prospective PhD supervisors, along with full-time job during the week (tough, hein?).
    About technical paper writing: I don’t have much of a problem to write a lot down, lots of ideas… but when it comes to arrange the things, specially putting in technical and putting references, I just can’t… I believe is in your “preening” draft you do that, but it’s taking some much time to me and I just get tired of trying. How do you do it?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      February 11, 2013 at 12:19 pm

      Thanks for the nice comments.

      Regarding your question – there’s no quick fix, I’m afraid. Good writing takes effort and time. You could try putting in the references as you go – it’s far more efficient (and much less tedious) than trying to add them all afterewards – but the bottom line is that it’s your job to make your thesis or paper perfect – and if you want a Masters or a PhD, then you’re going to have to put in the work to make sure it is perfect.

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