I read a lot of draft manuscripts for people – perhaps you do too. (I’m talking here about my role as a “friendly reviewer”, in which I’m looking at rougher manuscripts that aren’t yet in the peer review system.) I read drafts for the undergraduates in my Scientific Writing course, for my grad students, and for my friends and collaborators. I do this because I want to help these folks improve their writing, and also because I want to pay forward the favour that many others have done for me over the years. It’s a lot of work, which I usually don’t mind. Sometimes, though, it’s more work than it has to be, and then I see red.
Let’s posit that if you’re sending your draft to someone, you’d prefer that they don’t see red. Perhaps you’d like them to read your drafts more than once; or perhaps they’ll do that whether you’d like them to or not (because they’re on your supervisory committee). How can you ensure that your draft-reader will open your next email-with-an-attachment with something other than dread? It’s worth thinking about this, because a friendly reviewer who’s (1) really good at it, and (2) not annoyed with you, is worth their weight in gold.
So, here are some things you can do to make your friendly reviewer’s job easier.
- Give them time. Just as a journal shouldn’t expect a peer reviewer to drop everything to read a manuscript the instant it’s assigned to them, you shouldn’t assume your friendly reviewer has nothing else on their plate. Two or three weeks is a reasonable expectation; rarely, if the job is a small one, you might ask for your draft back in a week.
- Let them know what feedback you’re looking for. Perhaps you haven’t polished your grammar yet, because you’re not sure some passages belong at all; or perhaps you’re really not sure your Introduction is going in the right direction and so your Discussion is still fragmentary. Tell your friendly reviewer so. That way, they can focus their effort on the comments you need, and won’t be annoyed by a perceived need to correct things you could have corrected yourself. A quick note that “I know the wording of the Discussion is still rough; please ignore that and just tell me if you think I’ve hit on the right major points” will save a lot of reader distress.
- Format the draft for easy reading.
- Number pages and lines. Let your reviewer say “This passage seems to contradict what you wrote at line 127”, rather than having to labour to come up with “…what you say on the fourth line of the third paragraph on page 7”. This is such an easy step that I’m just astonished at how folks don’t take it.
- Use a serif font. Sans-serif fonts, like this one*, are designed to make it easy for someone to read a few isolated words, like on a highway sign or on a PowerPoint slide. Serif fonts (those with small strokes decorating the ends of longer strokes as in Times New Roman) are designed for easier reading of long text passages, with the serifs drawing the eye along lines of text. The move of word-processing software from serif to sans-serif default fonts was puzzling, to say the least; but you don’t need to use the default. (Yes, the sans-serif font in this post carries ome irony. However, WordPress uses a number of other typesetting conventions that ease reading; your draft document may not. I’m still a bit nettled, though.)
- Double-space (or 1.5-space). Like serifs, the extra white space helps draw the eye along lines in longer documents.
- Indent your paragraphs. The paragraph is an amazingly powerful tool in structuring and organizing your writing. But it can do its job only if readers easily spot the paragraph breaks, and that’s what indentation is for. (The alternative, a blank line between paragraphs, works well except when the blank line happens to hit at a page break. Unless your document lacks page breaks – as blog posts or online newspaper articles do – the blank line alone can’t do the job, although using one nicely amplifies the indent.)
- Use two spaces after a period. OK, OK, calm down, one-spacer, I just said that to troll you. (Although see here.)
By the way, the two-space-one-space brouhaha makes a more general point: different friendly reviewers may have different formatting preferences. If your friendly reviewer doesn’t agree with any of the above, don’t try to correct them – just make them happy.
Finally: pay it forward. For every draft you get help with, offer to read a draft of someone else’s. We all write better when we write with help. Even you, Anne Rice.*
What have I missed? What makes commenting on a draft easier for you?
© Stephen Heard May 19, 2020
Image: Editing, © Nic McPhee CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr.com.
*^That’s the vampire novelist Anne Rice (well, she writes about vampires; as far as I know, she isn’t one). Rice apparently believes that a sufficiently experienced writer needn’t bother with all this reviewing-and-editing claptrap. After a reader suggested online that one of her novels had needed an editor’s hand, she responded: “I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself. I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me” (To enjoy Rice doubling down on this position, read Sarah Lyall’s article in the New York Times, Oct 11 2004). Here’s the thing, though: Anne Rice, despite the self-proclaimed brilliance of her prose, has yet to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Perhaps there’s a connection. Gosh, this is a long footnote. Maybe I need an editor.