When you’re generating your first drafts, focus only on “getting it out.” The thoughts in your head, the information you’re gathering to support your assertions, the language of criteria and standards—don’t worry how it fits together; just get it into a draft.
Once you have a draft—however rough—you can revise it.
More than Polite Language
English professor John Trimble said the secret of great writing lay simply in “being courteous” to the reader. Just as you wouldn’t talk at length about a subject un-understandable to your friends, or abruptly change topics in the middle of a lively stream of conversation, you want to provide similar courtesies to your dossier readers. You never want the readers to feel confused or lost, as if they may have missed a beat in the music.
So after you’ve turned those fragmented thoughts into sentences and roughly grouped sentences into paragraphs, focus on creating an easy-to-follow path for your reader. You can do this by inserting obvious cues about the narrative’s organization. Use subheadings generously. Unabashedly summarize, at the end of each major section, what you said above.
You can create courteous prose also by varying your sentence structure. Most sentences take the form subject-verb-object-and/or-modifying-phrase. Occasionally beginning a sentence with a subordinate clause or modifying phrase can break that pounding subject-verb-object rhythm as well as introduce some nuances into your writing.
Another way to show courtesy to your reader—and a way to clarify your substance to yourself—centers on creating tables or charts to summarize information. A table showing how each research initiative unfolded in which conference papers, invited presentations, and peer-reviewed publications can help your reader see continuity and progression in your efforts in ways a list simply can’t convey. When I first created a table like this, I was able to make more sense of my research streams than I could when it seemed like I was limping from one rejection and revise-and-resubmit to another.
As your draft comes together, try reading it aloud, not because you like the sound of your voice, but because reading aloud slows you down enough to see what actually is on the page. This is when you can recognize abbreviations that should be defined on first use and jargon that need explanations.
Let the Bones Show
A good writer herself, my mother once coached me to “let the bones show” in my writing. While the metaphor may sound macabre, making the organization plain can shape the readers’ expectations, orienting them to where they are and where they’re heading next—in short, it’s being courteous. Your readers like being able to hold a document at arm’s length and see the skeleton, the structure of the text, and anticipate what they will find where. And creating that structure for the reader also helps you make sure you say what you mean, in exactly the context you intend.