Good English Writing – Sleep On It

Here is a powerful tip on writing a good paper, essay, article, report, dissertation, proposal – any piece of writing. This tip is so useful and important that I feel it requires its own article. Put simply, the suggestion is to sleep on it! Sounds easy, but it is a little more involved than it at first appears. Let’s consider a concise explanation of what it means to sleep on it, the process involved, and the benefits derived.

What does it mean ‘to sleep on it’? It means to leave a period of time before reviewing your paper. Once your paper is complete, leave it for a day or two, or even for a week or two, before re-reading it. This allows opportunity to look at the results of your research with ‘fresh eyes’, which in turn allows you to see strengths and weaknesses in your paper that you had previously not noticed. For example, one of my clients, when returning to her work, noticed a mistake! She had meant to write ‘the American Civil War’ but for one reason or another (probably fatigue or stress), had written ‘the First World War.’

Here is a little bit of science to support this tip. The on-line journal “Live Science” explains that when we leave something and stop thinking about it for a period of time, we engage in something called unconscious thought. During unconscious thought “the usual biases that are a part of our thinking are absent. In unconscious thought, we weigh the importance of the components that make up our decision more equally.” (Why 'Sleeping on It' Helps, John M. Grohol, PSYD, October 26, 2009) In other words, sleeping on something (whether a decision or a research paper) before taking a fresh look at our work, gives our mind a chance to pick up things that we had previously not thought of, or not noticed.

How do you do it? There are three steps. Step one, as soon as you begin working on your paper, or the moment you get your assignment, make a realistic schedule which allows you time to sleep on your hard work for a period of time before any deadlines are due. How much time should you set aside to sleep on it? A day or two for a short assignment; a week or more for something like a PHD thesis. So, do not procrastinate! Step two, during the period of time when you are sleeping on it, do not consciously think about your paper, but allow it to pop into your mind whenever – while having a shower, during a walk in the park – whenever. And then, step three, after your predetermined period of time is up, examine your work one more time with fresh, unbiased eyes.

Some of you may well now decry, “I don’t have time to do that!” If you truly cannot set aside time for sleeping on your work, an alternative is to use someone else to look at your paper with “fresh eyes”. This is where an experienced proof-reader is worth his or her weight in gold.

What are the benefits? Science and experience both give testimony to the fact that: When you put your paper aside for a period of time and re-look at it, you are in a great position to polish it up and submit a superior piece of writing.

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