Sentence-by-sentence; create an outline

Now that we have learned how to think about our writing as a series of points, we can turn to an exercise I learned as an assistant professor at Stanford University. I had just had a chapter of my dissertation rejected by the American Journal of sociology. I’m happy that it was rejected, it taught me many lessons, but perhaps the most useful one was some advice I learned from one of my senior colleagues.

Here’s the exercise:

Pick a paper that you really enjoyed reading. Next, spend a few hours taking that paper and copying every single sentence in the paper into an Excel spreadsheet. Every row on that spreadsheet should be a sentence. This will take a few hours, but it is well worth the exercise. It will show you the nuts and bolts of the paper you enjoyed reading and how a master craftsperson writes his or her paper.

The next step is to create a second column, where you write your paper following the structure of the paper that you just broke down as tightly as you can. In a sense, what you are doing, is sitting in front of a portrait at a museum and learning how to copy the Masters. That’s how many artists started.

In fact, a senior colleague suggested that he did this several times with several authors he admired (the names he mentioned were famous social scientists of the time). I decided to do this twice.

After this exercise, I asked the professor whose style he followed afterward. He said: Myself.

This exercise aims to help you find your own style by helping you understand style first.

Now that you have done this exercise, you can improvise and make changes to find your voice.