Overcoming my resistance to my own writing

Last year I wrote a paper – my first paper out of my PhD thesis – and sent it to a big international journal. After 4 months, they sent it back with an odd decision: ‘reject and revise’. Essentially, a substantial revise and resubmit. I was given a deadline three months hence, and three reports to work with. Two were mostly encouraging, and one was Reviewer 2. I had many angry one-sided conversations with Reviewer 2 for about a week which felt quite cathartic. I eventually revised the paper, it was rejected again by Reviewer 2, and it is now, finally, being published by a completely different journal after yet further revisions. While a pleasing eventual result, it is the messy and emotionally draining revision process I want to reflect on here.

Although I had three months to revise the paper, I actually only did the revisions in the last 3 weeks of this time period. It was not because I had so many other things to do. I realised, after some reflection, that I was putting off the revisions because I was afraid. The reviews were so painful to read, and felt so mean (especially Reviewer 2), that I became convinced that my paper was complete rubbish and should never have been sent to a journal in the first place. I was scared to open the file and read my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad* writing. I literally could not even go into the folder, and double-click on the file for about 2 months. I tried, but I found myself unable to initially overcome the resistance to going back to my own writing, and what I perceived as my failure to succeed in writing. This fear is something I have felt on more than one occasion when I have received negative peer review, and it took me a while to see it, and realise that I could confront it and overcome it.

Deadlines are an excellent motivator for confronting fear of something you have written and being forced to see for yourself just how awful it is. I eventually opened the file because I had to, and I re-read the paper. To my immense surprise, it was not quite as awful as those reviews seemed to indicate, and re-reading my work enabled me to find the courage to go back and re-read the reviewer reports, make notes, and begin to rework the paper. I rewrote almost 70% of the paper, and was much happier with it when I resubmitted it. Unfortunately, the reviewer who re-reviewed the paper (seriously suspect it was Reviewer 2) indicated that I had addressed the concerns, but wanted more revisions, pretty much along the same lines as the first round. This contradictory request, with no mediation from the editors, was confusing and unmanageable. I didn’t see how I could actually do any more for them with the comments I was given. I withdrew the paper politely, and went elsewhere.

The second round of journal consideration has been more successful. Another 5 months of waiting, but a better decision, and much more encouraging and useful feedback. Yet again, though, getting into the revisions has been tough. I really loathe this paper now. I have rewritten and revised it 5 times, and I really, honestly have no clue whether it is very good or not anymore. I don’t know if it is making any kind of useful contribution to scholarship in my field. I just hate it. I have been so resistant to revising it again, so unwilling to keep looking at it and reading it. It has been useful, though, for me to think about why I feel this way about my ‘feral’ writing, to use Annie Dillard’s brilliant term. I think we all feel really emotional, and hurt, when we receive feedback that is hard to hear and work with. This is well-known and often written and spoken about. But, I have heard much less about what comes between getting the feedback and delivering the revised thesis chapter, draft or paper.

brightonactors.co.uk

brightonactors.co.uk

I think most or all writers feel resistant to going back into a piece of writing that needs to be revised and rewritten, especially on the basis of harsh critique. Perhaps it is not always clear what that resistance is about. In my case, it has mainly been about fear: that my writing is bad, and that if I go back in I will lose faith in myself, and carrying on with this or any paper will be impossible. I would rather not confront the ugly writing I have done. And yet, if I had just chucked this paper, as I wanted to more than once, I would not have learned this about myself. I would not have learned what I have about writing – every time I write a paper, I learn something new about my style, my voice, my thinking and so on. I would not have a paper in press. I would really have failed if I had just caved in the face of the fear and stopped working on this paper.

Writing is hard work, this much we know. But what we also have to give ourselves is recognition that resistance to writing, fear of our own (potentially) bad writing, and feelings of fed-up-ness, loathing, and frustration are part of this hard work that we need to deal with if we are going to push through and make progress. Give yourself time and space to feel your way through as you think your way through, and if you are feeling resistance, frustration or more, try to work out what is at the root of those feelings so that you can get to it, work it out, and keep going. You’ll be so glad you did.

 

*From the book  ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz (1972)

Seeing feedback and peer review as a gift rather than a curse

I have been in the fortunate position of sending off five papers recently that I have been working on for the last several months – a mix of single and co-authored work. The upside is that I have lots to report to my postdoc funders and I have learned even more about writing for publication; the downside is that I am going to be receiving a flurry of feedback on these papers within quite a short space of time, and will have to ingest, consider and respond to this feedback like a grown-up. This part I am feeling apprehensive about.

thewritingcampus.comFeedback, as many of us know, is not easy to receive and hear, even when it is positive. Feedback means more thinking, more reading, more writing; in short, feedback almost always points to more work. Most of the time, when you are finished with a paper or a chapter and you send it off you just would like to be done with it. You have other writing to be getting on with and other things to be doing. Yet, the paper or chapter will come back, with comments, suggestions, criticism and critique (although hopefully more of the latter). You, as the writer (on your own or with co-authors), will need to read all the comments and suggestions, probably a few times, note your responses, and then go back into that paper or chapter you would like to be done with and make changes, revise parts of it, do a little more reading, perhaps revisit data analysis, edit long sentences (if you’re me!). It can feel overwhelming, even when the overall thrust of the feedback is positive and the journal wants to publish your work, or your supervisor thinks you are almost there.

Cally Guerin has written about learning to see feedback on your writing as a ‘gift’ – as something that can enrich your thinking and writing, rather than take away from it. I like this idea – about giving and receiving feedback. I try, whenever I see the email in my inbox indicating that an editor has reached a decision on a manuscript I have submitted, or a critical friend has read and commented on my work, to remember this: that they are trying to give me a gift. They are offering me another opportunity to think about and revise my work to make it stronger, clearer and more persuasive and convincing to readers.  Even if the decision is to reject this version of my paper, the peer reviewers are not trying to break me down and make me feel terrible about my writing. Rather, they are offering me their insight as readers who would be interested in reading my paper, and perhaps using it in their own research. They are offering me a way of seeing my own work through their eyes, and comments and suggestions that can help me to clarify vagaries, shorten long sentences, bring out my contribution more firmly and so on.

I know that not all supervisors or peer reviewers use their powers for good: there is much feedback students and writers receive that is criticism, and is hurtful, unkind and unhelpful. But, as a journal editor of a few years’ standing, and a writer who is becoming braver at sending my work out to journals that is now receiving feedback, I can say that most peer reviewers really do want to help you develop your ideas and make your paper even better. Most peer reviewers do see their role as giving writers feedback that is a gift, rather than a curse. I spoke to a colleague recently, for example, who has reviewed many articles and supervised many students, and always asks himself: ‘Is the writing ready to publish/move on from? If yes, is there anything that can be improved further, and if no, why not and how could this writer get there?’ If supervisors and peer reviewers worked with a version of these questions, and I believe many do, they would certainly be offering writers new ways to re-read and revise their own work.

www.crossfitlondon.ca The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

http://www.crossfitlondon.ca
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

For me, the challenge is always confronting myself, my own fears, insecurities and beliefs about myself as a researcher and writer. Even when reviewers are positive, I hone in on the negative. I read reviews with fear and trepidation, always prepared for them to say the worst about my writing. I am invariably surprised – even papers that have been rejected have garnered some positive praise, and following the reviewers’ advice tends to build my research up, makes my papers better, and makes me prouder of them and myself. So, I am learning to believe that I have something to say that is of value; that I can make a contribution to my field that people will want to read. It is an ongoing battle, but what I have learned is this: the more you ask for feedback, from the right kinds of people – people who are your readers and would be interested in your work – and the more you work with that feedback to see the strengths and flaws in your writing and develop it further, the easier it gets. Like the Little Engine that could, the more you think you can and try on that basis, the more you can actually accomplish. The writing gets a little less difficult and onerous the more you write, and the feedback gets a little less scary the more you read it, engage with it, and accept it as a gift that will ultimately make you a better writer.

On being down (and not quite being ready to get back up)

There are different ways to be down during a PhD, Masters, or postdoctoral fellowship. You can be down in terms of writing time, just struggling to get words onto a page; you can be down in terms of your mood, feeling low and tired and unable to carry on. You can also be down on your luck, if data gets lost, supervisors change institutions, or funding applications fall through.

Pinterest.com

Pinterest.com

I am currently down. I have two blog posts half-written that I cannot seem to finish. I have two papers that have come back from reviewers with mainly positive comments, and suggestions for fairly minor and quite manageable revisions. I have odds and ends that need doing. But even though all of this is actually quite manageable in size and scope, I just cannot seem to do anything. All I really want to do is lie on the couch and watch back-to-back episodes of ‘Bones’, and maybe check my email from time to time and send a response or two.

I am worried about this down-turn in my desire to be productive and energetic about my research. Because, while I have all these little manageable things to do, there are much bigger things waiting: a book that needs to now be written, an edited to book to finish putting together and finalising, a mountain (no I exaggerate not) of raw data that needs to be catalogued, organised, coded and fed back to research participants before year-end. I am worried that if I keep lying on the couch, I will not only lose the will to do the small things, but the bigger things will stall as well.

I remember feeling like this during my PhD, especially towards the end of each of the three years, as I took time off over Christmas and then struggled to get going again in the new year. I am trying, now, to remember how I got myself up then, because I am battling with feeling unable to really get up now, and also wondering if I want to get up. The work waiting is SO much. I am not finding it easy to take my own advice, and just get up and going again.

What do you do when you have lost your work mojo? I tell myself: just do it. Just sit down and do the revisions. Just sit down and finish the blog posts. Just sit down and work. But then I open my email, and fritter away my mornings sans children with silly things that are not getting my work done. Interestingly, I don’t feel as ashamed of this down-turn and what can only be described as laziness as I have in the past. Perhaps I am finally getting better at being kind to myself? Maybe. Perhaps I really am just tired, and my body and brain are recognising that I do need a rest, and they’re taking it. Either way, the mojo is on hold, and while I am not terribly shamed by my non-productivity of late, I am still worried that if I don’t un-funk myself soon, I will get stuck for longer than I can afford to get stuck.

I am sure I will now, as I have in the past, get up. Downs are certainly part of the journey – any journey – as we seldom travel along flat and easy paths only. A PhD, a paper, a book – these are definitely full of highs and lows and everything in-between. I don’t have any good advice for myself today. I just have kindness, a mental hug, and a commitment to at least open one of the the papers that has to be revised, and make a list of things I have to do to finish it. And hope, hope, hope that the mojo will kick in on Monday.