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)

Why are revisions so difficult? or Why is this *@#$ paper not finished!

It may seem, from the title of this post, that this will be an angry post, ranting about revisions and papers that are not done even though you want to be done with them. That is only partly true. There will also be insightful musings on why revisions are just so damn hard to do, and why so many of us put them off, sometimes for too long. I am writing this as pre-revisions therapy of sorts, and my hope is that it will spur me forward (and help some of you to do the same).

I have been talking, for a while now, about a paper I wrote and sent off to a journal at the beginning of the year. After four long months of waiting, the reports came in, and although one was very kind and advised only ‘minor revisions’ the other two had more serious concerns, and asked for much more substantial revisions. I was encouraged to send it back, in a much-changed form. There were some mean and snarky comments in-amongst the helpful and thoughtful advice and suggestions, and these really hurt my feelings. Quite a lot, actually. I am still smarting a little (but then I do tend to take feedback, even the good kind, way too personally). So, the first obstacle to my actually doing the revisions is what Kate Chanock has called emotional static; my hurt feelings and the emotional exhaustion I am anticipating in going back into this paper are interfering with my ability to think more rationally and intellectually about how much stronger the paper will be once I have worked through the more useful and thoughtful comments. I have always battled with this, especially the emotional exhaustion bit. During my PhD when I would get feedback from my supervisor, which was always helpful and never mean, I would open the email, download the file, and then ignore it, too fearful of the further work they would require of me. This is my emotional static, and it really gets in the way of progress in my writing at times.

But, I would eventually get over it enough to open the file, read the feedback, and realise that: a) it actually wasn’t as bad as it had become in my head; and b) the comments were mostly pointing me towards refined thinking and writing that would make the chapter that much more coherent, persuasive and clear. There certainly is some pleasure to be found in refining a piece of work to the point that you do feel more confident sending it out into the wide world for readers to (hopefully) enjoy and be interested in. But, this is also the second obstacle in my revision ‘process’ or procrastinatory mess, more accurately. I don’t feel very confident about these ideas. I believe, mostly, in what I research and write about, but I know that there is opposition to these ideas, and the theory I use, within some of the research and practice communities I am part of. So, I anticipate vociferous criticism and critique, and objections to my claims that I am not sure I will be able to defend. And then I feel squashed and doubtful, and overly anxious, and I haven’t even finished the paper or sent it out to a journal yet! It seems really silly when I write it out like this. But, I suspect I am not alone in this. My challenge, in overcoming this obstacle, is to take my own advice: I need to encourage myself, and believe that I do have something of value to offer through my research. My ideas may well be challenged, but I can actually defend them if I understand that I am not trying to ‘draw a map as big as the country’* but am rather just trying to make connected, smaller arguments that will contribute to thinking about one part of a very complex puzzle in education research. This is useful advice, I think, especially during a PhD when you know you have to just make one argument in the thesis but you really feel like 3 or 4 would be safer, just to cover all your bases and in case someone else gets in there first. One paper/one thesis: one major claim or argument (although obviously a thesis will make this argument in a much more detailed and complex way, given the word limit and purpose differences.)

Finally, my third obstacle is fear. I am afraid that, even after I do all this work (and these revisions will likely be a lot of work) the journal will still reject the paper, and this is quite a high-stakes paper for me as I need to have it accepted to count towards renewing my fellowship for 2016. I really, really don’t want to have to go back to a full-time ‘deskjob’ yet, and so the fear that they will still reject it and I will have to start again and won’t be able to count this and so won’t have my fellowship renewed is proving to be a deceptively big obstacle. I tell myself I really need to just get it done, but then I fill all my time with a hundred other things I just have to do right now or else. I did this during my PhD with chapter and draft thesis revisions too. And deadlines loom and I still carry on creating a procrastinating mess, rather than progress. I honestly cannot tell you why I do this, or how I eventually shame, goad or encourage myself into sitting down and just doing what needs to be done until it’s done. But I do – I have to, I suppose. This is, after all, the career I have chosen, and I totally get that the only person who can get this done is actually me. (No elves coming to help me in the night, sadly).

Part of the point of writing this post before I do these revisions is to get this all out there, for myself, and reflect on what is standing in my way at the moment. And part of the point is also to push myself over these obstacles, even if I feel like I am faking the confidence and lack of fear for the moment. If you are stuck in a similar spot, something like this might help you too – your obstacles may be different, but working out what they are and what resources you have to hurdle them and keep going may give you the encouraging push you need.

*with thanks to Karl Maton for this phrase, and advice.

Coming to the end (almost): polishing the Meisterwerk

I have been seeing a lot of tweets throughout this month from scholars who, as they approach December submission dates, are coming to the end (almost) of their PhD journeys. This has led to me thinking back to this time last year and the final weeks before I submitted my thesis for examination.

There seems to a lot of advice for PhD scholars on just about everything you can think of to do with writing and researching a PhD dissertation – writing introductions, abstracts, methodology chapters, generating and analyzing data, surviving bad supervisor relationships and so on, but (and this may be because I did not really have much time to look too hard) I didn’t come across much advice on the nitty gritty of getting the thesis finished and submitted. In particular I was worried about proofreading, printing, binding, and the final bits and pieces of editing and polishing. Should I have a proofreader? What kind of things should I make sure that a proofreader has by way of qualifications? What kinds of things do I need to consider in printing out and binding the thesis for the examiners? How many copies? These sound like silly questions, but they made for a fair bit of panic in my little PhD camp in November last year.

I have recently been helping a friend find a proofreader for her PhD thesis, and she has had similar concerns and panic. There are a lot of people who offer proofreading and copyediting services, but there are about as many stories of students and academics who have had a terrible experience with a proofreader unfamiliar with, for example, academic referencing conventions or the more technical aspects of MSWord, and have sent back a thesis that is far from free of errors. Proofreading is often expensive, and to have your work come back without errors missed, or worse added in, is really frustrating. It also adds to your stress and your workload right at the end, because you have to re-read and check everything doubly carefully. In my professional experience as a journal editor and as a writing centre coordinator, I have gleaned this advice for students who are looking to have their thesis proofread and copyedited ahead of submission:

  1. Make sure that the proofreader has experience working with academic texts, especially theses or dissertations, which are quite different to your average 6000-word journal article or a more popular text, like a novel. Ask them what kinds of work they usually do, and what kinds of training they have, formal (editing courses) or on-the-job/informal (experience).
  2. Ask for references – who else’s work have they proofread? Good proofreaders who have the right kinds of experience and qualifications should be happy and able to provide these.
  3. Give them very clear instructions. Mostly, you want a proofreader to check that all your in-text/footnote/endnote references are consistent in style, and that you have a complete and consistent reference list; double check and correct formatting and spacing inconsistencies; and correct/mark typos and obvious grammatical errors. Give the proofreader clear information about the style you have employed so they can help you check for consistency (e.g., APA 6). You should ask for all changes to be marked up but not made for you, so that you can go through and accept or reject changes yourself; also if there are things they need to bring to your attention as the author, the editor should mark these with comment bubbles. If you are vague in your request for assistance, you may not get the help you are paying for.
  4. Good proofreaders will ask for your work to get a sense of how much work is involved, and should include a sample of a few pages of copyedited text with their quote and delivery date, so that you can see how much they will charge, how long they will take and the quality of the work they do. Charges usually apply per hour, or per page. Try to negotiate per hour rates if you can, as this may work out less expensive depending on what the person is charging you.

The biggest piece of advice here is to remember that this is your text and you have the right, especially as you are paying for it, to get the service that will help you polish the thesis in the least stressful and most accurate way possible. You need to be able to ensure that, if there are problems, you can stand up for yourself and not end up paying for shoddy proofreading. Researching this carefully will go a long way to ensuring a smoother polishing process. Ask other scholars who have finished who they worked with, or your supervisor; if you have a writing centre or similar on your campus they may have referrals, as might your library.

In terms of printing and binding, if this is required of you, your first point of call is obviously your departmental or faculty guidelines. In the absence of hard and fast rules, one-sided printing makes for easier reading, in my limited examiner’s experience (it also gives the examiner a space for scribbling notes for the report), and soft binding is obviously cheaper and lighter if the thesis has to be sent off to an examiner. It’s also easier to read and scribble on and mark a thesis that is soft-bound or ring-bound. The hard binding you can save for the final, revised and super-polished version.

These really do seem like little, silly details as I write this, but having (almost) end of the road advice (even if this is what you were planning to do anyway) can be useful as it is always good to know that you’re on the right track, or making tried-and-tested choices.

There is more than enough stress right at the end – dealing with some of the nitty-gritties and crossing these off your list can only help to move you closer to Submission Day, hopefully with greater confidence and calm. If you’re on the (almost) final stretch, keep breathing, make a list to keep track of everything, and good luck!

Deciphering your supervisor’s feedback

This is supposed to be a somewhat lighthearted post, rather than a serious exposition on feedback.

cybergogue.blogspot.com

cybergogue.blogspot.com

I was chatting to some friends and fellow PhD travellers recently about how we make sense of our supervisors’ feedback – what we read into some of the ways in which they phrase comments and questions that give us clues on how to respond in the most appropriate ways. It was a funny conversation, and we all ended up laughing quite a lot at our own accounts of how we do this. But it did get me thinking about how we – how students – respond to feedback that we are given on our writing, not just emotionally but also in terms of how we read from the feedback a set of guidelines for our revisions, or read into the feedback the tone of our supervisor’s (or examiner’s/reviewer’s) responses to our writing.

My supervisor – and I both liked and disliked this at various points and for a range of reasons – never told me what to write or think. She prompted, questioned, suggested, challenged – but she never instructed. There are times when you just want to be told what to write so that you know you are writing the right things (although there really is a lot of subjective judgement about what is ‘right’ and that should not necessarily be for someone other than you to ultimately decide). But most of the time you really do want to be guided with your writing and thinking rather than instructed. You want the work to be your own, and even though it’s bloody hard work most of the time, you really want to do the thinking work that comes with the writing and revising and rewriting.

But in order to do the most productive kinds of writing and thinking that will indeed take you on a journey of intellectual and personal growth and learning (and help you produce a PhD dissertation), you need not only to have that guidance that creates space for you to think, write, revise and grow, you need also to know what to do with that guidance, much of which comes in the form of feedback whether written or verbal. I worked out, over time, a way of making sense of what my supervisor was suggesting or prompting me to think about and do – and figuring out what my own response should be. I think that this working out will be different for each student, of course, but this is an important thing to spend some time thinking about, as part of the process of becoming a more conscious writer.

For instance, I worked out that when she started a comment with ‘I wonder if…’ this meant that I could think about it myself, and arrive at my own conclusion about whether or not to include what followed in my chapter. If she said ‘This is my own personal preference…’ I didn’t really have to think too hard and could probably note her comment and move on if it didn’t match my personal preferences. If she said ‘You may want to…’ then I probably did want to (and actually should) do what she suggested. She also gave other more directive kinds of comments like ‘Include a few references here’ and ‘Check for consistency with this’ and I duly did so. Working out this ‘code’ was helpful for me in terms of reading into the feedback her responses to my writing and whether she felt I was going well or not, and also reading from her feedback some clear guidelines and pointers for my own revisions.

What is your supervisor’s code and how does working it out help you to work on your writing and revisions?

 

Corrections

I finished my corrections, finally, last Friday and submitted the most revised and final version of my PhD dissertation that there will ever be. It was a very anti-climactic moment, actually. No beautiful hardcover leather bound version with gold lettering being ceremoniously handed to a librarian. No pomp or circumstance. Just an email, with a PDF attachment to be downloaded onto a USB stick and handed to the library for their digital repository and a loose-leaf copy for an archive. I will have my own beautiful hardbound version made, of course, but this was not how I imagined this process ending. I imagined… more. More relief, more triumph, more pomp, I guess.

I think, looking back, the biggest triumph was handing in the first full draft. That was when I really believed I would finish my dissertation. It was such a struggle to get it finished, and it represented so much work and thinking and writing and just hours and days of my life. I felt like I had climbed a mountain with no sherpas or surfed a 6ft wave with a barrel! Handing in the version for examination was also a triumph, but a smaller one somehow, and this most final version has been smaller again. I have been busy thinking about and doing my corrections for the last week or so, and I wonder if perhaps that, combined with my present illness and exhaustion which has crashed down on me now that this process is finally at an end and I will be graduating this week, has dampened the triumphant feelings I was expecting to feel at this final hand-in.

Corrections are a bit of a pain. I received three reports –  in most PhD examinations there seem to be at least three examiners, whether they examine you in person in a Viva Voce or on paper as with most South African universities. So three different people, with three different sets of specialisation (although all specialists in your field in some way) read and judge your thesis. You hope they do this on its own merits, but this doesn’t always happen. In  South Africa, examiners are asked to choose from one of four options: to reject the thesis, to recommend extensive revisions and resubmission; to accept with minor corrections completed to supervisor’s satisfaction; and to accept as is.

My examiners were all very warm and complimentary about the work I did. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, and although they made recommendations and suggestions for corrections and revisions that went beyond the thesis (very useful but also quite daunting) most of their suggestions were aimed at making my present thesis stronger and better. However, they ranged quite a bit in terms of their sense of how much work I still needed to do. One thought it was fine as is (which was nice but I wondered if she didn’t miss things); one thought it should be subjected to minor corrections (my favourite report); and one thought it needed some re-analysis and rethinking of quite a bit of the data (hmph!). The overall decision was ‘accept pending corrections to be done to the supervisor’s satisfaction’. So, this was good. A bit confusing and quite overwhelming, but good.

It was confusing because I needed to read all the reports, and mostly on my own – although my supervisor did offer advice and guidance (it has never been her way to tell me what to do :-)) – I had to decide which corrections to make, which to respond to but not make and which to leave, and then explain to her what I did and why. So, I asked myself: Do I do everything? Can I do everything? Should I do everything that the examiners recommended? This last question became the key one. In commenting on the thesis itself, and also commenting beyond the thesis on things I need to think about and stretch myself to, they offered both a set of corrections for now and a set of recommendations and suggestions for later. I needed to work out which was which. Even if I could have done every correction recommended, it was not clear that I really needed to. Some of the suggestions would have resulted in additions and corrections that may have confused rather than clarified certain parts of my thesis, and may have made some of my arguments or explanations unnecessarily dense and obscure, rather than clear and easier to follow. So, part of the work I had to do was separating the ‘must do – this will make it better’  from the ‘could do – might improve it’ and the ‘not for now – this is beyond what I was trying to do’.

This took a few days of reading and re-reading the reports, muttering to myself, and mulling things over before I was ready to make myself sit down and do the necessary work. This is what I have learned, thus far, about doing corrections:

1. Read, re-read (or listen very carefully) to the feedback: examiners are supposed to (and do) evaluate your thesis on it’s own merits but they also have their own take on methods, theory and data analysis. Read carefully for what they have written about your thesis and what you could do to make it better, and read very carefully for where they are asking you to work on a different thesis, or worse, their thesis. There is an important distinction between suggestions that will improve what you have written, and suggestions that will take you into new territory and possible undo what you have written in some way.

2. Take time to think, mutter and scribble. Talk to your supervisor, especially if they are the ones that need to be satisfied or if your thesis has to go back for re-examination. You need their advice and guidance, but at the end of the day it is your work. Your heart and soul. Take enough time to take in the comments, think about them, think about your own aims and goals in writing the thesis, and then work out what you need to do to take the thesis to its final library-copy version. Don’t rush to do everything. Try not to rush at all.

3. Take a day or two off work to do the corrections. It’s better not to try and do them at work when you have so many other competing demands on your time, and noise and interruptions. I took a day off, had a quiet house with kids at school, and I managed to get them all in done in one day (not counting the thinking time). This quiet and space for tea breaks and a walk with the dog to do some more mulling really helped me to get the corrections done and to feel they were carefully done and not rushed. It was also nice to write in my PJs again – thesis and me back together for the last time in this form.

If you are working on corrections, all the best. You are so very nearly there, and I wish you all the pomp and circumstance your heart desires!