Shh, I’m writing

Self-congratulation time: I’m getting some writing done!  Writing for my dissertation, that is.  I’m writing up the second of three or four papers that will come together to make my thesis.  This one so far has an introduction, a methods section, a results section, and a couple of paragraphs (plus a bunch of notes) of discussion.  (Unlike some people, I don’t write the introduction last.  I like to get the first draft of the intro down once I have an outline of how the “story” of the paper is going to go.)

It’s hard mental work, but I’ve been coping with it better than usual.  I’ve been working really really really hard to turn off the part of my brain that says, “This writing sucks.  This project sucks.  This paper is terrible.”  That’s the biggest thing that holds me back, I think: the writing anxiety.

So what’s helping?

•  Approaching the first draft as a “vomit draft.”  (I stole that term from author Catherine Ryan Howard.)  The idea is that you dump all your thoughts onto the page, and in the true spirit of a terrible first draft, don’t do any editing as you go.  Turn off the little voice in your head that says what you’re writing is bad.  Just get words on the page, is my mantra here.  You can’t fix what isn’t there.  No one’s going to see this draft but me.

•  Pomodoro-style time management.  I’m using the free online Tomato Timer to force myself to work for 25 minutes at a time, followed by a short break.  Sometimes I’m actively writing during those 25 minutes, sometimes I’m reading or looking up numbers or references, but it’s always related to writing.  Technically you get a 5-minute break at the end of each, but I sometimes cheat and rest slightly longer depending on how worn out I’m feeling.

•  Treating paper-writing as a marathon, not a sprint.  Academia teaches—and even valorizes—putting tasks off to the last minute.  I often jokingly point out that the freshman-comp essays on which I scored the highest were the ones that I wrote the night before.  My research advisor, a widely respected tenured professor, almost always writes stuff a few hours before the deadline.  (I know this based on when he sends me proposal drafts.)  So getting out of that habit is hard.  But it takes away anxiety to say, I’ll do a chunk today, and then another chunk tomorrow.

•  Downplaying the importance of the paper in my mind.  I’ve written countless “research papers” for classes and internships over the years, so why do I find writing up my own research to be so hard?  It’s because academic culture has deified first-author research papers as The Ultimate Achievement On Which You Will Be Judged, and that freaks me out!  But freaking out means writing doesn’t get done, so I’ve started telling myself that this is just another class paper.  Just another school assignment.  You can do this.

•  Managing my depression and anxiety.  Of course.  All of the above techniques don’t work when your brain decides that it’s simply too overwhelmed to do anything today.  When you hide in the office and stare at your screen and think, I should write something, anything, but you can’t muster the willpower to lift your fingers.  I’ve been having some swings lately but the last week or so has been OK, and I’m hoping to keep it that way for a while.  I don’t work in the evenings.  I take those Pomodoro breaks.  I celebrate each small achievement.  (My husband gets a lot of “I wrote a paragraph!” messages throughout the day.)

In many ways, much of this is similar to the “write for 15 minutes a day” approach I tried last year.  That proved to have some flaws, though: it didn’t push me to do any of the other hard work of writing (e.g., reading references, making plots, making tables) and thus I found myself not having anything to say in my 15 minutes.  My current approach is more holistic, I think.

I’ll keep you updated on how this goes.  The current goal is still to have a readable (i.e., non-vomit) draft of this paper in to my advisor my the end of the month, and I feel on track for that.

What works for you when it comes to sustainable writing?

I answer some more questions about myself

I’ve been tagged in for another round of Liebster Award question-answering by the eponymous Jan from The Life of Jan.  I’m not going to do the full thing of tagging in other people, but I like Jan’s questions, and I’d enjoy hearing from you, dear readers, what your answers to these questions would be.

1.  Who would you say has been your greatest writing influence in terms of your own writing style?

My writing style is very… absorbent? assimilative?  I have a tendency to pick up bits of style and tone from whoever I’m reading at the moment.

2.  Aside from blogging, what are some of your other hobbies?

Coding, knitting, running, reading, doing crossword puzzles, skiing (when I can).

3. What are three books that you have read more than three times?

That’s easy: the first three Harry Potter books.

4. What is your favorite genre of music? Does the music you listen to affect your writing in any way?

To the second question: no, I don’t think so.  To the first: country, as long as it’s not too redneck.

5.  Do you find writing by hand more preferable, or typing on the keyboard?

Both.  When I’m writing a “product,” like a grant proposal or a research paper or a blog post, it happens on the keyboard.  But if it requires significant revisions, it usually get printed out and written all over by hand.  Brainstorming works better that way, too.  I also keep a physical research notebook rather than using Evernote or anything like that.

6.  Do you consider yourself a full-time writer, or a part-time writer?

Ha, I don’t consider myself a “writer” at all.  Grad school involves writing, though, and I’ve chosen to write for my blog on a semi-regular basis, so I guess that qualifies in one sense.  Part-time, then.

7.  What time of day is most productive for you in terms of finding time to write?

Little Boy’s nap time!  (Which presently runs from 12:30–3 p.m., for the curious.)

8.  If you were to start writing a book right now, what would it be about?

Post-apocalyptic fiction.

9.  What is your favorite topic to write about?

It’s not really a topic as much as a category, but—things that make me mad that I can’t complain about in real life.

10.  What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

In the immortal words of Chandler Bing, “I’m not great at the advice.  Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?”

Published

It’s official: my first peer-reviewed article has been published.  I’ve been a middle-of-the-list author on a handful of papers already, so the “Publications” section of my CV wasn’t completely blank, but as every academic knows, first-author papers are the only ones that really count.

Yes, the Paper From Hell is absolutely, positively, 100% done.  Forever.  A very small part of me is sad that no one’s going to keep going on the project—my results raised more questions than they answered, and there’s a lot more to be learned from that data set.  That is, if one is willing to wade through all the unusable data, duplicate data, and what-is-the-purpose-of-this? data, and deal with the shocking incompetence and patronizing approach of my former research advisor.  (Pro tip: if you’re going to be patronizing, be right.)

I should be utterly elated to have finally dragged this toxic thing through to the end.  Publication, however, is really quite anticlimactic.  My real sense of achievement came when I submitted it, five months ago.  Once I’d made it that far, I knew I could do the rest.  And most of the rest was waiting.  For all my venting about the referee’s comments, making revisions was essentially just working my way down a list.

So I’m writing this post to help myself feel a bit more accomplished.  To remind myself, as I struggle with the anxiety of working on a new paper (on a project that is way more fun), that I can do this.  I can do this.  I did this.  Hopefully I can do it a little faster this time, though.

Anybody else accomplished anything cool lately?

Referee report ridiculousness

Research has been a huge, tedious drag this week—even more than usual, I mean.  At least I still feel like I’m inching ever-so-slowly forward.  I’m responding to the referee’s report on the Paper From Hell.

For my non-academic readers, when you submit a paper to a scholarly journal, your paper gets sent out to one or more reviewers.  These reviewers, or referees, decide whether the paper is worth publishing.  This system is called peer review, although grad students don’t typically do the reviewing, so the referee isn’t really my “peer” right now.  Anyway, if the referee thinks your paper is OK-ish, he or she writes a bunch of comments on how to make it better.

The good news is that the Paper From Hell was not rejected.  It’s likely to be published with maybe one more round of edits after this.  The really good news is that the referee (there’s only one in my case) made almost zero comments on my interpretation and conclusions, which I frankly think are the shakiest sections of the paper.  Nearly all of her/his feedback has to do with the technical stuff.  That stuff is solid; apparently I just have to make sure I explain it re-e-e-e-e-e-ally clearly.

The bad news is that my referee clearly doesn’t work in my (fairly broad) subfield, and has asked a bunch of rather dumb questions as a result.  There’s always a fair point to be made that if your reviewer didn’t understand something, other readers might also not understand it, and therefore you should make it clearer even if it already seems obvious.  And so I do, but not without rolling my eyes.

One part of the Paper From Hell, roughly two paragraphs long, says (and I’m paraphrasing here, obviously), “To accomplish Z, we did X, and then we did Y.”  The referee asks:

1) “To accomplish Z, did you do Y?”

2) “When you did Y, did you do Extremely Common Technique, or did you do Thing That Doesn’t Actually Work For Y?”

3) “Where you say that you did X, you should say that you did Y instead.”

These really are three separate comments in a 23-point list.

Item #15 was easy.  “You should show some figures of Q.  See item #21.”  Item #21 turned out to be a repetition of this request, along with more specific suggestions on what she/he wanted to see in these figures.  It remains unclear to me why it was necessary to list these as two distinct points.

The general cluelessness of the comments has left us debating whether our referee is a young, inexperienced person or a cranky old guy.  I’m leaning toward the latter.  The phrasing of the comments gives off a subtle vibe—it could just be in my head, but it’s persistent—of implying that we didn’t have a clue what we were doing.  Let this be a warning: beware of adopting that tone, lest it turn out that it is in fact you who are the ignorant one in the situation.

Still, in the end, it could be a lot worse.  I’ve tidied up some paragraphs, added a couple of new figures, and written some stuff about how “we thank the referee for a constructive report.”  I’ve tracked down some fiddly details from my co-authors (which involved some truly absurd conversations, but that’s a story for another day).  The referee will hopefully be happy with our response, and I in turn will be happy that I never have to work on this paper again.

SUBMITTED!

I did it.  I just sent the Paper From Hell off to a journal for peer review and, hopefully, publication.

It was a struggle to the very end.  After all of the fiddly little formatting details were complete, I had to convince my obnoxiously stupid collaborator to stop stalling and just let me know if she had any objections (she didn’t).  Then the internet connection on my office computer stopped working.  Goodness only knows what the IT staff in our department are doing to the network this time.

But in spite of all of that, and the many years of crap that came before it, the paper is submitted.  There were times when I thought this day would never come, but it finally, finally did.

This day also turns out to be National Donut Day, so I think I’m going to celebrate by eating donuts (yes, plural).  And drinking wine.  I hope we have some wine.

A non-exhaustive list of words flagged by WordPress’s “Proofread Writing” function

bored

massage

threw*

sleepwalking

career*

hassled

adapted*

grump

babbles

sew

creamer

sealing*

pureéd

bassinet

wakings

bowlful

gassy

packable

and my personal favorite,

bee*

*indicates words that were, for reasons unknown, deemed to be correctly spelled in THIS post.

Readers, share your favorite spell checker errors! (WordPress or otherwise)

Pros and cons of productivity

Pros:

  • Getting stuff done!  The Paper From Hell might actually be almost complete.  I’m starting to feel a bit less like Hercules fighting the Hydra and a bit more like an ordinary person stamping out sparks from a campfire.
  • Positive feedback loop.  Productivity → motivation → more productivity.
  • Not hating work, at least temporarily.  I still don’t love my field of study – I don’t think it’s cool or fun or anything like some of my fellow graduate students – but I can ma-a-a-y-be think about my little tiny sliver of it without cringing.

Cons:

  • Increased caffeine consumption.  This is relative: my vices of choice are tea and Diet Coke, so my daily caffeine intake remains less than your average cup of coffee.  Still, I don’t like the feeling of becoming more and more dependent.
  • Less time to blog.  Self-explanatory.
  • More stuff running through my head.  There’s a fine line between motivation and obsession and I’ve never been very good at staying on the right side.  I pay the price in troubled dreams and bouts of morning anxiety.

I get my best ideas at bedtime

It’s rather annoying, actually.

On an average evening, I have a bit of time after dinner, when Little Boy is in bed and tomorrow’s lunches have been made and baby bottles washed.  But I’m tired.  My brain is tired.  It doesn’t want to write, or read interesting things to get ideas.  It wants me to veg on the couch and read mindless Facebook shares and watch TV.  Which is totally understandable after a long day of parenting and research and more research and more parenting.

However, when I start getting ready for bed – taking a shower, brushing my teeth – my brain wakes back up again.  Suddenly, it’s composing my next three blog posts.  And not just a hey, you should write about that sometime; there are whole sentences and paragraphs just running around in my head.

If I were back in college, unencumbered by normal work hours or the needs of a tiny human, I might choose to run with it.  Sit down at my computer for an hour and let the words flow.  But I’m not a college kid any more, I’m a mom who has to get up in the morning and needs a lot of sleep to function, so I have to go to bed.

Fortunately, the free-flowing sentences don’t usually prevent me from falling asleep.  In fact, they’re can be somewhat meditative.  Unfortunately, some of them are lost by the time I wake up in the morning.  I should start keeping a little notebook and pen by my bed to jot down some key points, but unless I take the time to write down everything, something’s going to be forgotten.

When do you find your best ideas brewing?

Handling criticism

I struggle with taking feedback, especially feedback of a critical nature (which is the only kind you ever really get in academia).  I always take it personally.  As an über-perfectionist, I hate receiving any indication that my work deviates from 100% excellence, even though I know logically that (a) no one is perfect, and (b) definitely not me.

As a result, I’ve tried to develop a series of coping techniques for responding to criticism productively and professionally.

STEP 1:  Remind yourself that feedback is good.

Repeat after me: Feedback helps me get better.  Feedback improves my work.  Feedback helps me get better.  Feedback improves me work. 

Not all pieces of feedback are good, of course – some are useless and aggravating and completely unhelpful.  But “feedback” as a concept is good.

STEP 2:  Read it (or listen to it) all at once.

Rip off the Band-Aid, so to speak.  It’s probably not as bad as you’re imagining (and if it is, at least you’ll have something concrete to get angry about).

STEP 3:  Resist the urge to get defensive.

Yesterday, one of my co-authors on the Paper From Hell sent me some feedback (as I’d requested).  Along with some general comments, she included a list of some two dozen typos.  My first instinct was to write back apologizing for my sloppiness, explaining that I hadn’t wanted to spend the time doing a final fine-tooth-comb proofread while we were still at the “ask for general comments” stage and that some of the typos existed because I’d done so much rewriting over the years.

Fortunately, I was able to remind myself that such a response was unnecessary.  I didn’t have anything to prove here.  Everybody makes typos.  That’s why copy editors exist.  Plus, she was doing exactly what I’d asked: providing me with information with which to improve the paper.

I experienced this from the other side recently while participating in WordPress’s Writing 101 mini-course.  Bloggers would write on the course discussion board, asking for feedback on their latest post.  But if I left a comment that contained any constructive criticism (think along the lines of “this is a great message but I think it might be easier to read with paragraph breaks”), they’d respond with an apology or a “well, writing is just my hobby.”  It was… awkward.  And uncomfortable.  It made me feel bad that I’d said anything.

Sometimes, when particularly self-conscious about and/or enraged by criticism I’ve received, I open a text file and type out all of my angry/worried/but-I’m-so-perfect responses.  When I’ve completed that first anxiety-inducing read-through and gotten all my emotions out, I delete the file.

STEP 4:  Take each point of criticism one at a time.

After I’ve read through, felt terrible, and calmed down again, I go back to the feedback I’ve received and start addressing it one part at a time.  Broken down into bits, things are rarely as awful as they seemed on first approach.  I ask myself:

Is this a valid criticism?

Is it worth addressing in full or in part?

Just because someone makes a suggestion doesn’t mean that suggestion is automatically right, or that it should be done in exactly the way they suggested – even if the person making the suggestion is someone whose opinion you value.  Their relative experience/knowledge/authority will carry some weight (maybe a lot of weight, if they’re your boss), but it’s still your final decision on how to address their feedback.

If it’s worth addressing, what steps do I need to take to address it?

Do I need more information?

Make a plan!  Take action!  Fix your typos, follow up on something you hadn’t thought of, or develop concrete steps to prevent similar issues in the future.

STEP 5:  Decide how to reply.

Not all criticism requires a response, and sometimes all that’s needed is a short “thanks for the feedback.”  In the case of the list of typos from my paper’s co-author, no long explanation was necessary.  After all, I corrected all of the typos, as she will see when I send around the next draft.

For more substantial feedback, it’s often important to let the criticizer know that you respect his or her opinion.  If you think their ideas have merit, give them a short summary of what you’re doing to fix the issue.  If you’ve decided not to adopt their suggestion, explain why.

 

That’s my current strategy – it’s a work in progress.  Usually my biggest hold-up is trying to avoid Step 2, on the entirely incorrect theory that avoiding something will make it go away.  Readers, I’m sure none of you are particularly fond of criticism.  What’s your approach to making it a productive experience?

Reflections on Writing 101

For the past four weeks, I’ve been taking part in Writing 101, a free mini-course offered by WordPress.  Every weekday, I got an email with a topic prompt and suggestions for stretching my writing style.  All participants had access to a forum where we could share posts, explore others’ writing, and request and give feedback.

(If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, you can keep an eye out here for upcoming repeats of the course.  In the meantime, all of the daily prompts are archived here for use whenever you like.)

I was a little hesitant about signing up for this.  Would it take too much of my time or add an unnecessary level of stress?  Would participating in a WordPress course be like adding a flashing red “n00b blogger” sign to the top of my page?  Now that the course is drawing to a close, I can say that the answer to the last question is, “Probably not much more than anything else I do.”

Fortunately, the other worries, the ones about time and stress, turned out to be unfounded.  Of course, I skipped a lot (more than half) of the assignments.  Some days were too busy, some of my personal topics were too pressing, and some of the prompts required writing fiction, which isn’t the right genre for this blog.  But that’s the beauty of an open course: nobody’s keeping track of what you get done.  It’s all about what you get out of it.

What did I get out of it?  Good reads, new blogs to follow, a bit of thoughtful feedback, and a bit of writing inspiration.  However, the #1 benefit for me was the push to make a commitment to free writing.  Not on my blog, but on my PhD thesis.  Here’s what my office whiteboard has to say about that:

crazygradmama_day12_cropped

Pushing myself to just write something is proving to be a good plan of attack against the toddler in my head whining, “I don’t wanna write I don’t wanna write!”  There are days when my output is mostly meandering junk, or when I seem to be repeating thoughts that I’ve already covered – but words on the page are a step beyond words in my head, so it’s progress.  Some of that progress is real and measurable and awesome: I just sent a complete version of the Paper From Hell out to collaborators for feedback.

Here’s to reading and writing and moving forward!