The agony of writing

The previous couple of posts talked about the entertaining (collecting), finicky (pinning, labelling, data entry) and exciting (identification, analysis) steps in getting specimens from the prairies to the PDF. The final step can be, for some people, the most distasteful, daunting and downright painful. It’s time to write the manuscript.

If you’re hoping for a career in academia (or, in many cases, research in general), publications matter. In 2012, that’s just the way it is. We can argue until we’re blue in the face that “social media is the new journal!” or “outreach is way more important than another journal paper!” The end result is a blue face. The fact, for now, is that refereed papers are one of the most important pieces of currency by which we are measured by The Community. And until the rules of the game change, we play the game. And so we write, and we publish. The problem is that writing is hard.

i wonder what’s on TV . . .

There are many reasons why people seem to have trouble writing. I have experienced almost all of these over the course of my career, and so have some of my students (so I can definitely relate).

The myth of perfection. There is no such thing as a perfect project. There is no such thing as a perfect paper. “Perfection” is not the realm of science. Anybody who has ever sat in on a journal club discussion knows that no paper is perfect. So there is really no point waiting and sitting on data and doing more analyses hoping to achieve perfection. The criteria for judging a paper are: is it sound science? does it advance knowledge in the field? are the data and analysis sufficient and appropriate to answer the questions and support the conclusions? Is it clearly written? And that’s all. Answer yes to all those questions? It’s ready.

The fear of rejection. Manuscripts get rejected by journals. Yes, it stings. And then we move on. The same rules apply to peer review as they do to high school dances. I admit that I have sometimes sat on finished manuscripts for ages because I didn’t want to deal with the criticisms. Plus, as long as a finished paper remains unsubmitted, it remains “perfect” (although see above), but it also remains invisible to the community and therefore meaningless. Get it out there!

I took my first rejection from a journal very personally. It was an insult to me, my science, my family, blah blah blah. In fact, it wasn’t any of those things – It was simply a clear statement that I didn’t do a good enough job on the paper. So I reworked it and published it somewhere else. Another rejection a few years later was simply a case of an inflexible editor wanting my paper to be something it was not. So I resubmitted it, unchanged, somewhere else and was accepted as is. As I’ve moved through my career my rejection rate from journals has increased. This is not, I hope, because we do more shoddy research; it is because we are asking more complicated questions which are sometimes harder to answer to every reviewer’s satisfaction. It’s also because we are submitting manuscripts to higher profile journals that have higher rejection rates. And yes, the rejection gets easier every time. And each rejection comes with criticism that we can (usually) view as constructive. Sometimes the reviews are not constructive – sometimes they are petty and sniping and show that the reviewer didn’t even read the manuscript. And there’s not much we can do about those. So we ignore them (or even better – laugh at them) and move on.

AADD (Academic Attention Deficit Disorder). This is probably not a real medical condition. But it’s definitely real. And AADD is a much more serious problem once you do get that academic job and tasks you never imagined are suddenly offloaded onto you every day. It’s hard to carve out blocks of time to write. But it’s really, really necessary. Hiding out helps. Turning off your connection to the internet helps too. Making an appointment for yourself in your agenda helps, if you’re the sort of person who can follow such things.

Set arbitrary deadlines for individual sections, not just the whole package. Writing a manuscript, viewed as a single big job on the To Do list, is daunting. Writing a title page is not. Nor is writing out your methods. Nor is scribbling down some general ideas or statements, to be stitched together later. Factories function pretty well on the notion of piece work (two mostly forgettable years after high school taught me that!).  It may not be such a bad idea to view a manuscript the same way from time to time.

“We never learned how to write.” It’s easy to blame The System. And sometimes it’s probably justified. Multiple choice exams and online quizzes and free-form class discussions don’t help students to learn to write. Reading other people’s writing can help, but not much. Writing is the best way to practice writing. So write things. Short things – paragraphs, abstracts, sections of papers – practice the little pieces first.

Write something and then read it out loud to yourself. Every single word. Slowly. Use your finger (or your cursor) to trace out each word as you go. How does it sound?

Give your written sections to colleagues to critique. Do not give them to friends who tell you everything is wonderful no matter what. This is not the time for unconditional love and praise (for that we have Facebook). In this case, you want people who can be honest. And preferably blunt. When I was a postdoc, one of our colleagues was known as “The Butcher”. Everything we gave him to read came back dripping with red. He was a good person to give stuff to. If. You. Dared.

The quest for constructive displacement. My desk is a mess and I should clean it. And I’ve been meaning to unfriend a few people on Facebook. And I should organize my reprint files. And so on.

All of the above are arguably useful activities. But none of them is probably really necessary right now. Displacement activities are a powerful tool when we don’t feel like tackling the Discussion of that manuscript sitting on the desktop. But nobody will give me a job or a grant based on my exceptional powers of displacement.

Enough displacement. Time to write. Something.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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4 Responses to The agony of writing

  1. Dear Dr. Wheeler,
    Beautiful piece of “WRITING”. Enjoyed every word of it.
    Dr. Meenakshi

  2. Thanks, Meenakshi. Now if I could only finish manuscripts as easily as I write blog posts.

  3. Your theory about AADD can be modified to accommodate those of us who publish who are not connected with Academia. It I think is more PADD (Publishing Attention Deficit Disorder). Although I publish quite a bit, it is still difficult for me to sit myself down and crank out something taxonomic. I have found that partitioning the paper like you advise it my best way. If I am working on a number of species in a taxonomic group, I make a progress spreadsheet that includes everything associated with each species: diagnosis, description, key, type depository, synonyms, material examined (the most onerous part of the paper for long series!!), and every illustration or photo that is necessary. I then just tick them off as they are completed and I get some sort of satisfaction that “something” is being done… as opposed to it just sitting there collecting dust. My “Eight Steps Toward Taxonomic Nirvana” paper was written based on my own personal experiences with not only how easy or difficult it is at each step, but also how important each step is. — Neal

  4. Hey Neal, absolutely true about PADD versus AADD. I tend to focus on the insane extra workload from my perspective in academia, but you museum folks, and others who need to juggle chainsaws and flaming torches while simultaneously producing papers have similar challenges. I agree that one of the things that’s nice about writing taxonomic papers compared to, say, ecological papers is that the taxonomic ones are even more easily subdivided into manageable chunks that can be checked off the list. But even so, finding the time to do that is sometimes brutal.

    I still think your “eight steps” paper is a brilliant example of the challenges in getting the big projects done. Some parts of the process are fun, some are not. But they all need to get done sooner or later.

    [for those who don’t know Neal’s paper – check out Evenhuis NL. 2007. Helping Solve the “Other” Taxonomic Impediment: Completing the Eight Steps to Total Enlightenment and Taxonomic Nirvana. Zootaxa 1407: 3-12.]

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