01 January 2016

Writing

I like writing. Strange, perhaps, since so little of it has shown up here recently. Working on my dissertation, it's almost entirely non-fiction. Much of it isn't even english, at least not grammatically correct sentences. Last spring I write about wanting to post more about my real day-to-day work, and then I posted a book review, and then... nothing. I felt guilty once in a while, but then I was writing for work, and that was accomplishment enough for me.

I joined a graduate writing group sponsored by the UW Writing Center over the summer to help me work my way through the paper that I was trying to get done by the beginning of the fall semester. I got a paper together, very wordy and overly long for publication, by the first week of August. I was content with that accomplishment, and the focused 2-3 hours of writing time was amazing for my productivity. We had a seminar room that overlooked Lake Mendota from an upper floor, where we could watch the sailboats and the weather. It was ideal for me, something natural to let my eyes focus and then unfocus while my brain worked at the words. I wish my regular office had a window and a little patch of sky and a tree outside.

That draft was a dual lesson for me. First, of course, I found that the practice of focused writing without distractions, away from my regular desk but still in a structured setting, was good for me. As long as I had something that I needed to write, I could work straight through a 2-hour session with barely a glance at a clock or a phone or any other apps on my computer. It was liberating.

Second, I learned that I need to take criticism in stride, as part of the process, and not personally (no matter the critic's feelings). That paper had three authors: myself, my advisor, and one of my dissertation committee members. The latter's response when I sent him the draft for his review was overwhelming in several ways. He didn't read it, and said as much in his email. He's the chief editor for a very influential journal in our field. Just based on the abstract and the overall length, he definitely wouldn't accept this manuscript for his journal. He suggested that I consult some handy references on how to write scientific papers for publication, including a small book (which was already on my shelf). He strongly suggested that I learn how to write for scientific publication.

This wasn't my first rodeo. My advisor explained to me directly that he had never seen a professional scientist, let alone a faculty member, respond to a student and potential co-author like that. I declined to respond to the committee member's email. This is not a person that I should not be writing with, let alone writing for. This was a person who put his ego with his name on a publication. Whether his intention was to make sure that his name wasn't associated with my writing, I'm not sure. Regardless, my own doubts crept in. My desire to do anything more in academia reached even lower than usual. It set me back about a month in terms of that paper.

I recognized that as it was happening. I wallowed in it for a couple weeks, refused to even look at the manuscript again, then made a decision and wiped the slate clean and started thinking about it again. I tore it down figure by figure, paragraph by paragraph, in some places even sentence by sentence. I shunted a lot of material into a separate project, so much that I realized that I had been trying to write two papers together instead of each one individually. This was helped a great deal by a long conversation with my advisor, who recognized that we had been going back and forth over the idea of how many papers my dissertation would take (anywhere from 2 to 4, his preference for the lower end and my preference for the higher).

This was when we finally set down The Plan. I had a ton of good results for this paper, and we could tell its story with focus and clarity, as long as we pared it down to the essentials. Then we would do the same for the next paper, and then again for the final paper. These were the Fundamentals of my dissertation work (yes, I'm capitalizing certain words for good reason). There might be ideas for tangents and more detailed case studies worth whole papers, but those would be Secondary priorities.

I had my marching orders, and it worked out well from there. Programming and writing went hand-in-hand for the fall semester, we had a couple rounds of review between us, and I delivered to my advisor a near-final draft at optimum submission length, with completed analyses and figures and supplemental materials section and code package, in the week of Christmas. I'm really happy with it, and I'll share more about it as I make a habit of posting here more regularly through the winter and spring. I'm hoping that we will get it finalized and submitted in the first 1-2 weeks of this new year. With just two authors now, that process goes a lot more smoothly.



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