When you hate your writing and everything sucks

I have less than one week left before the (second) deadline for the submission of my book manuscript. I am trying to write the final chapter, which is also the Introduction. Every word is being agonised over, sounds awful, and I really just want to cry and throw in the towel to binge-watch The Witcher. But, I can’t. Because deadlines and expectations and definite self-loathing for tripping at the finish line. So, what do I do? What do we do, as writers, when we feel like complete frauds, hate all the words we put onto the page, and everything just sucks?

I don’t actually know exactly what to do. I have been calling on all the old standbys: ‘If you just slog it out, there will be words on the page and you can always change and edit them later. You just have to start writing’, and ‘You can’t say your writing is trash before you’ve finished the draft – all drafts are terrible but terrible writing is part of good writing’, and ‘You can’t build sandcastles if the sandbox is empty – drafting is filling the sandbox’. Blah, blah, blah. I have a lot of these platitudes and positive, peppy soundbites going round and round in my head, and while most of them are actually true, they don’t really help me find the words I need to open this book on the right note. They just make me feel bad, right now.

The thing is, I am tired. I had a full-on year last year, and I really needed a rest at the end of it. But, because of my own ridiculousness in terms of saying yes to deadlines for BIG projects in January, and my old BFFs Procrastination and The Mean Voice, I ended up not having one. Rather than doing the bulk of the drafting in October and November, leaving me just editing and polishing in December, and time for a proper rest, I had to spend all of December writing, writing, writing. I had bits of rests, but not a proper brain-off, computer-off recharge. So, I’m freaking exhausted. And all my brain wants to talk about is how tired I am and how much I don’t want to be writing. So, the first thing I’m trying to figure out is how to turn off that track in my head for the next few days. Like, I know we’re tired but this has to get done.

I think another problem is I keep getting ahead of myself. I look towards pressing ‘send’ on the book files, and that feels potentially awesome, but then my teaching starts and this other big project has to be finished, and I have three reviews waiting, and I have journal stuff to manage, and I have to go on a work trip, and my kids have all this school stuff, and I have to do laundry and … All The Things, you know? I just feel flattened by the weight of all the work waiting and then I can’t actually do the work now. So, I have to turn off that track too. One thing at a time, one day at a time. Just do The Things for today, and tomorrow will wait. This is actually helping, a bit. If I don’t check my email too much. Or think too hard.

The biggest problem, linked to fatigue and overwhelm I am sure, is that I genuinely hate my writing right now. The words are all wrong, and the sentences don’t flow and I can’t find my thread and it feels clunky and awkward and stilted and boring. The Mean Voice has the microphone right now, and is pretty sure no one will like this book. Now, I have enough practice at this academic writing gig to know, under all the rampant self-doubt and frustration, that people will like the book and my writing does not suck (that much). But, right now it is really hard to push this voice aside and write through the frustration and sucky words and malaise. I just want to stop. I am struggling a lot more with turning off this track. I am not sure I can, so I’m writing anyway and hating it all but the pages are being created and the words are there. I am hoping for a final burst of kind energy from my lovely, tired brain to edit it all into a golden thread that opens the book on the note all my work over the last few years deserves.

Basically, there is no avoiding the days and weeks where you hate your writing and it all just sucks and you wish you could just stop. It’s part of the deal of being a scholar, whether it’s just for the PhD or whether this is your day job. I think we just have to feel our ways through it, actually. It is okay to not love your work all the time, to not feel super productive and shiny about writing all the time, to not like your words and thoughts. It is okay to have really, really bad days and wonder what on earth you were thinking choosing this project, or paper, or career. These days seldom stick around for that long, in my experience. I will get out of this funk, as I have others, and I will start to feel less awful about this book and my writing and things will stopping being so sucky. Hopefully, before Sunday! My plan now is to feel what I feel, and make myself write the crap words because not writing anything is not an option, and then pull it together in the end. I do kind of have to trust the process; I have before and it has been okay in the end. I may not ever love this book, but I am proud of it, and that’s enough.

‘Commaphobes’ and ‘Commaphiles’: grammar and meaning-making

The university I am affiliated to recently undertook a Grammarly trial, to see whether it would be worth investing in a campus license for all staff and students. I reluctantly agreed to take part. Reluctantly, because one of my job hats is a copyediting and proofreading hat, and I was pretty sure my grammar was just fine, thank you. But, I like to be helpful, and taking part and giving the educational technology division feedback was helpful.

This is not a punt for Grammarly – their web advertising has that covered. This post is a punt for being conscious of grammar, and its role in meaning-making in your writing. Specifically, this post is about the humble comma.

Image by PDPics from Pixabay

When I was teaching academic writing courses a long time ago at a different university, one of my colleagues in a group making meeting made a comment about student writers and commas. She suggested that some students are ‘commaphobes’, writing long, verbose sentences with no commas at all, when there should definitely be some. On the other hand, there are ‘commaphiles’, who love commas, and insert them, everywhere, even when there should be no comma there, at all. I am not sure what a writer who falls in the middle would be called (suggestions welcome in the ‘comments’), but I thought I was middle-ground here, like the third bowl of porridge in Goldilocks: just right.

Boy, was I wrong. Grammarly has gently, but firmly, pointed out to me over the last two months that on the comma-continuum, I am definitely leaning towards being a ‘commaphile’. It’s kind of amazing to be offered this insight into my writing – specifically grammatical – habits at this stage of my career. I had no idea that I over-used commas, and what they do to the coherence of my writing and the meanings I make.

What is the role of a comma in writing, and in meaning-making? A comma is a pause. According to this website, a comma performs one or more of 10 different functions in writing. The most common, perhaps, are separating an introductory word from the rest of the sentence (However, …); delineating separate but connected clauses (Most academic writing is challenging, but there are ways to develop your skills); and to create lists (Firstly, you can visit your campus writing centre, secondly, you can join a writing group with peers, …). When we see a comma as readers, we pause, and that pause helps us to make sense of what we are reading. Take the commas away from this blog post, or from a paper your are writing or reading at the moment, and see what effect that has on your sense-making.

There is a well-known book about the importance of correct punctuation in the English language. It takes its title after the often-cited example of the value of a well-placed comma: Eats, shoots and leaves. As in: A panda eats, shoots and leaves, or A Panda eats shoots and leaves. On one, you have a homicidal animal, and in the other, you have an animal eating her dinner. Here’s another one: Let’s eat Grandma, or Let’s eat, Grandma. There are many you could think of, I am sure. And some are quite funny. Probably, the over- or under-use of commas in academic or scholarly writing will cause fewer laughs, but their value is no less important for meaning making. Too many pauses breaks up the sentence you are writing, and can confuse the reader, especially, when they are put in the wrong, place. Too few and the effect is also confusion and probably re-reading because it may be the case that there is more than one clause in that sentence however even though you have no commas they may be able to work it out on their own.

Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay

So, how do you see and hear commas in your own writing, and work to rationalise your use of them so you are ‘just right’ on the comma-continuum? Well, you could make use of free software, like Grammarly. Or you could go old school, and start reading your writing out loud to yourself, or to a critical friend. Reading aloud forces you to switch from being the writer in your own head to be the reader of your work. This can be a low-key, useful approach to hearing the pauses, and figuring out if they should be there, or not. (I could have deleted that last one and the sentence would work just fine, for example). You can also be really brave and set up a critical friendship pair or small group where you regularly reach out and share writing with peers at your university or college. Even just getting feedback on a few pages can help you to step back from your writing and see as well as hear it with fresh eyes and ears.

The humble comma, like all punctuation, plays a significant role in meaning-making in writing. Far from being a technical feature of writing that you use because you know you have to have punctuation, you need to really think about the role it is playing and the meanings you are trying to make. Do you need the pause? Yes? Insert a comma. Can the sentence work without it? Yes? Then maybe take it out, read the sentence over, and see what you make of it. Using punctuation, like other features of writing, requires us to be conscious writers. To really think as we write about what we want and need to say, and how to get that across to our target audience. I have certainly been reminded of this recently, and find myself far more aware, as I write, of my position on the comma-continuum as I keep striving to get my writing ‘just right’.

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!