Why are revisions so damn hard?

Revisions really suck. There is no gentler or politer way to state this truth. Going back to a piece of work, long or short, that you have “finished” and realising it is nowhere near “finished”, and having to do more work on it is not something most writers look forward to. But, sitting where I am now, writing a book and having to rewrite and revisit chapters as I get feedback, I have been wondering again: why, really, are revisions so damn hard?

I think there are two dimensions to this: intellectual, and emotional. And both of these work together when we write – writing is not just a pursuit of the mind and brain. When we do research, as academic scholars, we work in areas we are interested in, passionate about, committed to, work that stimulates us both intellectually and personally. We write about issues and problems that matter to us, both intellectually and personally. That means, of course, that even though it is ‘academic’, our writing is never completely objective, or removed from our selves as the writers. There is always a subjective dimension, it is always personal.

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Meg Ryan has a great line in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ where she questions a comment from Joe Fox – the old ‘It’s not personal, it’s business’ line. She says: ‘Whatever anything else is, it ought to begin by being personal’. This is true of research, and academic writing: what you research and write about needs to matter to you; it needs to be personal and important. Otherwise, it’s pretty hard to find the motivation and interest to keep the research going, and to keep the writing going, especially of the revisions kind.

This is my first insight into why I certainly find revisions so difficult to get to: feedback can hurt, and that hurt can create what Kate Chanock has called “emotional static”, that interferes with my ability to re-engage with my work. On a personal level, I feel I am not good enough because my writing wasn’t good enough, and I don’t even want to re-read the paper. Especially when our work is reviewed by anonymous examiners and editors, there is a great risk of getting feedback that will not be kind, or helpful, or see the good as well as what needs more work. Those with the power that comes with these evaluative roles do not always use this power for good. Revisions can be hard, then, when the feedback has been harsh, and you have to go back to work that has been trodden all over and now seems less worthy of all that time and effort.

But, even if I have asked a critical friend who I know will be constructive and helpful and kind, I find it hard to open the email, and read the comments. I had this issue constantly during my PhD, and my supervisor always gave me this kind of feedback. It was never harsh or unkind. So, why was opening that email such a fearful thing to do? I think, when I am afraid to open feedback emails, there are two things I am afraid of: one, that the feedback will be harsh in the sense that my writing (that I thought might be pretty good) has missed the mark, and I have not achieved what I thought I had. I will then have to wrestle with Imposter Syndrome feelings of self-doubt, and try to motivate myself to keep going. This makes me tired, and sad. So, in avoiding the revisions, I avoid these difficult emotions.

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The second thing I am afraid of is that my writing is actually quite good, but that there is still work to do, and this work will require more deep thinking, and reading, and re-visioning my writing. This work is not easy, or quick. And when you have “finished” a piece of writing, and have so many other things to move on to, coming back to something you had hoped would be completed, but is not, is like: ‘Seriously? When will this thing be done??’ This is both an emotional and intellectual thing – you have to push yourself to find the energy and will and interest to get back into that paper or chapter, and drive yourself on, and you have to re-think, re-vision, re-read, and re-write until you have addressed the comments and feedback properly. It makes my brain tired just thinking about it.

As so many have argued, though, myself included: revisions are part of this writing/publishing/being a scholar game. No paper or book is ever really finished – hence the “” around this word. Even when the ‘publish’ button has been pressed, people will read your work and challenge it, and question a claim you have made, or the theory you have used and so on. To be an academic researcher and writer means to have a thicker skin around putting your work out there, having it read and picked apart by peers, and having to engage with their (not always kind) feedback. We can’t just put our fingers in our ears and say ‘la-la-la-la-la’ until they go away.

I am not sure I will ever find the process of getting and reading and thinking about and working with feedback pleasurable. But, I have had the experience of reading a revised paper, after it has finally been published, and feeling much prouder of that version that I would have been if the first one had been published. So, I suppose that is pleasurable, and remembering that sense of accomplishment, and pride in myself, is a useful feeling to hold on to now, when I have revisions to do, and I am not looking forward to them. The way into re-engaging the intellectual part of the process is often through finding an emotional foothold: finding an element of pleasure in the process that you can motivate yourself with, to get back into the writing and revise the paper or chapter, and move forward.

Working with feedback: on criticism and critique

Hands up: who actually likes critique and criticism of their writing? So few hands? How strange :). I think we all know that critique on our writing is something we have to expect: if we are writing for an audience, especially one expected to be critical such as PhD examiners or peer reviewers, the critique will come whether we want it or not. Often, though, critique is something we fear (even if we also know that good critique is good for our thinking and writing). I don’t know a single writer – student or otherwise – who has not seen an email from an editor or supervisor that contains feedback and immediately said ‘Yay! Critique!’ Most students I know, myself included, have seen those emails and first had a swooping sort of sensation of anxiety or apprehension in the belly before deciding whether to open now, or later; read now, or later. How do you deal with criticism and critique of your writing? How do you take on what helps, leave what doesn’t, and move forward with your writing and thinking?

Perhaps a good starting point would be to differentiate between criticism and critique. Learning about the differences can shape our responses as writers in helpful ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two definitions, helpfully provided by Google, are a useful starting point. You can see that criticism is defined as fault-finding or censure in the first instance, even though in the second it is defined as analysis, evaluation and judgement. This overlaps with the definition of critique which is defined as assessment and analysis done in a ‘detailed and analytical way’. A further definition you can source goes on to argue that critique is understood thus:

I like this more fleshed out understanding of critique as a ‘method of disciplined…analysis’ that is not only negative, but finds merit as well, and is concerned with ‘doubt’. I think this speaks rather well to what we do when we read the work of others – we are not ‘sure’ that the writer is right or wrong, or that we are right or wrong in our assessment; rather we read with a measure of doubt so that we can, analytically and evaluatively, assess the argument being made and the evidence being presented in support of that argument on its merits, and in relation to the field of research (and often to the research we are doing). We do this when we read the literature that helps us scope the field and find a space for our project; we do this when we read as critical peers to offer feedback (whether formally or informally); and we should be mindful of this as the way readers will (hopefully) approach what we write.

Notwithstanding that examiners and peer reviewers can sometimes be rather nit-picky, petty and unhelpful in their feedback, I believe many academics who will be tasked with commenting on my writing will understanding this definition of critique, and will assess my work with a view to pointing out both the merits and faults. They will hopefully be peers who have the interests of the field of research and practice at heart, rather than their own narrow stakes in that field, and as such will offer feedback that will help me improve my writing, develop my thinking, and make a more valuable, critical and thoughtful contribution to that field. I have had both mean and helpful feedback on my writing so far, and to be honest, the helpful has far outweighed the mean. A brief inquiry to colleagues and friends has yielded a similar finding (although anecdotal) so if you have not yet been exposed to much external feedback on your writing, be warned that some reviewers are mean, but also be encouraged that most actually do have the interests of the field and you as a contributor to it at heart when they review your work.

So, when you get the critique (and sometime the first instance of criticism) what do you do? How do you respond? I am going to write in a follow-on post about formally responding to reviewers and examiners, so here I want to just touch on two thoughts:

– Firstly, you have to give your feelings – all of them – space to breathe and be felt. Any critique that point to errors, missteps and the need for more reading, thinking and revision will be hard to read or hear, and it’s very easy to focus only on what the reviewers/supervisors don’t like, rather than also looking at what they do like in your writing. You may well feel hurt, angry, confused, disheartened and rejected. You might feel stupid, or lost, or filled with self-doubt. This is all completely par for the course. No one likes the negative critique, even if (as some of my more experienced colleagues tell me) you get more used to it, and it hurts less, the more you publish. Feel the crappy feelings, but don’t over-indulge them to the point where you start sinking into a mire of despair and writing-abandonment.

– Secondly, you should have back-up: willing and supportive colleagues, fellow writers, friends who can help you to process the feedback in constructive ways. Choose people who have some knowledge of the kind of writing your are doing, and the purpose of it, and share your feedback with them. If you need to vent, vent, but then also use them as a sounding board for your initial and then more considered responses. What do the reviewers mean by this comment? Why am I being asked to do this? Do you think I can ignore that, and how should I defend myself to the editors and reviewers? How should I revise this chapter/section of the paper? And so on. Kamler and Thomson have written about the usefulness of having a ‘publication broker’ to help you work through reviews and revisions, and this is a good idea (especially if you are new to writing for publication or for external review).

I’ll stop here for now, and address responding to reviewers in the next post in more detail. But if I can sum up so far: working with criticism, especially at an earlier stage in your career as a writer and academic, is bloody hard work. It’s emotional as well as intellectual work, and I think finding space to be emotional, but not let the feelings of hurt and inadequacy get in your way of the intellectual work and progress is essential in turning the criticism into critique, and the faults, errors and missteps into opportunities for learning and growth.