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.

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.