Friday, January 23, 2009

Intense Editophobes

The past year has been a rather busy one for me for editing manuscripts, proposals, and other documents written by my students. It pleases me very much that my students are writing and that they are writing about such interesting things.

The general topic of scholarly writing (at any level) is of course studded with possibilities, and I have mused about different aspects of it at various times. Some of those musings could perhaps be described as rants.

Today I am musing (not ranting) about the different reactions I get from different students in response to my editing. I should say that I am a rather intense editor. I almost always have lots of comments to make, especially on early drafts. These comments range from those of a technical nature (misplaced modifiers .. lack of subject-verb agreement .. lack of verb .. paragraphs that are not paragraphs ..) to those that involve the content of the document.

I never make rude or insulting comments, and I mention the parts of a document that I think are well done (if there are any). I am in fact quite polite. For example, I do not write "Have you for some reason not figured out yet that word processing software has a spell-checking option?". Instead, I might highlight the first typo that a spell-checker would catch and write "Please fix this and other typos".

Although an individual student's response to being intensely edited can vary with time and mood, there tend to be typical responses from each student. These typical responses are no doubt related to very deep aspects of their psyches and stem from previous experiences with teachers, women (maybe even their mothers..), or anyone who has ever criticized their punctuation. Who knows from whence these reactions spring.. Whatever the source, it's kind of fascinating.

Below is a list of responses I have gotten from different students for approximately the same amount of editing (as measured by density and seriousness of edits/document). Despite holding editing density and intensity approximately constant, the rest of the variables are many and complex and relate to how the student and I have interacted over time, and how stressed the student is about the document, life, deadlines, career etc. The list must therefore be interpreted with caution, if at all.

Student responses to being intensely edited by their advisor (me):

1. Calm; pleased with the detailed comments; understood the comments and used them in a constructive way to produce a new and much improved version of the document; asked questions about any comments that were ambiguous or possibly showed a lack of understanding on my part.

2. Calm; pleased with the detailed comments; fixed all the technical problems indicated but had no idea how to approach the more cosmic issues regarding interpretations or other conceptual aspects; more drafts needed before these problems are worked out, but progress is made each time.

3. Very hurt and upset and angry at the comment density, which indicates a lack of appreciation by me for the student's efforts and shows that I am trying to impose my 'style' on the student rather than allowing him the freedom to be creative with punctuation, spelling, citation of the relevant literature, and fundamental scientific concepts. I must be a disturbed control freak. The student makes the changes anyway, eventually produces a decent paper (after more drafts/editing), but has clearly learned nothing from the experience (evidence: the next manuscript is just as bad in all respects).

4. Anxious because the document was not perfect and it should have been perfect the first time (note: this is the student's opinion, not mine). Angry at self; starts to be fearful of showing me additional drafts or documents. When the next draft/document is really good, doesn't believe me when I say so and asks me directly: Are you lying?

5. No discernible response. Not sure what the student thinks. Not sure that the student even looked at the comments. The next draft contains the same problems. Did the student send me the wrong draft by mistake? No, apparently not. Student has long explanation involving cars, dogs, weather, landlords, dentists, computer, software. Eventually fixes some problems, but never fixes them all in a single draft, and creates new ones in every subsequent draft. Do some people have phobias about spell-checkers? Do some people have separation anxiety re. written documents or a fear of completing something? Is it related to a fear of commitment? Has anyone studied this?

Regarding the ones who do not take criticism well, it is always my hope that they will become thicker-skinned with time. They must do so if they are going to survive in academia, or at least if they are going to survive happily. Professors are constantly barraged by criticism: of our teaching, of our grant proposals, of our manuscripts submitted for review, of our overall job performance (even if we have tenure), of our blogs.

Maybe because I am so used to being evaluated and having my own writing (and speaking) examined in such minute detail, I can no longer relate to being deeply upset by criticism of something I've written. Perhaps this has made me less, rather than more, sensitive with time, but if a student, however fragile, gives me an error-filled document, I'm going to make a lot of comments and suggestions. And, even if they are upset by this, I am going to do it all over again if their next draft/document is similarly problematic.


Anonymous said...

That's the key I think: to make the leap from being defensive about edits to being grateful that someone who knows more gave you their time. Being heavily peer reviewed and edited and learning that you will live and be a better writer because of it - it's a hard lesson to impart.

I'm a grad student with an undergrad degree in writing (hence my comfort with heavy and even scathing edits). I am frequently asked for help, and I've started giving a disclaimer speech before I agree to take the draft. I want to have a stamp made that says "Calm down: it's not personal." Counterproductive, but amusing.

Anonymous said...

you forgot me:

7. Absolutely ecstatic that someone has paid so much attention to this paper, especially when it's in an early (read: unworthy) stage.

There are so, so many stories and complaints of people who "read" your paper and barely have anything to say, which is less than useful, especially when the same paper then comes back chewed up by its reviewers with things that could have been addressed earlier if caught. I consider it an *honor* when anyone spends so much time and effort to help me. I make sure to thank them too - positive reinforcement!

Anonymous said...

Modifier placement could mean a lot of things I suppose, but if you worry about split infinitives then a lot of writing in science must drive you crazy because it's so common. To better understand this phenomenon...

If that's the case, then I would suggest letting it go. It feels better not to worry about it. Steven Pinker has a nice short article about this in the NYT:

Anonymous said...

Haha. I'm the opposite, I guess. I get anxious and upset if I get writing back with no comments or very few comments. It makes me worry that the writing was so terribly bad that the reader just punted. Or so impenatrable that they found it impossible to engage with.

Really what I want to know is: did you get what I was trying to say? An absence of marks doesn't really communicate that, so...

Tinkering Theorist said...

I find that I do well with my advisor's many red marks and comments as long as there is some hint that he is generally happy with my overall work/progress. Usually he writes good at the top of the paper or otherwise tells me it was acceptable as a whole. This is comforting because often his comments, read alone, suggest otherwise (but we all understand that he does that to everyone--and I seem to fare better than most). Of course, I don't want him to lie and tell me it was overall pretty good if it was in fact horrible and he expects better, but if he ever said that I think it would be quite demoralizing for the second attempt.

Anonymous said...

Yes! As a grad student (and thus someone who both edits and is edited on a regular basis), I completely agree! Comments are useful - I love getting them, because I know it means my next draft is going to be even better! It bugs me if my advisor reads something of mine and makes just a few comments (though I understand if there are general idea problems to be fixed, it's not worth the time to correct any sentence-structure irregularities).

I always hope my students feel the same way, but know that there's always some who take my comments as a sign that I'm evil and against them (definitely not true). I wish high schools would get students used to this sort of editing early on so it's a non-issue by the time the reach college!

Alyssa said...

I think that students do get more thick skinned with time. No one likes to be critiqued, even if it is in the most positive way possible.

I just went through the first writing process with my supervisor - I'll admit that I was a bit upset with the first set of comments he gave. It's not that he was mean, but I thought my paper was better than that (it wasn't! haha!).

After a few more edits we both agreed it was submit-able - and then the reviewer comments came back. Not much about the science, but more about the language. I was really upset with that, but after reading it again with that in mind I realized how many things needed to be corrected. (The problem was that my supervisor and I have very different writing styles; I like things short and to the point, he likes to ramble on in run-on sentences. But because he's my supervisor I just took his edits to be correct.)

Anyway, in both instances I was upset, but then going back to the paper I understood why things had to be corrected and why I was given such comments. If my supervisor hadn't made his comments, the reviewer would have had even more problems with the paper!

Now I can use that knowledge in my next paper, and I know not to get upset about it. Hopefully your students will star to feel that way as well.

Anon said...

My undergrad advisor was an intense editor too, and although I was initially shocked to see so many marks on my drafts, I really appreciated the effort she put in. To anyone who is upset about getting a lot of comments on a draft from an superior I would say: would you rather know about these problems now, or when you get your final grade/recommendation? So much of going through the academia (especially undergrad) involves giving professors what they want that getting a preview of their thoughts on your work is a major advantage.

Anonymous said...

Wa-ha! This is hilarious! I have dealt with every one of those students myself.

Anonymous said...

The only time I would get upset with my old advisor's editing was when she would look at several early drafts without many comments and then suddenly, the week before it was due (or before our 'deadline' to submit) suddenly she would find a million things wrong with it - even huge things like organization and major ideas.

I know my writing was very far from perfect when I first gave it to her, so it was very frustrating to get back several 'comments' from her after she read it without much of anything... only to be hit with it later when she finally gets around to actually reading it.

It got easier to deal with later on in grad school because I knew it was coming, but it was still rude and a waste of the students' time.

I understand every time you read a draft you'll probably find something else to fix, but it was clear that the first few times she didn't really READ the paper.

Students responded to this in various ways, but it almost always involved being very frustrated with her.


Anonymous said...

I think it really depends on how much you rewrite a student's paper - are you truly trying to improve their writing or is it a control issue where every paper that comes out of your lab has to have your "writing voice". My advisor was notorious for completely rewriting his students' papers. It turned into a contest for us to see who had the least text intact. Sure, he was an excellent author and our papers post-publication were complimented on their lucidity, but it did make that first post-grad paper difficult to write because I didn't trust my own writing anymore. The vast majority of edits were cosmetic - including his favorite phrases for example - that didn't change the underlying scientific value of the paper.

Of course blatant punctuation and spelling errors (and serious science problems) need to be addressed, but at some level advisors need to let their students brave the publication system by themselves.

The worst incidence of overzealous editing by an advisor I saw in grad school was another prof in the department who simply asked for the file and completely rewrote it and sent it back. Absolutely no learning value there except the student next time didn't bother to put as much effort into his paper because he knew it would be rewritten.

MGS said...

A heavily edited rough draft, in my opinion, is much better to receive than a sparsely edited one. The more (constructive) editing, the more opportunity to learn.

Anonymous said...

The first time I had a manuscript critiqued by my PI, I was shocked by all the things I needed to change, but it definitely made me a better writer. Now when I write something, I'm prepared for it to be completely torn apart, but everything turns out ok.

Anonymous said...

I have been writing papers and grants for more than 20 years and it is still a challenge. Of course, I love my own first drafts and think peer readers, lab members and reviewers should love them too. I cringe when someone hands me back a draft, dreading the sight of all the red ink. However, I also know that getting back a draft with "It sounded fine to me" or "I liked it" usually means the person did not take the time to criticize, or simply was reluctant to do so. My best edits often come from my best current and former postdocs. My last three RO1s were torn to bits by three different such people. I felt like crying when I got the comments back, but after taking a deep breath and waiting a day, I realized that they had uncovered flaws in logic, reasoning and presentation that were essential to fix, and the result was a much better proposal.

Reviewers comments are similar. We'd all love glowing reviews that praise the paper, comparing it to Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in impact and to Shakespeare's Sonnets in prose, but when is the last time that happened to you? Even those maddening comments that seem to reveal that the reviewer forgot to read major portions of the paper generally, upon reflection, reveal that you were unclear in explaining what you did or thought.

It's part of the business of science--we have high expectations and generally don't give compliments--publication/funding is supposed to be the ultimate compliment.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I'm an undergrad with type 4 tendencies who is trying to become more of a type 1 before entering grad school.
I understand and appreciate that more edits means more care and time given by the advisor, but that doesn't necessarily keep the anxiety and self-reproach at bay. It does get easier over time, however, especially if one grows increasingly familiar with a particular advisor.
As for separation anxiety regarding written work, that definitely exists, and I'd say it's halfway between fear of commitment and fear of success.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha. Great post!

I like to think I was a #1 or maybe 2 as a grad student, although I'm sure my advisor thought I was a 3. We had -- ahem -- different views on punctuation. He used to randomly insert commas into my writing which eventuallly, sent me, off, the deep, end. I wouldn't call him a disturbed control freak, just an obliviously awful writer.

I still wonder who was editing *his* writing. I hope he was gracious about it.

Anonymous said...

Everyone else has done a good job of saying that it's great to get a draft back with lots of detailed comments.

But, the best is when you know that you can reject or ignore *some* of the editor's suggestions without raising their ire. Sometimes it really does come down to a matter of style.

So that said, I call on all grad students reading begin "musing about the different reactions I get from different [advisors/editors/colleagues/post-docs] in response to my [responses to their editing]".

Some editors lose interest the moment it is clear that you are not doing to copy their proposed wording exactly. They start ignoring you and have no further interest in your manuscript.

Some editors will bounce a 2nd draft back to you where revisions you'd made in response to their 1st comments get reverted back to how you'd originally written them.

Some editors are pretty happy any time that you incorporate any of their suggestions, and are happy to contribute to further edits if it's not too much work.

Some editors feel their only job is to correct syntax and typos, and offer next to no input on clarity of discussion or technical explication. (I've never had an editor who was the opposite--no one can resist weighing with linguistic advice to some degree or another).

Some editors make it look like they read your paper by giving detailed comments on the first two pages and the last two pages, but don't mark anything on the middle (perfectly written?) 25 pages.

Some editors, often a middle author or senior-level collaborator, feel like they have the final say on the language in the manuscript, even though they are not your boss, and your advisor, who is your boss, is listed as the senior author.

What types did I miss?

Adam Burgasser said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I'm currently with my graduate students and postdocs, and have experienced essentially the full range of responses you describe. I've learned to temper my presentation of edits to match the personality of the student, but not reduce the thoroughness or directness of my edits. As my professional writer partner says, its important to learn to not take edits of your work personally, although it takes some time to develop that level of detachment.

Anonymous said...

I've dealt with all that, but I recently had a rather different experience when editing a document for a junior colleague. I have done this before and found all the same range of reactions as you have with students, but this colleague was differnet. Upon seeing the page full of red ink, she exclaimed: "Oh, this makes me so happy! You really read it!" It was heart warming.

Anonymous said...

Hello FSP, I can relate with all the cases you mention. There is something else from my point of view, as an advisor: some students don't seem to learn from my editing and reproduce exactly the same mistakes over and over. This drives me crazy! I am wondering whether technology may be a problem here. Word processing and electronic editing has made it very easy to "deal with" edits, to the point of possibly "ignoring" them, or at least not internalizing them. Red marks on a paper manuscript force the writer to go back and fix the problem with more than a stroke on the keyboard, like "accept edits". I'd rather make the editing directly on the electronic document, but perhaps I should try to mark paper versions and see if it makes a difference.

caroline said...

I wonder if you notice a change in students' reactions based on how long they have been a grad student. Maybe they aren't used to such intense editing? I also wonder if your have mostly male students and whether you see a gender difference in accepting of editing.

Interesting post!

Anonymous said...

I used to be heavily edited by my advisors, and was (after getting over the immediate disappointment) always ok with that. Except... I REALLY wished they'd preface the tons of comments with "I really liked it" or simply "looks good". I know its silly, as they can write this even if they don't think it, but still... it would have made me feel better.

So now I always start with a general (positive) comment on my students' drafts (luckily so far I really meant it too!). Another thing I've had the pleasure of saying to my students is that I've written such detailed comments BECAUSE their draft was so good. "The intro needs to be rewritten" is much shorter (and worse..) than a million small comments -- I would not be bothering with the detailed comments if it actually needed wholesale rewriting.

One last thing: I warn people in advance that I edit extensively and give detailed comments. If they don't want such comments, they can just give their draft to someone else to read (unless I am a coauthor!). I put a lot of time into these edits, so no point in sending them to someone who won't appreciate them.

John Vidale said...

I've never seen the class 3 or 4 reactions, maybe they sense that they had better not resent my numerous picayune comments, which I try to buffer with a non-judgmental tone.

My first paper came back from my advisor reduced to little slivers taped back together in a different order, and about half the words deleted and replaced. He said he had tried to save as much of my prose as possible.

I remember thinking I had a ways to go, but that the learning process was on track.

Bob Howe said...

I'm a writer and editor who regularly edits the copy of six other professional writers, all of whom have a decade or more of experience. I have learned to be as gentle as possible with their prose.

Editing someone's writing is as close as most people ever come to giving another person a direct opinion of the recipient's knowledge and intelligence.

There are a lot of people in academia who can't (or won't) acknowledge the emotional impact of criticism: "I had to get over it and so should you." This mindset ignores the fact that the exercise is for the recipient's benefit.

Anonymous said...

Never had a problem with advisor and others editing my work. But in a former crappy alternative position with fancy job title the deputy director would bitterly criticize my writing skills invoking rules of writing I never heard of. Several times I wondered why she didn't just find a good research problem to think about instead of acting like editor-in-chief. Very puzzling!

Anonymous said...

I was usually a #4, but I also often had corrections that changed proper English into not proper English (non-native speakers tend to leave off articles, "the" in particular) that would cause me to rant and rave.

Now I edit professionally for non-native speakers and have gotten the same types of responses from professional scientists that you get from your students!

Anonymous said...

A problem I've had as a grad student is in transitioning from the undergrad perspective that writing should be creative and persuasive, to a graduate science perspective that writing emphasize being succinct and careful. These two perspectives are almost polar opposites and it's been an adjustment. I hope that I've managed to get gradually better each time I've gone through a series of edits with my adviser, though it is sometimes difficult to remain completely calm and objective to criticism of writing!

Anonymous said...

I like to get comments, as long as I can see the good idea in them.

the kind of comments that really irritates me, are the ones that my PI gave me the first year "This is not how I would write it" and then he gave it back to me with nothing else.


Luckily I have now advanced into the "I have reworded a few things" and "good job".

Anonymous said...

I used to take editorial work by folk defensively. I worked hard to write all that. I was worried that i'd not handle that aspect of my personality well when it came time to write and defend my (thesis) proposal. The actual realization that it was completely irrational and that my advisor took the time provide commentary and edits was actually a gift.

The next logical step was to print off 10 copies of the proposal and give them to other grad students and scientists to go over.

The real exercise in psychology started there... I got copies back untouched (woo first years!) to having my calculations redone as a check (!). ("Oh, I just used a ruler to crib the values from your graphs and worked from there...")

I hope your editing efforts are ultimately appreciated.