Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Hate Stage of Writing

This post was inspired by the recent comment of a colleague, who told me that he knew it was time to send a manuscript off for review because he "hated" the paper; meaning, he was tired of reading it over and over. This is not the same as hating the content of a paper.

At least for me, the experience of writing a paper goes through different emotional stages in terms of how I feel about the paper. The urge to graph this phenomenon may overwhelm me in a few minutes, but let me at least start by writing about writing.

Ideally, the beginning stages involve affection for the topic and high interest in the writing. It would be bad to start off with negative feelings about a paper. I am trying to think of an example in which I approached a paper with loathing, boredom, and/or exhaustion, or even indifference; I am sure there have been examples (some papers have to be written whether we want to write them or not), but I think this is rare for me. I think I tend to start off feeling interested in, and happy about, the writing.

I should say that writing isn't something I just sit down and do at the 'end' of a project; it tends to be an ongoing process, but there is of course a start to all things; that is, the day when I open a new document and give it a title and start outlining/writing the content of the paper.

OK, I just glanced at my CV. There have been some papers that were painful to write, but this was mostly owing to co-author issues, not to any lack of affection for the topic of the paper. I think I can say that I have not started writing a paper in what I will call the hate stage of writing.

That comes later, if it ever comes. When does it arrive and how long does it last? That varies from paper to paper.

Now I am going to have to graph this. I am going to select four (4) not-too-old papers from my CV -- papers in which I was the primary author or otherwise involved in a major way in the ideas, data, writing etc. and that were written recently enough that my memory of the experience has not faded too much. For each of these papers, I will graph the writing experience, from start to finish. In this case, 'finish' means the point at which all revisions are done.

In this graph, there is no absolute time scale, of course, as the time frame of each paper varies considerably: time from start of writing to submission, time in review, time for revision and maybe re-revision etc. I have scaled each writing experience to fit my arbitrary graph.

Note that most of these selected papers never get to the (total) hate stage, and I certainly didn't submit or finish any of these papers in the hate stage. For me, the submission stage isn't at the highest level of positive emotions about a paper, but it doesn't seem to correspond to a hate stage either. (Does it for you?)

I think the green and red curves are fairly typical of papers that involve certain easy-to-work-with colleagues. There are some undulations, mostly related to routine fatigue in constructing a paper, but my interest level and affection for these papers remains quite high. There may have been some syn-revision dips related to annoying reviews of the green and red papers, but these papers started and ended with positive feelings.

The purple paper is one that I mostly enjoyed writing, though I had to do some heavy lifting for a co-author or two, and that got a bit old towards the middle of the project. Nevertheless, my feelings about the paper, even at the very end, were mostly positive.

And then there's the blue paper -- major co-author issues account for the dips towards dislike (but never deep hate!) of working (and working) on this paper*. This might be where a real time scale would be informative; not surprisingly, the blue paper in real life took much longer than the others, and that was a significant factor. Even so, I was feeling overall positive about it at the end. And if I plotted the post-publication emotion level for this paper, it would be quite high, as it was (mostly) worth all the trouble.
* Some of you who know me may think you know which paper this is, but I am pretty sure you are wrong in your guess.

I know that for some people the entire process of writing is in the hate stage, and that is a problem for you and, in some cases, for those who work with you. But, assuming that you are someone who can enjoy some of the experience, but not necessarily the entire thing, do you submit a paper in the hate stage, or does that stage occur at some other point in the writing process, or never for most papers?


mOOm said...

It's most likely in the revise and resubmit stages...

aroza said...

So true, my paper IS ready to submit once I start to really hate the manuscript.

Anonymous said...

There's a secular downward trend in my feelings for a paper until submission. Generally, I realize how incremental the contribution of the study is, and it's everything I can do not to spend most of the discussion talking about caveats and uncertainties. But the "hate" part only happens if I have a coauthor who seriously disagrees with how I'm writing and clearly has a different audience in mind. Reviewers can replicate this problem to some extent too, but the "hate" only happens when a coauthor asks me to rewrite well-crafted writing because she assumes every reader's background will be like her own (or she wants to appeal to readers with backgrounds like her own).

I do like writing, just not about my own work.

David S said...

I agree with mOOm that the revise and resubmit stages are the most depressing for me. Usually I send a paper off and am elated that it's gone and I feel like it's something accomplished. Then 3 months later it comes back onto my desk and I have to deal with it all over again.

The responses to reviewers are usually longer than the paper I wrote in the first place.

Anonymous said...

One of the more annoying events in the gestation of a publication is encountering a copy editor who feels the need to justify his/her existence by making unnecessary changes, some of which change the meaning of the text. Most of my publications have had no or very minimal changes by the copy editor, but very occasionally there is a real clunker.

Anonymous said...

As above: your x-axis above shows far too few revise, reply to reviewers, resubmit, new journal, revise, resply, resubmit.

That's where the hate comes in for me. Except for one of my most recent papers, in which a coauthor kept it in a persistent self-generated holding pattern ("I just want to read the whole thing over one more time"), which was a lot like the reply, revise, resubmit but without the possible publication stage at the end.

GMP said...

Oh man, the blue curve... Do I know wha tyou mean. I have a collaboration with two people, and it's very creative and fruitful. But when the time comes to write the paper, it's like pulling teeth. One of the collaborators thinks everything we produce is a Nature paper, and keeps insisting that we beat it into appropriate hotness/sexiness. I err on the side of just wanting to write it up and send it out to a society-level journal. The third collaborator is a mediator. Then everyone gets busy and it takes us forever -- typically no less than a year, often more -- to get stuff out. There is a lot of going around in circles (the periodicity that your graph aptly captures) where we beat on the exact same point again and again, as the first collaborator wants the data or the simulation to tell us more than they realistically can... Sigh. Just writing about all this makes me weary. On the upside, this process does get us into GlamourMagz more often than if it were just up to my impatient self. But man, we end up screwing students and postdocs in the process as they are on the clock, can't wait years for all the stars to align to get a paper out and gradate/get jobs/move on with life.

Funny Researcher said...

I think for me the writing part starts with enthusiasm and love, and the loving part keeps on going till I submit it.
However, it is not so much love when the paper comes back with reviewers demanding stuff that is not related to the paper.

Anonymous said...

@GMP -- The point you made about hurting students/postdocs is important. I had a coauthor during my PhD who was absolutely ridiculous (the going in circles thing) and who delayed my first pub multiple times. My PhD adviser had to send threats and ultimatums to get him to respond. It was so painful to work nonstop on revisions for a month and then have him delay the process by another four just because he wanted "more time to look over the paper." And I don't think my current PI appreciates the urgency with which I'm trying to get things out--I'm missing chances to apply competitively to tenure-track positions and fellowships because of publishing delays, and it's immensely frustrating.

Anonymous said...

GMP, if you are an advisor of grad students and postdocs then you owe it more to them not to screw them over, than to compromise with your collaborator for personal gain.