Jump to content

feedback and revisions to papers... :(


Recommended Posts

So, I just sent my first substantial piece of "solo" writing to my adviser last week (my master's thesis, actually), and she just returned her revisions.  In her email she basically said "I think you're a good writer, however, I have a ton of edits for you and there is a long way to go with this draft."  

I opened the document and there were comments EVERYWHERE.... mostly very blunt, or "this doesn't make sense" or "what?" and "this is fluff."  It all looks very overwhelming, but probably 75% doable on my own without meeting with her/clarifying, but mostly I am struggling with not knowing to what extent this is "normal" and if it is a big fat red flag that I am not cut out for this, because she gave me so many revisions to do.  I feel like a complete failure, to be honest, and am dreading meeting with her on Monday because I'm afraid she's going to give me a "talking to" and at worst tell me she thinks I should reconsider the PhD, and at best tell me that she's disappointed in the quality of the draft I sent her :(   

Any advice?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Okay, so first off, this is normal, and revisions suck. 

That said, if this is your first major piece of academic writing, there is a lot for you to learn both in terms of how to write for your particular scientific community, and in terms of how to clearly and concisely communicate your ideas. This is not something obvious or necessarily natural; there are (sometimes unwritten) rules and conventions that you have to learn. Some of that you may get through reading articles in your field, but it's not always going to be clear what is important and what isn't, so you may get a lot of comments along those lines. Some of them may seem nitpicky -- and some of them may indeed be nitpicky if you have a certain kind of advisor -- but at least some of that is unavoidable. And then occasionally there are going to be places where there might actually be a problem or a question about the content that you haven't addressed, or your advisor may have an idea for something to pursue or look at based on her experience in the field and better familiarity with the literature. As a result, I don't think that receiving an early draft with a lot of comments is unusual or a cause for concern.

Different advisors have different styles, but at least when I give comments, if you're at a stage where you're receiving lots of comments on style/clarity and some questions on content, then you are actually doing quite well. If someone has a paper with a topic that doesn't seem viable, or has some obvious glaring problem, or makes a wrong prediction, or misses important data/predictions/implications/literature/etc, then my comments will be concentrated on that and not so much on how they convey their point. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to spend time achieving clarity on a piece of writing that's never going to be part of the final product. It only makes sense to worry about style and clarity when it's clear that you are heading in the right direction. 

So, it's fine to put the paper down for a day or two and be upset, but then pick the paper back up and try to understand not only what the specific comment is about, but also why it's there and what it is a symptom of. There may (likely) be specific things in your writing that generate multiple comments from your advisor. As you become more experienced, you'll hopefully be able to see why you are getting the comments you are getting, and then you can decide for yourself whether you want to accept the comments or not. It's ok to reject a suggestion that your advisor made; you just want to think it through be able to justify why you think you made the right choice. If you're not sure, ask your advisor. With time, you'll also learn to identify your advisor's commenting style. Some people comment on every small stylistic choice you make that's different than they would make just so you know they would have made a different choice, but don't necessarily expect you to follow all the suggestions and would probably even make a different suggestion on a different day of the week. Others expect you to follow all of their many suggestions, at least as a young student, and think this is a good way for the student to learn what good writing looks like (or, they are very attached to their words and do it forever, and I personally could never be their co-author because I find it too controlling). Other advisors only comment on important stuff. Yet others may do early rounds where they don't say much on style and you may think your writing is great and then once they think your content is pretty solid, they'll suddenly tear your writing apart and you'll think you are going backwards when really they've moved to lower-level concerns and you are doing great. Identifying you advisor's style is a skill and takes a while, but that's natural and not something to get discouraged about. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I've published 6 papers with my advisor, and we can still go back and forth for weeks with the kind of edits you describe- and we even had a pretty similar writing style to begin with. We've also had to learn that we're both perfectionistic enough that we could keep editing to make it better forever, and we have to cut ourselves off and just get it out for publication.

Writing is an iterative process, and getting lots of comments isn't a bad thing- and it doesn't mean you're not a good writer. Lots of times we're so far into our own work that we don't see where it wouldn't make sense to other people.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My first major piece of graduate level writing (in my MA) came back with 5,000 words of comments on a 6,000 word essay.* Without comments, you can't improve. That's how writing works.

* It also included the note: "I would usually not recommend that a student with this level of writing ability continue to PhD-level graduate work." This comment was specifically designed to do what it did - enrage my contrarian instinct and improve my output. That professor had my number right good.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Karen Kelsky has said that a "good advisor is not a nice advisor." I didn't understand what she meant, but I thought about it. A good advisor is someone who doesn't try to beat around the bush with you and be "nice," thereby avoiding telling you the awkward truth. A good advisor tells you what you NEED to hear and pushes you to your limit to achieve.

Anyway, she told you straight up that you're a good writer. That's a good sign. But, as was already mentioned, academic writing (particularly thesis-writing) doesn't come naturally. It's a skill to be learned, and a really excellent writer could just not be great at that particular kind of writing straight out the box. I'd say it's pretty normal - you're still getting a handle on the conventions of academic writing, and you need practice. We all do in the beginning!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

You're only at the beginning of your academic career.  What did you expect?  Part of being an academic is to be constantly learning and improving (and that's true of a lot of jobs, really).  You'll have to expect a lot of heavy-lifting to improve your writing at the beginning  so that as time goes on, your adviser can focus on lightly polishing the rough diamond that you are.  Comments will never end.  Good advisers will feel that if they don't comment, then they're not doing their job, no matter how "perfect" the paper is.

If your adviser is/has been an editor for a book or journal, you're in a very privileged position.  Take advantage of her/his careful eye and learn from your stumbles to become a better writer and editor.  I have learned to become my own critical editor because of my adviser who is currently an editor of a journal in our field.

I agree with others-- step away from your paper for a bit and then come back to it.  But make sure that you do take a look at some of her major points and be ready to discuss.  Or if you'd rather, send an e-mail asking for a reschedule so you have more time to go through the comments and prepare your response.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is normal and it is actually a good sign. The fact that your advisor took that much time to go through your work and write comments is a good thing. It means they care about your success. It would have been soooo much easier / less work for them to just take a quick pass at it, correct only the bare minimum so that the content is not incorrect and leave it up to you to figure out how to improve the style. This is terrible for you though because you will not learn this way.

I also had a lot of corrections when I first started. I still have a lot now, actually, but it's decreased a fair bit. In the beginning, I was submitting 5-7 sentence abstracts for conferences that had 2 or 3 revisions suggested for each sentence. When I got to writing my first paper, it was about 10 pages in journal format and we had two iterations where the number of Adobe "comments" that appeared was about 200 each time. 

However, I learned a lot from the first 2 years of comments like this. I have noticed my own writing improve by a huge amount! A couple of months ago, I was a coauthor on a grant proposal and I noticed the writer had a lot of issues similar to my old issues. It was the first time I was able to significantly improve a piece of writing with my numerous edits.

So, it won't be long before learn from all of these comments and soon you too will be the one leaving a ton of comments on work you care about! In the meantime, I agree that it's fine to step away from the comments and paper for awhile, and then go back, make the edits and improve! It's good that over 75% of the edits don't require you to iterate further with your advisor. And again, appreciate the fact that your advisor cares enough to spend this much time and effort to help you improve your work.

Edited by TakeruK
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thank you ALL! This was very helpful.  I have a bad case of impostor syndrome and I constantly interpret criticism as evidence that I'm truly an impostor and that I shouldn't be in grad school.  I let the feedback sit for a few days then came back to it, which helped.  Thanks again  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use