Recent thoughts

Note:

At present, I write here infrequently. You can find my regular, weekly blogging is over at The Deliberate Owl.

a book with its pages fanned out in the air reting atop three other thick volumes that are also open

The most important update: I'm finished with revisions and we're moving into production!

As part of that, I'm delighted to announce that the working title I've used so far is not the final title! I was positive that my editor and the marketing team at Columbia University Press (CUP) could come up with something better than I could when writing my book proposal—and I was right.

New working title, to be finalized in the next few weeks:

Grad School Life: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research.

What was the review and revision process like?

The review process had three stages. First, as an academic press, CUP requires peer review of all books it publishes. My editor handled finding reviewers and sending the manuscript out for peer review. We got two peer reviewers. It took a while, since academics are busy people. My job was to read the reviews, write a letter explaining how I'd address their concerns, and then actually address their concerns in my manuscript.

Both reviews were incredibly positive. One reviewer's primary concern was that the book is long and academics are probably too busy to read an entire book. Okay, yeah, true. Maybe if they read my chapters on time management and productivity first..? I suggested some changes to organization, a more detailed table of contents, etc to help busy students find the information they're looking for.

The other reviewer just wanted some commentary on the generational shift in how current students and their mentors approach salary, the demands of graduate education, and work-life balance … namely: some professors think students are entitled and obnoxious; some students think they're underpaid, overworked, and exploited. It's an interesting (and divisive) issue and deserves some commentary, so I agreed to add some.

With the peer reviewers and my response letter in hand, my editor then met with the faculty board at CUP to get approval for moving the manuscript into production. They approved it, but were worried that the book might be more relevant for STEM students than humanities/social sciences students. Namely: STEM students have more job opportunities and face less precarity. My editor and I agreed that it'd help to reframe portions of the introduction and add explicit commentary on the environment of grad school (which was covered in more detail later in the book).

My editor made a few other suggestions to help make the book cross-disciplinary. Life at the MIT Media Lab is different from life as a humanities Master's student! I found her perspective very useful for improving the book. She suggested anecdotes to add and aspects of life as a humanities student to discuss that I may not have known about otherwise.

(Read: Why write a book? How do you meet deadlines? And other answers)

Revisions and alpha readers

Besides the feedback from CUP, I shared various chapters with colleagues at the Ronin Institute. Several women offered feedback, which I greatly appreciated. I completely restructured the introduction based on their comments and it is far better for it!

(Read: How to Level Up at Anything: Using Science to Approach Mastery)

I spent a couple weeks making all the revisions and going back and forth with my editor. Then we decided it was time for the next step.

Moving into production

Production of a book involves a lot of people and a lot of steps. I have a plateful of tasks—e.g., give my opinion about cover design. CUP asked me to share cover designs I liked, aesthetic preferences, ideas or themes to highlight, related books. I'm glad to have a team working on this with me!

I have a questionnaire to fill out for CUP about marketing, and another to provide summaries and info for the book jacket copy. I need to format the manuscript with Word (I write all my drafts in Google Docs for ease of access on my phone and sharing with others for feedback). I need to finish writing the back material, namely stuff like the acknowledgements. At some point there's an index to create.

While the manuscript is "done", it's not done. But we're getting there, and it feels like we're making progress. Publication is inching closer.

(Read: The Incremental Method to Achieving Long-term Goals and Getting Things Done)

While you're waiting for the book…

Earlier this year, I was on a panel at the Ronin Institute about how to write and publish a book. It was well-attended, fun, and informative. Here's my summary. All of us on the panel also wrote up a general summary of the questions and answers, which you can read here.

* This post first appeared on The Deliberate Owl.


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a fancy pen resting on a lined spiral bound notebook

Yesterday was a special occasion: Turn the first draft of my book manuscript over to my editor day!

Turning in a full draft of the book was the first major deadline. Though actually, in typical me fashion, I emailed my editor with the draft nearly a week ago. (I learned a while back to frontload work and skip crunch time.)

Fifteen chapters, resources and glossary; currently, around ~90,000 words. I'm sure that will change during revisions.

(Read: Why write a book? How do you meet deadlines? And other answers)

What's my writing and revision process?

I wrote the first draft in Google docs, with a separate document for each chapter. The first pass was notes, thoughts, ideas; lots of voice typing with my phone. Reading books; researching. Small chunks of work. Word count goals just to get that raw content in place.

The second pass was revisions at my laptop, during which I turned my notes into coherent paragraphs and did extensive restructuring. My daily goal was time spent editing, rather than word counts. After I had a decent draft of each chapter, I attempted a 10% cut.

I originally heard about the 10% cut from the Writing Excuses podcast, though it's originally from Stephen King's book On Writing. The point is to cut all the words you don't need; condense storylines; tighten the writing. I don't think I managed to hit 10% (I forgot to record the starting word count…), but I did remove many extraneous words.

Yes but … when??

I've had some people ask me how I manage to balance writing with being primary caregiver to three young children. Because, you know, three young children can be a lot.

The key for me is to work incrementally. There's no crunch time right before a deadline because I don't do crunch times. I frontload work; I set manageable, incremental goals so that I'm working far in advance of any deadlines—such as daily word counts or daily time spent editing.

I do most of my writing and editing during our youngest child's naptime or in the evening after everyone's asleep. I don't work as efficiently at night, but an hour of quiet time (even if I yawn) is better than no hour, or an hour of interruptions.

(Read: The Incremental Method to Achieving Long-term Goals and Getting Things Done)

(Read: How I wrote 50k words in 6 months.)

I make my deep work time as productive and efficient as possible—skills learned while writing my dissertation with a baby. I focus on one task in the time available. No social media. I make it easier to slip back into context when returning to work—e.g., I leave comments all over my documents, notes to myself about what to tackle next, why I'm restructuring something, a reference to hunt down later.

(Read: Deep Work for Parents: A Two-Step Strategy for More Effective, Efficient Work)

Next steps for the book

Next is feedback and revisions.

My editor will look over the draft. The draft goes out to peer review, since that's part of the university press publishing process. Several fellow Ronin scholars have volunteered as alpha readers.

As the feedback rolls in, I'll revise. In the meantime, I'm starting to frontload book marketing work, like writing blog posts I'll use later, so that the lead up to book release isn't too hectic. (Remember, I don't do crunch time.)

This post first appeared on The Deliberate Owl.


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a stack of hardback books about graduate school

So that book I'm writing!

Currently, I have over 80,000 draft words and notes (including the sample chapters I submitted with the proposal). This is a milestone because the manuscript goal is 80,000 words.

However, these 80,000 words are first draft words, not submission-ready words. They are only loosely lumped into chapters, not fully organized or structured. They are my reading notes, my thoughts and ideas, paragraphs that don't flow together yet, comments about statistics I need to look up, facts I need to verify, and references I need to track down. In short, it's all the raw content that will be able to be shaped into a book.

For those curious about mechanics, I have logged the majority of these words from my phone (I mostly use voice typing). I sit at the kitchen table taking notes while the kids eat breakfast. I add a few words from the floor in our playroom while the kids build with Legos. A couple hundred words a day adds up fast.

In my research for the book, I've read existing books on getting through graduate school, such as:

  • Jennifer Calarco: A Field Guide to Graduate School
  • Amanda I. Seligman: Is Graduate School Really For You?
  • Peter J Feibelman: A PhD Is Not Enough! A Guide to Survival in Science

I'm reading books about non-academic career paths, including:

  • Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius: So What Are You Going to Do with That? Finding Careers Outside Academia
  • Christopher L. Caterine: Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide

I'm reading books about issues in graduate education, such as:

  • Julie R. Posselt: Inside Graduate Admissions
  • Leonard Cassuto: The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It
  • Kathleen Fitzpatrick: Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University

I've also been reading nonfiction books that aren't specifically about graduate school, but are nonetheless highly relevant to thriving and making the most of your education and your life, such as:

  • Daniel H. Pink: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
  • Bill Burnett and Dave Evans: Designing Your Life: How To Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life (Read my review!)
  • Adam Grant: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

I have more to read and research, of course—there's always more to read and research.

But as another student in graduate school told me once, at some point, you have to stop reading and start creating. You have to turn everything you know into something.

That's the point I'm at now. And honestly? Revision is the fun part.

Revision is where the magic happens. Revision is when I make the words flow. It's when ideas become coherent. It's when I hunt down that quote from that book I read two years ago that would be perfect to mention in this section, add references, rearrange content, and generally improve the coherency and structure of my words.

Revision is not a one-time process. It's not write, revise, done. It's write, rewrite, reword, rearrange, revise, repeat. Revision is what I'll be doing on the book for the next six months.

Unfortunately, revision is harder to do on my phone. I need more office time with a proper keyboard and monitor. So I've switched from having a daily book word count to having a daily book time count. This will be easier and easier to schedule as the weather warms up—I'll send everyone else outside while I get my quiet writing time in!

Making progress. I'll keep you updated!

This post first appeared on The Deliberate Owl.


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silhouette of a person with arms outstretched on wintery day, in front of bare-limbed trees and a dim sunset sky

Some personal news: I have a book deal!

I'm writing a pragmatic, up-to-date guide to thriving in graduate school while keeping a healthy personal life, filled with sensible suggestions, concrete exercises, and detailed resource lists.

Tentatively titled #PhDone: How to Get Through Grad School Without Leaving the Rest of Your Life Behind, it'll be published by Columbia University Press in spring 2023 (tentatively—titles and dates will be finalized later!). I'm represented by Joe Perry.

From my proposal:

Every year, more than 500,000 people start graduate programs. Although more than half of these students are women, there's no book out there explaining how to balance breastfeeding with benchwork, or childcare with conference travel. Grad students today are on average 33 years old ... so why aren't we talking about managing marriage and a thesis, saving for retirement, or the fact that nearly 57% of students are also employed outside of school? Not only that, but of the 50,000 students who complete PhDs each year, a shrinking number collect coveted tenure-track positions ... even though everyone's still being trained as if they're all professors-to-be.

There's a serious mismatch between the advice about grad school that's currently available and our present reality. It's time to fix that.

I'm excited about this book. It's the book I wish I'd been able to read when I started grad school.

A long game

This project is years in the making. I spent months crafting a book proposal. I submitted to agents for a year before landing on the right fit. Then it took us over a year to find the right publisher.

Many people would have become discouraged even part of the way through this process. Some may have given up entirely. Others may have switched to self-publishing, thinking the speed of getting their work out and the upfront costs would be worth it—and for some, it would be.

But I went in knowing that publishing is a long game. Getting your writing out into the world takes time: to submit, resubmit, get reviews, revise, revise again. I don't want to be my own publisher; I want to write and have a team working with me on editing, publishing, marketing, etc.

Next steps for the book

Now that the book's been picked up by Columbia University Press, I have a deadline—which is exciting! I like knowing when my deadline is. That way, I can plan backwards and ensure I'm working enough up front, incrementally, so that I never run into crunch time. And yes, I've already made a spreadsheet to track my progress and keep tabs on book-related tasks.

While the full book timeline is approximate at this stage, the next steps are:

  • I write the book. I have a couple chapters drafted already, with outlines and notes for the rest. That's an interesting thing about nonfiction books—they're generally sold on proposal and not from a finished manuscript.
  • My editor at CUP reads it. I revise as needed.
  • Once the manuscript is finished, time to print is less than a year. In that time, the publishing team works their magic: formatting, cover design, cover copy, production, sales and distribution work, etc. We ramp up marketing for the book.
  • Then you can buy it!

I'll post updates along the way!

* This post first appeared on The Deliberate Owl.


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river rocks partly submerged in still water

Revise and resubmit the paper... again??

One morning, in my second year of grad school, I opened my email to find a note from Sidney, a professor I'd worked for a while back:

"Reopening this old thread ... Someone requested the paper ... looking through it again I thought it was a damn good paper. We should definitely resubmit. What do you think?"

What did I think? After rejections from several journals two years prior, and over 30 revisions (I lost count), thinking about that particular unpublished paper made me feel tired. I'd finally given up on it as a lost cause. Its fate was to forever be one of those learning experiences that was probably valuable, but ultimately showed no tangible result and felt like a waste of time.

I tried ignoring the email while I drank a cup of tea and tended to the rest of my inbox. It nagged.

Really? A damn good paper? Maybe revising it again and resubmitting wouldn't be so bad. Sure, every round of reviewers had their own ideas of where any given paper should go and would nitpick different things, but we had already fixed so many minor errors and clarified potential points of confusion… I liked the idea of having something to show for all my effort on the paper so far. Or was this line of reasoning an instance of the sunk costs fallacy? (That is: I'd put so much work in so far, I should put in more work instead of cutting my losses.)

The First Draft

I had gotten a year-long job as a research intern straight out of college. I'd enjoyed my undergrad research experiences and liked the idea of getting more experience while applying to grad school. So I joined Sidney's lab. I shadowed his grad students, worked on odd bits of many different projects, ran participants through experimental studies, and learned about research at the intersection of psychology and computer science.

One day, Sidney handed me the project that became the damn good paper. He and a colleague had an algorithm and some software that their labs had used to track human body motion in a couple studies. He wanted to verify that the software worked as intended—i.e., that it tracked body motion from video in a way comparable to some other sensors. So, the plan was to collect some clean data with a camera and those other sensors. Compare the output. Run the software on a couple existing datasets that had captured body motion in video and with other sensors. Write it up, cite the paper whenever he used the software in future projects, open source the software so other folks could use it, too.

Sidney was a powerhouse writer. This was my first proper academic paper. He gave me the reins of the project and said he'd check in later.

In retrospect, having supervised a number of undergrad research assistants during my PhD, the project was a classic "give it to the student who wants experience, I don't have time for it, but like the idea of it being finished someday" project. (I have a growing list of these…) It was a good bet on Sidney's part—I took ownership. I wanted to learn how to put together a good paper.

I collected the data. We talked over an outline, and I started writing. We went back and forth on drafts a dozen times. Sidney picked a journal to submit to and sent me a couple cover letters as examples. When we got reviews back, he explained how they weren't so bad (they looked bad), and gave me some example revision response letters for when I revised the paper and drafted a reply.

But it took a while. The reviewers weren't happy. Ultimately, they rejected it. The next journal was a desk reject. And so on. Eventually, when I left Sidney's lab and started my PhD program at MIT, I left the paper, too.

The Words Aren't Right Yet

Thanks to Twitter, around the time I got Sidney's email asking about resubmission, I found myself reading the blog of science fiction and fantasy author Kameron Hurley. I enjoy her books in large part because of the gruesome realism about life and survival: characters who make it to the end of a book alive are the ones who are winning.

In one post, Kameron Hurley wrote about her experiences as a professional copywriter. She wrote words for other people for a living. She talked about a manager trying to "gently" give her feedback from a client, to which she replied: Don't mince words. Give it to me. If the words are wrong, write them until they are the right words. It was literally her job to make the words right for that client. If they weren't right, they needed revision. She needed the client's hard-hitting feedback.

Her attitude toward writing was inspirational. Her post reminded me that the words on the page aren't me. They're just one attempt at communicating an idea through the imperfect and difficult medium of language. If that communication attempt fails, we are given the opportunity to try again. As Hurley put it, "You write until the words are the right ones."

If we care about communicating our ideas, then the revision process can be a conversation. The goal is to make the writing better. The goal is to improve the presentation of ideas. The goal is to make the words right.

Writing isn't a one-time action. It's not like baking a cake—mix the ingredients, pop it in the oven, and it's done. Writing is a process. Editing is part of that process.

Reviewer feedback, like any other feedback, is aimed at making the writing better—and like any other feedback, it may need to be taken with a grain of salt. There are myriad ways to present ideas. People encounter ideas from where they are at; they may need different amounts of detail or supporting information to understand your words. And that's okay. Learning to judge your audience is a skill that takes practice, too.

Revision and Resubmission

I revised the paper for what felt like the millionth time. This time, though, it wasn't as bad as I had feared. In fact, the two years that had passed had lent me much-needed distance from the paper. As I re-read the reviewer comments from our last rejection, all the comments felt addressable. I could see where the words weren't right.

My co-authors commented and gave feedback. I revised the paper more. We submitted it to a new journal. Major revisions. We resubmitted. Major revisions. We resubmitted. Finally, the words were almost right: Minor revisions. And then it was published.

It's not the paper I'm most proud of, but it is a paper that taught me more than most. When I look at work I have in progress now—like a paper that's now on its 15th+ version, second journal, fifth year of work—I try to remember that academic publishing is often a long process. I try to remember that if the words aren't right yet, then with more time, effort, practice, and feedback, I can get a little closer to making the words right. Even a paper I'd initially given up on could be vanquished.

This article originally appeared on the Resilience in Academic Writing Blog, March 29, 2020


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