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rejections from several journals two years prior, and over 30 revisions (I lost count), thinking about that particular unpublished paper made me feel tired.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 confusionā€¦ 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 theseā€¦) 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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girl in blue sweater sitting at a computer with documents open

A problem with writing

Writing without getting feedback is great. You're writing. That's good.

Writing with feedback is even better.

The biggest problem students tend to have—whether or not you are one of these people—is getting feedback on their writing. You need feedback to improve. You need to see what good writing looks like and what bad writing looks like. You need to how other people would say the same thing differently, and why.

(This isn't a problem only relevant to students. It's relevant to most people who write. But I'm a student, and a lot of the people I interact with on a daily basis are students, so this is advice targeted at us.)

As it turns out, this whole feedback thing is actually several problems.

#1: Get feedback

First. You need to get feedback on your writing. Sometimes this is hard, because everyone is busy and may not have time to comment in detail on your paper drafts. But it's really, really important.

It's something we should all do for each other.

Send your paper drafts to the other students in your group. Ask them for feedback. If we all have the mindset that we can help each other out, then it's a reciprocal process: you give feedback on their papers, you get feedback on yours.

When you ask other students for feedback, respect their time. Try not to send them a paper to look at last minute, unless you ask them if it's okay first. That said, pretty often they're willing to help you at the last minute because we all know how deadlines are and what it's like trying to finish a paper. (At least, the students in my lab are like that. We try to help each other.)

You can also get other friends, students, family, whoever to look at your paper. Getting someone who's in your field to look at the paper is great, because they know the conventions for how papers are written and organized -- what's expected in your field. Getting people outside your field to look at your writing is also great. You get to learn whether you're understandable to someone who's unfamiliar with your work already. It's really easy to forget to explain things that seem straightforward to you but really aren't, because you think about them all the time.

#2: Give feedback

Second. You need to give feedback on others' writing. Reciprocally, when other students send you paper drafts, give them the kind of feedback you'd like to get. Be friendly, be helpful, be detailed when you can, but be critical. The goal is to improve their writing. Critiquing other people's writing helps you see what you think is, and is not, good writing. It helps you see how writing is done. It helps you realize that when you get feedback, the other person is trying to point out stuff you might've missed the first time around, not trying to be mean...

#3: Don't take feedback personally

Third. When you get feedback, don't take it personally. Or put in the positive, do remember that your writing is not you. You're still practicing. Still getting better.

When you get a critique on a draft, or when you get back the reviews of a paper submission, the first thing you do is briefly skim it. Say to yourself, okay, this person read what I wrote and thought these bits could be better. They are not trying to be mean. They are not saying that I am a terrible writer. They are trying to help me express my ideas more clearly and coherently. They probably have more experience doing this than me, so I should probably pay attention.

You don't have to pay attention right away. Take a step back. Set the reviews aside. Get a cup of tea. In a little while, after reminding yourself that reviews and critiques are, almost always, intended to help you be better at writing, go back to them. Tackle them head on and revise that paper. Remember that since people are busy, comments they write on your drafts may be terse. That's okay. They're just trying to be efficient. Revise that paper anyway. Remember that you don't have to accept all the feedback and make all the changes they suggest--some things are absolute (like spelling), some things are opinion (like how to best phrase a sentence). Sometimes people are unhelpful and sometimes their comments don't make sense.

If you're revising a paper for a conference or journal based on reviews you got, definitely get help from people who've done these kinds of revisions before--other students, postdocs, and professors! The way I learned how to politely and completely respond to reviews on a journal submission was by seeing how the professors I worked with phrased things and told me to write things. I was given copies of past cover letters and response letters as examples.

Revision is part of writing

In summary: Get feedback. Give feedback. Writing is practice. Revision is part of the writing process. You have to write and fix what you write to get better.


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white laptop with printed papers and books

Writing is not a chore

Many students see writing as a chore. I finished this study and have great results, now I have to write up the paper, boo. I want to attend this workshop, but oh drat, they want me to write two pages about something relevant to the workshop.

Repeat after me: Writing is not a chore.

Writing may be difficult. You may struggle to explain your ideas coherently and concisely. You may be in a never-ending battle with proper English grammar.

Writing may be time-consuming. You may spend an hour agonizing over one paragraph. You may stay up all night trying to finish a two-page paper (not counting the hours spent trying to get the Latex formatting to work or wrangling Word).

Writing is not a chore.

Writing is practice

Writing is practice. Writing is a key means of communication -- in academia and in the rest of the world! Learning to write well will never hurt you and only help you.

Writing is planning. Writing is thinking. Writing is synthesizing.

Writing your ideas out with an eye for communicating them to others can help you see the flaws in your arguments, come up with new connections between ideas and fields, or generally help you organize your thoughts on a subject. Introductions and discussions are especially great for this, since these are the parts of a paper where you connect your work and your ideas to everyone else's.

But not all writing has to be super academic or for a specific purpose. Journals, notebooks, text files: you can jot down ideas about what you're reading and thinking about. Whatever that is. Review your notes periodically. You may see patterns. You may develop new research ideas or figure out themes in your interests.

Write a lot.

It isn't just me saying this. Multiple advisors have told me: Papers become chapters in theses. The act of writing can add rigor to your thinking. Write as you go. Don't just write it all at the end!


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a pen sitting on a pad of paper with two extra pens beside it

Communicating ideas

As a student, you need to learn how to explain your work to others.

Which is to say that you need to convince other people that they should care about what you do.

And that's all about the story you tell.

(This isn't a skill only relevant to students. It's relevant to most people. But I'm a student, and a lot of the people I interact with on a daily basis are students, so this is advice targeted at us.)

Tell a story

When you share your ideas and your work with others, you are creating a narrative. You are telling a story. The key thing is to tell a compelling story about your work and to frame your work so that it means something to your audience.

Start big. Situate your work in the larger context. The question you should answer is not what are you doing? The question you should answer is why should anyone care?

Find a big important thing people care about. Tell them how it impacts their lives. Then explain how your work is related to that big important thing.

For example. Say you are working on a robotic language learning companion for preschool kids. The robot is supposed to help them learn new words. Why do we care? Well, language and literacy are important for everything humans do. It's the primary means of human knowledge transfer! Language is super important. Plus, there's research showing that if we don't get enough language exposure early on (e.g., ages 3-5), it'll be hard to catch up in school later. Oh no! Language skills are important for academic and life success! But not everyone has those skills! Enter robot. This robot can help young kids develop language skills at a critical time, thus saving them from a life of misery and pain!

Or, you know, something less dramatic. But you get the idea. Situate your work in a larger problem. Then dive in and explain how what you're doing fits into the larger problem, even if it's just a tiny little piece of that larger problem.

Make your audience care. Tell them a story.


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