I don't think it's a secret that I've been struggling this (academic) year. Things haven't been great, and that's been really affecting me in ways I was not quite ready for. One of the things that's happened is that I have two important things that need revisions completed on ASAP that I haven't been working on. My career feels like it's stalled. My book needs to be done, like, now. The article revisions are now overdue (though I am not holding up other people's work, it's for a general-submission journal). So that's what I'm trying to do. To remember to be in love with my research. I do love it, I just have to get though the panic attack to realise that.
I am currently working on the revisions for my book and for an article, so I wanted to write down a few things about how I tackle revisions. It's probably one of the most important things that we do as researchers, and something that is a constant in the lives of academics from the undergraduate thesis onwards. How we get revisions changes, though, from the revisions that we get from supervisors who are (hopefully, generally) supportive and want to work with us to make sure our work is the best it can be. Peer reviewers ostensibly want the same things, but that doesn't always happen (I've commented multiple times on Twitter about the review I got that included the ego-boosting phrase "You know nothing about Greek religion"). I've also commented on giving peer reviews before, which I don't want to do here. I want to think about what I do when I get a review.
I think the first thing is to read though the reviews. I find this incredibly difficult, but it has to be done. Go to a nice place - maybe a cozy pub or café you love, somewhere you feel good. When I read though the reviews I have my laptop or a notebook and for each point I write it down in my own words, as I understand it, in one of two columns: 'things to do' and 'things not to do'. It's okay to decide not to act on a comment you receive, but you will need to keep a record of these so you can write down the reasons why in your letter back to the editor. If you are going to submit elsewhere I think it's still a good idea to keep a track of things you don't want to act on, because these are things that may come up in another review. Anything that's just nasty (see the above comment that I received...) or off the mark, or just plain unconstructive, feel free to ignore.
When you start your revisions do so from the list of things to do that you made, with each point written in your own words. I personally find this way less stressful that having to go back to the reviewers comments again and again, particularly if they were framed in a non-constructive or mean way. In some ways this becomes just like working though your own editing.
That's where I am right now with my article. With my list of things to do, written in my own words and ploughing though them as quickly and thoroughly as I can. I'm currently flip-flopping back and forward between the book and the article, not sure which is more important to get finished. I think the article, as it will be a quicker process. Answers on a postcard, please!
I'd love to hear your strategies for dealing with peer reviews! Let me know below!
(Click here for part one)
It’s Thursday, and I have (re)submitted my article, and I am now exhausted.
So, here are my big takeaways from this experience:
In many ways I think this has been one of my big post-PhD learning curves. This may well be the first post-PhD piece of scholarship that I get out and it kind of sets the tone for how I will deal with other pieces of writing. At least in the immediate future. I’m sure each piece will bring an opportunity to develop something new. And, perhaps that’s what so exciting about this process.
For now, I have plenty to crack on with, so I am well and truly in the ‘fire off and forget’ stage of the process. For now the work is done, and we’ll see what happens.
In the last few months, I’ve received two rejections following peer review. Both were fairly positive, in that the reviewers were positive about the actual research, and made concrete and relevant suggestions for improvement.
The story of the first one is short. I have, for now, shelved the research. The article was based on my Master’s thesis. The reviewers were positive about the central idea, but the article needed restructuring. My research has moved on a lot, and honestly my heart isn’t in doing the extra work required right now.
The story of the second one is this: how I am dealing with those comments and the second-life of the article, from read-through to re-submission. I haven’t looked at the article since I submitted it in August, so I think there’s been enough time for me to come back fresh.
I’ve already briefly read the comments from the editor and reviewers, so I know broadly what they want to see changed. I’ll spend today ‘peer reviewing’ the article myself – trying to be objective, and critical. Then I’ll tally up my own revisions with those of the reviewers and decide which ones to tackle. At that point I’ll decide where to resubmit the article, and start on the revisions. And that will either be the end, or the start of another round of revising. Let’s see!
I’m just on half-way through the article. One of the comments I received was that my treatment of the poetry was, in some places, a bit superficial. Particularly in comparison to treatment of the historical and material evidence. I focus more on historical evidence in my research generally, so I wasn’t surprised to read that. With the benefit of some distance between me-the-writer and me-the-reader I can see exactly what the reviewer was referring to, and in some places I already know how to add a proper layer of analysis underneath it. Other places will require some more reading and thought. The good thing is that I already have some concrete suggestions to improve this article. I return to poetry at the end of the piece, so it will be interesting to see what the discussion is like there. I’m still feeling good about the work itself.
Tuesday, late afternoon
I’ve finished my read-through, and I’m going to go through the reports in detail and make a list of revisions that need to be done and new research that needs to be added. One reviewer picked up on a pretty huge omission in the bibliography, something I thought I’d included, so I will need to double check that, and if it’s really not been cited I will need to cite it (and if it has, I will need to put it in the bibliography!). I’ll start rewriting on Thursday.
I spent this morning working on my research proposal and am now coming back to the article. I’ve just read through the reviewers reports a few times and jotted down the things I agree will make the article stronger from my own read-though on Tuesday. I’m about to open a new document and crack on with re-writing the bits that don’t need significant change. There are two sections that I’ll do some more research on, and I’ll tackle those later. If I can get all the superficial stuff done today, then I should be in a good place to get this back out by the end of next week.
All the superficial stuff is done so I’m now doing a little extra reading and a bit of rewriting. I’m about to spend half an hour reading the poem I discuss at the beginning of the article again, and thinking about framing that discussion in a more nuanced way. One of the reviewers commented about that ‘the conclusion [of this section] seemed right… but the argument was not well developed’ so I’m going to try and plan out that small sub-section with the rest of the afternoon.
I’ll start part-two of the ‘Diary’ next week, and hopefully will have resubmitted the article by the time you hear from me again!
I’d love to hear about the way that others tackle reviewers’ suggestions and the article re-writing process, so feel free to get in touch!
(click here for part two)
Week one of #AcWriMo has been over for three days now, but I am feeling pretty good about my progress so far (as always, you can track everyone's progress on the #AcWriMo Accountability Spreadsheet). So, in the last ten days I have:
Tomorrow is my day off with Child (seen above, 'working' as I work), and I hope to do a little bit of reading, and some work on my research proposal while she is at ballet. Thursday and Friday will be dedicated to getting the manuscript in tip-top shape, and starting to flesh out my (next) book proposal. And that book proposal will be the task for next week.
And then continuing...
#AcWriMo is once again almost here! #AcWriMo is Academic Writing Month, and it’s based on the concept of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which challenges participants to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. #AcWriMo is run by Charlotte Frost at PhD2Published.com and you can find out all about it, including details of how to sign up, HERE.
When you first sign up to #AcWriMo, you are asked to declare your goals for the month, and set out a (brief) plan, and these are then publically posted on the Accountability Spreadsheet for all to see. If you scroll down the spreadsheet to line 91* you will see that my goal for this #AcWriMo is:
Submit finished book manuscript (aim = November 14)
Start working on Fellowship proposal
Start working on Book no. 2 proposal
(Edited to add: Also, to blog about my research and #AcWriMo, goal is 1 blog post per week)
And my plan is:
Write every day (including weekends). Time/words not important - quality more important.
But I wanted to say a little bit more about what I want to achieve this November, how I am going to hopefully do it, and why I like #AcWriMo (although I’m terrible at filling in the accountability spreadsheet, this will by my third year!)
So: what do I want to do?
Finish my book! I had originally planned to already have the manuscript in now, but things don’t always go as you plan in the world of #acwri, and this certainly has not! When I first started thinking about turning my PhD into a monograph** I didn’t envision adding as much new material as I have ended up adding. My planned ‘half a chapter’ of new stuff has turned into two chapters of new and old-but-significantly-re-evaluated material. I think I am very close to finishing all of this off, and I am aiming to submit the manuscript on November 14th. That’s my mum’s birthday, the 12-month anniversary of my viva, and also falls during Academic Book Week. This will be my top priority for work and writing for the first two weeks of #AcWriMo.
Work on my Research Proposal! Like pretty much everyone else I have an idea (that I think is pretty good) for the next major research project. While I have done a lot of work on my proposal in the last 9-ish months, I think there is always room to do some more, to edit bits into different length-and-intensity sections for different kinds of proposal applications. I have two main fellowship applications that I want to make a start on, including getting a short-form email-ready version of the project done. This will be the top priority for the third week of #AcWriMo.
Work on my (next) book proposal! I have been talking to an editor about this project recently, and I am quite excited about it. This book will stem much more directly from my PhD/first book than the ‘next big project’, and I have done much of the preliminary, background research already. While getting the actual book together will take some time, I think it’s well within my capability to get it done! This will be my top priority for the final week of #AcWriMo.
On top of that, I want to blog at least once a week about what I’m doing, and maybe also about some interesting tidbits of research. I am planning a Halloween post, which I think (as a scholar of Underworld gods!) it would be remiss of me not to do!
As for my plan… looking though the Spreadsheet you’ll notice that different people include very different amounts of detail in their plan, and mine is probably one of the simpler ones. I know that I don’t work well under word-pressure (that is, a target of words written), and while I tend to meet the target it’s more likely that those words will be not-as-good-as-they-could-be. I don’t mind working to a time-target, but my timetable is such that it’s impossible to set a general ever-day time-target – I can manage nearly a full day of writing on Mondays, for example, but I teach for four hours on a Friday. So I am just going simple. Write. Write every day. Quality over quantity.
And, that’s it – that’s how I hope to achieve the things I have set for myself this #AcWriMo! If you’ve got some academic writing to crack on with, why not consider signing up too!
* I’m assuming that the lines are fixed by the date and time you sign up, and don’t shift around…
** I mean thinking seriously about the ins and outs of the thing, because who doesn’t think about turning their PhD into a book in the very first week of their PhD?!? (Assuming you’re in a book field, that is).
In this post, Gabrielle tries out my Reverse Outlining method, which I discussed on the blog in March.
Gabrielle is a PhD student in the History department at University College London. She is in the final stages of writing up her thesis on Late Antique administration and rhetoric, and lives with a demanding cat. You can find her on Twitter, or at academia.edu.
My friend Ellie Mackin and I have been having quite a few conversations about academic writing these days. Both of us are very keen on that aspect of academic research and we are specifically concerned about structure and clarity. When it came to the reverse outline technique, however, I was frankly a little too relaxed. I had been doing it instinctively, as I was editing, and I thought that it made my prose more fluid this way. But it didn’t. So I read Ellie’s blog article about it and decided to follow the steps properly, as an experiment.
1. I printed out my chapter. After I managed to reorganise what came out of the printer in the right order (why do I always forgot to enable page numbers on Word?!), I finally managed to get rid of the cat and sat down to work. I had never edited from paper before but I took to it quite rapidly. In a way, it felt like marking someone else’s essay, which made the whole process a little less stressful.
2. I numbered all of my paragraphs and labelled them, on a separate piece of paper. During this process I gigged things around. I had already been quite careful about structure in that chapter (my weakest) so there was not much movement between sections. I noted down the new order of paragraphs on the margins, in a different coloured pen (because the more colours, the better, as far as stationary goes). I think this gave me a better overall picture of the chapter than editing from the computer would have done. Again, I think it was because I felt more removed from it. The possibility of easily flicking between pages and of going back and forth was also helpful: no one writes, or researches, in a perfectly linear way (which is also why I cannot read academic books electronically either. I constantly need to go back/ahead). Interestingly, what I thought was my strongest section in that chapter was the one that needed the most work.
3. After the handwritten part of the process, I began to type up all the changes highlighted onto my original word document. This, I felt, was the most fastidious step. It took me over a week to complete it as I kept on doing something else instead. I simply could not be bothered. However, I felt that it needed to be done while still fresh in my memory, so I forced myself to do a little bit every day. I wonder how one could make this process a little less cumbersome.
4. All this restructuring really forced me to focus on my overall argument, and I was able to write a satisfactory mini conclusion. I think this will really help when it comes to writing the big conclusion!
All in all, I have really seen the benefits of a step-by-step methodology for the editing process of a chapter. The fact that there was a fixed process was strangely reassuring. I knew what I had to do, I did it, and felt satisfied afterwards. I think this was probably the most useful aspect of this whole process
I have much advice to impart on anyone who is enrolled in a PhD. Every person who has finished a PhD – recently or not – has a lot of advice to give. But we don’t go around giving it. That’s because the first thing to realise about a PhD is that it’s a fairly unique experience for every person. And I really, really loathe the word ‘unique’. That’s why I’m so annoyed by the glut of articles giving advice about finishing a PhD (I’m sure you can all guess which specific recent article *cough*THE*cough* has sparked this post).
My own experience led to a complete disconnect between achievement and celebrating (I don’t think this is unique…), and like many people I came out with a pretty mixed bag of good and bad things to say. I cannot claim to have gone through everything possible, though I did do a fair amount of stuff during my PhD (both directly and indirectly related to my work at a PhD candidate). So, I don’t tend to give advice unless asked. Or actually, I think I am fairly fond of giving advice, and will sometimes do so unasked, but only if I feel my particular situation matches the particular situation of the person I am talking to.
That is the crux of my problem with this/these articles. It’s fine to give advice when asked, or when you think it will actually help a person and is relevant in their context. But articles like this are so rarely relevant to everyone’s context that they cannot really be taken seriously. I think authors of posts like this realise this fact, which is why the most recent offender is written in a style that, I guess, is meant to be funny. How to fail your PhD?
With the amount of mental health issues (from both the acute and chronic to the temporary and more ‘mild’*) that are rife in academia, particularly among PhD candidates and early career scholars, it is absolutely not funny or clever to frame an article so negatively. What PhDs need is advice about how to compensate for possible shortfalls. If a student must stay at the same university because they have caring duties, for example, then what they need is some advice about how to network widely and what social networking or other digital tools can do to help them achieve the level of networking they need. If a student decides to fund their own PhD (and I don’t want to say anything about the ridiculous notion of a department not being ‘invested’ in a self-funding candidate…) then what they need is some specific advice about how they can work their studies around other financial commitments they have, and how they can perhaps supplement their income with smaller grants. This list could go on forever.
This brief post actually began because I wanted to make a plea for THE and others to stop sharing that article on my Twitter feed, because it’s driving me crazy. It’s not helpful. It wouldn’t have helped me during my PhD, and all I can see is the ways that is shames PhD candidates for the ‘choices’ they might not even be able to make for themselves. Without individual context advice is meaningless. So, stop giving advice.
*I want to be EXPLICITLY clear that I think that even ‘mild’ mental health issues are serious, because they absolutely are. What I mean by ‘mild’ is something that is not debilitating, does not necessarily require medication or medical intervention, is temporary, and perhaps induced by a specific event. For example, anxiety in the days leading up to a conference presentation, or similar.
I have become interested in how people write, and - specifically I guess - how I write and why I write the way I do. By writing I mean everything that goes into making up a manuscript, essay, thesis, or similar; from the notes at the very start of a project to the moment you press submit. This is for two reasons (1) I am typing up my monograph manuscript to submit for review. Yes, I said 'typing it up' and yes, that does mean that I started from the very beginning and will type the whole thing (more on that in a moment) and (2) Andrew and I are going to start a business (because starting a 'business on the side' is a good thing and not in any way taking on any extra unneeded work when one already has a full plate, ho hum...). I will come to (2) more in the next few weeks when we have some solid ideas about the three main products that we are going to produce.
But more on (1). This is what I am currently looking at:
Anyone who follows me on Twitter will be immediately familiar with that book. It is the hard-copy draft of my monograph, which I have taken to with a pen. I prefer to write edits with a pen because I think better with a pen. I type quite fast, and often type faster than I think, which results in going back and forward in a typed text to make changes. On a printed page everything is immediately visible, and the changes are etched in (although I know some people feel that ink gives a sense of permanence, I hold no such idea and am happy to scribble over, cross out, mark up, and generally make a mess on the page).
So, my general process involves a lot of writing and a lot of typing, because I also type up each new draft from scratch (expect for lengthy passages which have no changes, then I will copy and paste those from the old document, and I will usually copy-paste Greek passages from the old draft). In effect, this gives me two rounds of editing for the price of one - one round when I write and one round when I type. It's not the fastest way of doing things, but it has got me though three degrees, three theses of increasing length, and now it has almost got me to the end of this book.
More generally, though, I want to know how other people research, write, and edit. I find the way that people work really interesting - both from a personal point of view and from a pedagogical point of view. I was never taught how to write (although I did take an 'Academic Writing' course during the first year of my undergraduate degree...) but I did play around with writing style and method during my studies. I have run 'essay writing' tutorials before, and I never really know what to say about writing method beyond 'try some stuff out and see what works for you'. I would never recommend my method to another person (and especially not to an undergraduate who has a significant work load already), because it is laborious and time consuming, but I wonder if I am missing a trick here because my method could work for a student as well as it works for me.
The short answer (to the apparently unasked question) is: I have no idea. I don't know why my method works, and I don't know why I am reluctant to suggest it as a possible writing method for another person. Having said all of that, I would be very interested to hear about other people's writing methods (and particularly if your method is like mine!). Feel free to leave a comment or shout out on Twitter and let me know!
Edited to add: The way that I edit and write also has the odd by-product of unusual natural stopping points, because I re-type up page by page (and mark pages which have been complete). This means that I will often stop typing in mid sentence, as a perfectly natural thing. It only just struck me as (probably) a rather odd practice.
In yesterday’s #Acwri chat (that is, academic writing) I happened to mention that I use reverse outlining as an editing technique. A couple of people didn’t know what reverse outlining was. This post gives a great run down and method for reverse outlining, and is well worth checking out. Today I reverse outlined a chapter going into my half-written book, so I thought I’d document the process. Primarily I did this in order to see exactly what I do and why, and perhaps try to refine my reverse outlining process, but I thought it might be interesting to explain here as well.
The first thing I do is a proper edit in Word using Track Changes. This is for spelling, grammar, style, clarity, and all the other things that get changed in a regular edit. Print this copy out, with the changes visible:
During the reverse outline process I don’t do any editing – if I find things which need work I just mark them.
Then I number the paragraphs. Each section gets a letter, and each paragraph gets a number. Sometimes I might have added a note about a paragraph or section that should go in, and these get separate numbers as well:
Then, you read the whole thing, paragraph by paragraph, and note down what each paragraph is about. Paragraphs that should be split or contain two (or more!) ideas get Roman numerals for each sub-section.
I often stop at the end of each section and quickly note what order I think the paragraphs should go in, while the section is still fresh in my mind
So, at the end of this whole process I have what looks like a kind of outline. The next part is the fun part, which is writing a proper plan from the rough-draft reverse outline (although I keep the numbering from the draft!) – and then actually putting that into the practice in the chapter or article (that’s a task for next week though!) I will always print the new plan out and staple it to the draft I’ve outlined along with the rough hand-written version, then that all goes into the folder of all the drafts for my whole book.
So, what’s the point of reverse outlining? Breaking things down in a paragraph-by-paragraph way lets you look at the overall structure in a much smaller, and therefore clearer, way. Sometimes, if I am stuck, I will write out the topic of each paragraph of a post-it note and play around with the way they might fit together (another variation on this is to cut out the actual paragraphs and play with the order). It means I can do some fairly major restructuring with great(er) ease. It often just seems so obvious that the order of paragraphs (and sections) is wrong.
And, you will have perhaps noted that my first section now contains paragraphs 21, 20, and 22, and that section C has come above section B. I did this reverse outline on the third draft of editing, of a chapter from my PhD thesis which – before submission – went though several additional rounds of editing, and I never picked up that these paragraphs make more sense somewhere else. So, it’s been a successful day of reverse outlining!
If you like what I do here, and on YouTube and Twitter, you can buy me a pinch of fairy dust.