Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hatchet Job

Back in college, I read a collection of short stories by a favorite author, Spider Robinson. In the introduction, he wrote about editing his first short story. Someone he respected told him to cut several thousand words from the "final" draft. He was sure there was nothing else to cut, he sweated over and mourned each deleted word, and he admitted in the end that the story was amazingly better.

Now, I find myself in the position of attempting to cut a 79-page master's thesis into a 6-page submission to the Proceedings of a conference. To be fair, that's a slight exaggeration: university guidelines request marshmallows (lots of white space, lots of pages with fluffy and sugary content) and conference guidelines request chocolate (ink-slathered pages of rich and condensed content). Still, it's nipping and tucking 15,250 words to roughly 4,500.

It's not that I'm attached to those 10,000+ words that are getting the delete button. Six weeks is just about enough time that I can stand to look at that document again after growing heartily sick of it during months of revisions, but not so much time that I've grown nostalgic about my first great academic work. In fact, I look at it with near-disparaging revisions. It would read so much better if I organized the results like so instead of so, this paragraph is too redundant, this sentence lacks elegance.

It's not that the 10,000+ words are necessary. The thesis requirements demanded inclusion every intention, step, and analysis in some specious attempt to validate my degree with hard work and a lengthy document. A conference submission, aspiring to be no more than a poster presentation, wants only slightly more meat on the bones than a mere abstract. Entire swaths of text, pages at a time, were cut for being unnecessary or unworthy. Failed analyses and non-significant "trends" can be ignored, tasks that added nothing in the end are removed from existence, citations added to bulk up the reference section can be adjusted to a single work by the same author.

It's just that it's a daunting task. After two days spent doing little else, I'm still at 6,700 words. The new angle, selected to make the results appear more meaningful and appealing, will require still more re-organization and re-writing of the discussion section, if not the introduction; this could take words off or pile them back on. My paper is on a yo-yo diet of cut and add, cut and paste.

In the darker moments, usually when scrolling through the now-26 pages in hopes of finding something else no one else would care about, I wonder whether it's at all worth it. I think of the day a few months from now when I receive the email telling me that the submission was very nice, thank you, but no one outside of the selection committee need be subjected to it. Will I be able to look back with a mature attitude, and say that my academic training wouldn't have been complete without such an intense and extreme revision process? Will I be willing to dust off the old analysis outputs yet again with an eye of trying toward publication in some journal? Or will I despair of having put this effort into a failed submission?

At the moment, I'm leaning toward seeing it as a learning experience regardless of the outcome. My explanations to various family members can now contain my concise but contentful descriptions of research past. It might even help convince them that my research is actually worthwhile. It's gone a surprisingly long way toward convincing me.

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