Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Writing Never Ends

I wrote incessantly in high school, in notebooks ranging from letter-size to a little tiny thing I kept in my back pocket should inspiration strike. The challenge back then was in finishing a story. I might start a dozen at once, with no particular plot in mind, and just write aimlessly but interestedly until the interest was lost. There's a very real limit on how much time you can spend trying to write the same thing before it becomes more burden than pleasure.

Fast forward to graduate school. The same problem still applies, only now it applies to more scientific than science fiction endeavors. There's a little thrill when the challenge is handed down: put this experiment in parent-friendly terms for our newsletter, put that experiment in easily comprehended but thoroughly scientific terms for publication. But the same problem as high school applies: there has to be an end product.

You might think experiments would be very conducive to this, because the plot is all there: introduction, method, results, conclusion. With word limits, even, to keep you on track. The plot is anchored by the methods, so the rest can't get too far away from you (although there are certainly plenty of re-analysis and re-interpretations to extend the process quite a bit). And yet...The process still never seems to end.

The problem with the experiment is that now you aren't in control. There are your co-authors, for example. This calls for extensive, sentence-by-sentence, "what if we said...let's change this...". The tweaking process is very helpful, making for a much better paper than the early drafts. Once three people have gone through 20 iterations (I'm not exaggerating. I have all the drafts saved), however, interest in writing has already begun to wane. Dramatically. You want that paper done, the .doc file cast aside permanently in favor of the immutable .pdf.

And then, once the co-authors have been pleased, there's formatting for submission, and rejection, and formatting for submission somewhere else, and NOW there's an editor and two reviewers calling for further modifications. You thought you were done - but no! Now three people have called for a minor change here, an expansion there, convince me you don't need another experiment...all of which have to be addressed in yet another round of drafts.

I should be thrilled to get a revise-and-resubmit response; it's the most favorable of any reaction to my submissions thus far (unless you count the committee passing my master's thesis, of course). My immediate reaction was - hey, that's pretty good! Nice reviews, so we didn't explain that too well, alright. And then I started putting together the list of things we would need to change. By the time I informed the co-authors, I was ready to start banging my head against my desk: I. do. not. want. to. work. on. this. any. more. My head is hardened by many years of martial arts; surely it can handle ten bangs on a cheap plywood desk?

I had the same problem with my master's thesis - too many revisions, get it the hell away from me now! But that had a firm deadline, and rather lower standards than official publication. I did it for the degree, and continued progress towards the next degree, but I'm not sure I can do it just to have my name published.

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