Complex Revision

Does it happen for you as it happens for me, that it seems that every paper I publish is better than the last? I had two come back from journals in the past couple of weeks both requiring very different kinds of revision. Complex revision, as it turns out. By complex revision I mean the kind of revision where the questions reviewers ask you, or the revisions they request, require thoughtful pondering in order to implement. It often means doing additional research, re-writing big chunks of text, or reorganizing the pathway of an argument.

Simultaneously, on Twitter, a conversation was taking place:

What do you prefer? To write first drafts or to revise an existing draft?

Someone referred to those people who like revisions as legendary or mythical. I, being solidly in camp revision, was curious to know if I truly was mythical as a writer for preferring to revise. So, I ran a poll and the responses were predictable. Half the sample preferred to revise and half preferred to write first drafts.

I would love to dig into what forms such preferences a little deeper, but that probably requires a research study. If I had to guess, I suspect that the preference is epistemological. I can only speak to why I prefer to revise. Having text there makes the next piece of text to be written more obvious to me. It gives me something to reflect on. I like filling in holes and crevices in my explanation of concepts. I like being clear. I also never think my writing is done so I can spend hours tinkering with phrasing, adding – or more often removing – adjectives, rearranging words and sentences. I feel the rhythm and cadence of my writing is important. I like to play, and this is fun for me. I find first drafts frustrating because I feel horrified by how little the idea I picture in my head resembles the words that come out on paper to represent those ideas. (Editor’s note: that last sentence was hell to get right, by the way. Its first iteration was twisted and a mess). First drafting feels like hell. Revising feels like passion.

First drafters may like outlining and filling in the blanks (a very structured, perhaps objectivist, epistemology). Maybe first drafters fear the blank page less because the blank page is a free-for-all canvass? With first drafts, you have control of the structure, with revisions, especially if they are coming from peer reviewers, you may not. Or maybe its people who revise as they write, making sure every paragraph, every sentence, every word is right before moving on to the next, who prefer first drafts. They’ve invested so much time up front with perfection, refusing to move on until the last sentence is what it is, they resist anyone who tries to make them go back and write it again.

Maybe people who hate revising are literalists. Maybe, because they can already see the richness that lies between the lines, they have a difficult time understanding how others can’t see it too, so they resist demands to explicate.

Or, maybe there is no relationship or meaning at all to preferences of revising versus first drafting. But I can tell you this, I’ve never done major revisions on a paper and walked away thinking the original version was better. Never.

Revision is hard. It is one of the last skills we learn to do well as writers. Perhaps passion for revision is a marker of writing expertise? Most undergraduate students don’t revise well. They are novices. The primary complaint I hear from educators is that our students don’t revise or they revise superficially and ignore requests to develop ideas. Feedback and revision go together and should not be separated. This is how the peer review system works, but how willing are you to tackle complex revisions when they are suggested to you?

I’ve had several, complex revisions I’ve undertaken in the last couple of years. I’ve also reviewed enough papers and then re-reviewed them after revisions to have observed how authors handle suggestions for complex, deep, revisions and most of the time they don’t handle it well, refuse to do them by citing some excuse, or they turn it into something superficial instead. I also find, when I have the opportunity to see the reviews that others submitted for the same paper, that many reviewers can’t see complex ideas within papers either.

Here are my thoughts on what I call complex revision:

  1. Reacquaint yourself with your paper and the previous passion you felt for the project. Here’s the problem with complex revision – the further away you are from the period of time when you were originally connected with the work, the harder it is to revise. For this reason, when I get a paper back with requested revisions, I tend to try and get them done as quickly as possible. I always print a copy of the paper and handwrite the review comments in the margin at the spots they are referring to. (Most of the review comments I get come in a numbered list of some sort, separate from the paper). I then always try and conquer the simple revisions first because the simple revisions feel like progress and they reacquaint you with the writing.

 

  1. However, the on the flip side, the distance might also help you see where your own writing is not clear. Two examples: I got asked some questions about something I said about one of my research constructs in a recent review, but when I read the sentences I had written many months before, I honestly didn’t know what I meant or where I was going with the point. The solution wasn’t to revise, it was to cut the sentences. In another revision, a reviewer suggested I cut a paragraph as it seemed to disrupt the flow of ideas. Being 8 or 9 months since I had originally submitted the paper, I could see what the reviewer meant, so I cut the paragraph.

 

  1. Don’t always respond to reviewers literally. Is there something the reviewer is not getting about your paper that prompted the comment they wrote but will be better fixed by editing something else the reviewer didn’t comment on? On a recent paper, a reviewer commented that I didn’t consider the importance of peer reviewing or talk about the value in seeing a rubric prior to handing in an assignment. No, I didn’t, but the literature on both those things weren’t critical to may study. Yet, the reviewer comment still didn’t make it appropriate for me to write new sections on peer reviewing or how rubrics improve (or maybe don’t improve) writing in my review of the literature.  It did make me recognize that the reviewer was begging for more information on the context that my student participants were writing in so they could see why I wasn’t writing about those two topics. So, I wrote a section describing the writing environment in the program of study – where peer review was not standard in the courses being offered and thus was a self-selected choice of students, and the students always got to view the rubric prior to submitting an assignment.

 

  1. “You said you were going to talk about X but you didn’t actually do that.” I got a comment of a similar nature for a paper and my instant response was, but I did talk about X and it is RIGHT HERE. But upon reflection, that comment made me understand that what I was describing as X and what I actually did, was not what the reviewer had expected as X. That comment didn’t mean I had to re-write the paper to fit the reviewer expectation. I did have to go and re-write my description of X so it was a better match for what I actually did. No matter what, it is still your paper.

 

  1. Requests to redo analysis. Do it, if you can. I got a review comment suggesting a different statistical test than the one I had done. I had to go back to the statistician, reacquaint myself with a data set I hadn’t looked at in a year and a half, and I had to re-run my analysis. This was a frustrating review comment for sure. I was so tired of this study that I wanted it done. The last thing I wanted to do was go run more analysis. But it was worth it. The findings came out almost the same, but the testing method was more robust and it will add greater credibility to my paper in the long run.

 

  1. When reviewers criticize your method, they aren’t asking you to redo your whole study before resubmitting for publication, but they are asking you to explicate your study limitations a bit better.

 

  1. Read that whole new body of literature. Just a few articles. Reviewers suggesting a long list of literature for you to read probably doesn’t mean they want you to write the paper they would have written instead. But something you wrote triggered a connection with a peripheral body of work. I’ve had specific articles suggested to me. I’ve had author names dropped into reviews like bread crumb trails marking the pathway to some in-group. I take a moment to explore them all. In one case, it meant writing an additional 2000 words into my paper (I had the wordcount room via journal limits). That paper was ten times better than it was when I first submitted it.  Sometimes you are writing about ideas, or writing on the periphery of ideas, that you know less about than your reviewer. I’ve seen authors respond to review comments advising they look at a peripheral area of work by writing new paragraphs about that peripheral body of work with absolutely no citations. This is BAD. Don’t do that.

 

  1. Take note of when a reviewer appears to be wanting to have a conversation with you rather than provide you structured concrete points for revision. How would you respond to that conversation and is the response you would give back something that should go into the paper? It can be daunting as an author when this happens because conversational reviews can be lengthy – I got one once that was 2000 words long. But a reviewer who was willing to write all that about your paper was really engaged with your work. You want to honour that engagement, not refuse to acknowledge it.  Editors are smart. There is a reason that person was picked to review your paper. If you met that person at a conference you’d want to sit down over beer and talk to the wee hours of the morning. Answer them.

How do you handle complex revision? Share your thoughts and examples.

Student Peer Review Process? Here’s My Version

When I tweeted yesterday that I was creating a peer review process for my students to assess each other’s writing and provided a sample of what I was up to, I had many requests to share the whole process.

I am happy to do that and will do so here in this post with two caveats:

  1. This process is untested. This means, I can’t even give you anecdotal feedback as to if it works. So for now I will share the materials but it is probably wise to warn you it may backfire. Conversely, it may also be brilliant. I have never tried peer review before but I’ve spent about a year dreaming up this process. I really wanted to do double peer review, meaning I really wanted students to peer review two of their classmate’s papers but as I tried to schedule it, I recognized in our compressed term, there just isn’t enough time to do that and still allow for the time to do research, the synthesis exercise, and the peer review process. I’ll write a follow up blog after I have trialed the process.
  2. Remember that all writing is contextual. I’ve created this process specific to the needs of my assignment, my course content, and my teaching style. If you want to model what you do after my process, you won’t be able to simply lift my points and my language choices and have a neat fit. Make it your own.

Here is the document describing the process:

Qualitative Paper Assignment

In the document you will find:

  1. My detailed assignment guidelines for the qualitative synthesis paper.
  2. A description of the peer review process.
  3. My content rubric for the paper (out of 33)
  4. The peer reviewed checklist for the students to help them assess their classmate’s work.

As this is an assignment structured using scaffolding theory, these are the basic activities to scaffold the process:

  1. As the course I teach is a research course, I start the term introducing them to the principles of qualitative research. As I teach them about qualitative methods, I am simultaneously connecting the theory content to what they need to write about. They also get a class on searching the literature and what needs to be included in the background to a research study.
  2. I have the students find 5 primary qualitative studies on a topic of their choice. They have to show me these 5 primary studies. There are numerous benefits to this requirement, most of them, selfishly benefit me: a) I ensure that they write this paper using the literature I asked for and not just any old literature. It saves me so much grading time to check this in advance; b) I get to look each one of them in the eyes at least once during this process. For some students, the article checks are the only conversation I’ll have with them all term; c) the students can write their paper knowing they won’t lose marks for incorrectly identifying qualitative studies.
  3. I provide them with an article identification guide to help them distinguish qualitative, quantitative, and discussion papers. Article Type Identification Guide
  4. I have them read their articles next and then we come together and do a synthesis exercise over one class.  I wrote a tweet thread about that exercise a while back (see below).
  5. The students will go off and write and before the planned peer reviewed process they would hand it in to me and I would grade it. The next steps are steps that are untrialed.
  6. Now students will hand in a preliminary paper and share that preliminary paper with a pre-selected classmate.
  7. Each will use the peer review checklist to independently comment on the other’s paper. They will also be welcome to correct grammar and APA.
  8. I will hold a peer review class where they can ask me questions but the goal is also for them to sit down with the rubric for the paper and jointly come up with a score for the content portion of each of their papers. Two chances to practice with the rubric.
  9. Notice that the rubric and the peer review checklist are colour coded. That’s because the colours that match on both documents are the items on the peer review checklist that they will be considering when scoring that section on the rubric. The rubric is broad areas of writing (content, synthesis, research, mechanics) the checklist is ordered by the required heading sections of the paper. Hopefully this will help them realize what expectations affect what sections of the rubric.
  10. After the peer review process, the students will go off and revise their papers based on their discussions. They will hand in a final draft of their paper to me along with a self-scored rubric for their own content.  Their grade will be the score they give themselves — unless they score themselves too low then they will get my score. If they score themselves too high? Well that’s a bridge I’ll cross when and if it happens.
  11. I am not having the students grade each other or assess themselves on APA. They’ll obsess over it and it will take away from what I want them to focus on, which is their content. I’m going to grade their APA.
  12. 50% of their entire course grade goes to the little pieces that make up this assignment. The breakdown of the assignment in terms of value is:
    1. Content of paper 33/
    2. APA 3/
    3. Participating in synthesis class and making progress 3/
    4. Article checks 1/
    5. Peer review 10/

 

How I will score their peer review exactly is still a work in progress and I’m still reflecting on it as I don’t have to “grade it” for a couple months yet. It will be a combination of participating in the peer review, collegiality with peer and being a good citizen and getting documents in on time, a thorough effort at feedback to their peer, the degree to which they pay attention to the feedback they were given in their next draft, a one paragraph response to that feedback, and realistic self-assessments on the rubric.

I’m blessed this term with an abnormally small class which will be extremely useful for me to trial this process and discover the weak spots in my pedagogy.  I hope, those of you who were interested also find this useful. Please feel free to comment below with questions or tweet at me to discuss, or share your own peer review processes.

The Evolution of My Writing

I used to write my papers on an old Hewlett-Packard word processor.  It had a little tiny memory disk that was about half the size of a hard “floppy” disk, although I don’t think those existed at the time. It was a Christmas gift or a birthday gift from my parents during my last year of high school. I used it through my first 5 years of university, so about 1989-1994.  It had a little tiny computer screen which allowed me to see about 6 lines at a time.  It could be used like an electric typewriter as well. But I liked that I was able to save my writing to these little disks and when I wanted to print something, it auto typed it out like a regular typewriter would at about 80 to 100 words per minute.

Back then I always hand-wrote the first drafts of my papers.  I liked to be able to see a page worth of work at a time and manually flip back and forth between those pages. One hand written page, roughly, worked out to be just short of one double spaced, 12pt font, typed page of writing.  After I finished the first handwritten draft (where I edited little), I used to type the paper into the word processor and then do all my editing there.  The act of typing out what I had written allowed me time to reflect upon some of that first draft uglies and where I needed to make global changes.  Thus, I’ve always believed that the real writing happens in editing.

I wrote my papers using this process through two university degrees and continued to handwrite rough drafts even when I retired the HP and began using Microsoft Word on a PC. Then sometime during the first year of my master’s degree I started writing papers directly into the computer. Papers got harder to write, at that level, and I found I couldn’t write anything in any planned order any more. Also, with 40 references to incorporate, I could no longer write an entire paper in a single day. It was easier to put a heading into a computer file and leave a blank than it was to guess how much of a blank to leave on looseleaf to accommodate what needed to be said.

I presented at a conference this year and while it really had nothing to do with my presentation, someone asked me if writing processes had changed in the era of computers.  I had been talking about a well-known writing process theory that was developed in the 70s that still seems very relevant today, even though fewer people likely handwrite their drafts than would have been common back then.

Now that I write solely on a computer, I still write a pretty rough first draft  but I edit as I write more than I used to.  Autocorrect helps with my clunky spelling skills. But it is still always my goal to get a sketch of what I want to say down in writing and then work my magic while editing. I consider my first drafts so rough, that I would never show a first draft to anyone…. not even co-authors. I always like to let a manuscript germinate for a while. A week is awesome, if I have it, but 2 days is often enough before I tackle the next draft.  I spend the time between reflecting on what I wrote and things I forgot to say.  I look for ways to solidify my argument or make connections between points I may not have seen the first time around.

I’ve heard of these strange creatures who obsess over every word in a sentence and write a clean rough draft that needs nothing more than a polish.  I am not one of them.  And to be honest, I don’t envy them. It would be painful writing that would make me feel like the end was so far away. I believe the key to being prolific is to spew it all out in one shot as quickly and as horribly (or not so horribly) as possible. If you aren’t solid on your thinking in some areas, what you write later may be a clue to how to fix it. I’ve written articulate phrases like ….. and blah blah blah prediction …. into my papers just to remind me what I need to learn more about when I come back and edit that section. Sometimes you have to stop and read more to figure out what comes next.

And that is one thing that has never changed about my writing process. I love revisions. I have always worked better building off an existing idea than staring at a blank page hoping  that words will come. A done first draft feels like a finished paper to me because I know how it begins, I know how it ends, and now I can fill in the holes with what I believe to be the best part of writing: rewriting.

Having said that, you need to write the way you write.  It isn’t wrong to be a multi draft writer. It also isn’t wrong to write each sentence as if you’ll never have to change it.  Just write.

*Image: some really bad fiction writing I did when I was about 20. I remember going back and doing the highlighting. It was the only parts I liked.  (My attempts at fiction, back then, never made it to the word processor phase of writing).