Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I hate writing. and writing hates me.

*kick* *kick*

oww. (note to self: never kick wall, however frustrated)

note to readers: this is a long, long rant. skim, and skip to the last para, if you want the gist. Writing this rant is what put some distance between me and and a mental hospital.


In my 4-plus years of phd-student life, i've never been this depressed...or sick of the line i chose for myself. Classes were tough, I dealt with them. T.A.-ing was a pain, i got used to it, and began enjoying it. Exams were night-marish, but I got through them. Research comes with it's ups and downs, and I can deal with that too. The ups fuel the down-time and it's a challenge I've enjoyed. But writing is a bitch. I HATE it. from the bottom of my heart.

And I haven't even _begun_ writing my thesis yet. This is just a paper. The first part of the ordeal is motivating yourself. Being convinced that you've done some good work, got reproducible results, and the rest of the scientific community will actually be interested in reading about it. Once you get over that, you sit with a stack of papers, collate your results, and start putting it together. Your advisor starts getting anxious and asks you for a draft. When all you have is a bunch of results, some bulleted points, and a very, very VERY rough draft...and it's still only in your head!

Weeks pass, you try to juggle writing and lab-work, and of course that doesn't work. Lab work can fill up all the time you have, and you're happy to be doing it, because you're terrified of facing that laptop and writing the dreaded paper. So you take a week off from lab-work, and tell your advisor you'll have a "draft" by then. The self-imposed exile is the worst punishment you could have ever given yourself. No human contact all day, faced with a stack of papers, and writer's block that will not budge. But somehow, caffeine, motivational speeches by friends, and the remaining fragments of shame left in you push you on. You now have sort of organised the results, and have those bulleted points on paper. Of course, it's far from the "rough draft" you can show your advisor. So you return to lab, and start avoiding your advisor. She's busy, has meetings to attend and other things to do, so that's just perfect. You work your schedule around hers , begin sneaking into the lab at nights to do your experiments, and spend the day away writing. Or trying to.

Most of the time, however, you get sidelined reading some fascinating paper, and go into a tangential world. All the other papers you read seem better than yours. So you're going back into that hole again, demotivated and hating yourself. You discuss the paper with your advisor, and she reminds you that it's substantial, it's good stuff, and it WILL see the light of the day. She tries all the tricks in the book- sets deadlines, threatens, sweet-talks (well, sort-of. in the best way she can ;) ) gives you some direction..and you struggle through. Often, the fear of writing something to publish is overwhelming. What you say here is going into PRINT, and people are going to read it. You cannot afford to make any mistakes, and that seems like a huge responsibility. In this case, the pain of writing about some work you did 3 years ago, after you are involved with more exciting projects, makes it worse. Now, you switch between phases of believing that your work is cool, and other phases when you think it's the scum of the earth. Better, because you at least try to make use of the "up" phases and try to get some more writing done. The down phases are spent doing mindless surfing and we all know how addictive that is. As your advisor keeps on bugging you for a draft, you keep feeling that you've to produce some spectacular piece of work, to justify all the time you took to write it. So you put her off, and you put her off, and now you're not only avoiding her in the lab, but also avoiding checking email. You decline all invitations to go out and have fun because you don't feel like you deserve to have fun..and keep telling your friends "no, i can't come, i've this paper.." and they're all sympathetic and let you be.

Finally, from the collective efforts of the inspired phases that are far and few in between, you have a "rough draft" you think you can show your advisor. So you show it to her..a few cursory glances later, she points out all the problems with the figures, and tells you to edit them. She hasn't even read the text yet. Making figures, using those really fancy illustration softwares is a lesson in itself, and you learn to cope..push your way through, and somehow make it. When you realise the cool things you can do with your word-processor and your illustration software, it's kinda fun too. The truth is, the look of the draft is inspiring, and you can sort of see a paper in the making. It's nice to imagine having your name in print, and that pushes you.

When you're past the figures, and have worked a bit on the writing, you're feeling much better and send it in to her. She likes the figures, but rips your writing apart. And if you harboured any misconceptions about your writing talent, you are in for a rude shock. You sit with the document, where she has scrawled "awkwardly worded" at just about every second paragraph, and you are ready to creep back into the hole you just came out of. As you see "what does this mean" or "why are you saying this" , written so many times, you almost want to tell her to use an acronym for it. You hate the world, you hate her, you hate everything. You hate the eff-ing paper. So you try to reword it all, and send it in. She's still not happy. You begin to doubt her intelligence. ("what does she mean it's not clear? can she not understand my point?") So you ask for a third opinion. And you get what you asked for. A third person telling you that your writing doesn't make any sense. What the fuck?

Then you discuss it with her. You can see the light-bulbs going off in her head. "Ah, that's what you meant?? so spell it out! this is a foreign audience, they don't know your work, or your thoughts"...she tells you. Your wise, experienced friends say "you need to step back, look at it objectively, and present a clear case for your arguments". My foot. But you get the drift, and start working on the "being objective" part. You literally write a few lines, and get up from the table and take a stroll. Come back, read what you wrote, and see if it makes sense. You keep doing this, repeatedly, like a dog. Many long days and nights later, you *think* you've made some progress. But it's hard to say. So you send it back to your advisor.

She re-reads it, with a fine-toothed comb, and this draft has a lot less corrections on it! Yippee! finally, it's working. You're still a few drafts away from the final thing, but you can see it going somewhere. Putting your work together like that has redeemed your own faith in it, and you believe it's worthy of publishing. The end is in sight, and that's rewarding in itself. By this time, all of your friends are SICK AND TIRED of hearing the "i can't come, i've this paper i'm working on". So it makes you want to finish off, and go out to have fun. To live life again, to resume all the things you put on hold because of the paper. And finally, if none of that works, the mortal fear of someone else doing similar work, and probably publishing before you does the trick. No more procrastination, no more running away. You're scared shit, and you want to see your work in press.

When you've a near complete draft which has been much improved by your advisor, there's one more BIG hurdle. Formatting the damn paper. Journal editors, you learn, are apparently bigger nit-pickers than your own advisor. So you need to beautify the paper, and follow every rule about formatting to the letter. Which means, you've to indent only where you're told to, use lower case if the rules say so, and align and pretty all your figures. What a royal pain. This is science, you think. Not a beauty contest. But it's all about presenting your ideas, in the most presentable way. Sort of like when you were told to write neatly during exams, highlight points,etc, so that you please the examiner who has to read a zillion papers and accept or reject your answers.

For those that made it to here first of all, congrats if you read it all! :) I'm now in the last phase of this very painful process of writing. Formatting my paper as per rules, dotting my 'i's and crossing my 't's. It's frustrating, just when I thought I was close and almost done. If it's any comfort, all my more experienced friends tell me that this is the test of fire everyone goes through their first time, and have anecdotal examples about themselves. It only gets easier, once you know how to do it, they say. There is a nice feeling of achievement at the end of this, although the real reward will be when I see my paper accepted. So it makes me feel better, at least while I believe them. (Other times, I'm swearing off writing and a scientific career ;) but I know that' s only a passing phase)

addendum: i just emailed this rant to my best buddy and he reminded me of a very important advantage of this saga. I've one chapter of my dissertation done! that, is definitely cool! :)

26 comments:

Kais said...

Hey, I got to your blog via Sayeshas. Nice post, I like your style.

Being in quite a technical field my self, I identify with you completely. In general when I'm writing about stuff that I 'tried' but wasn't successful at (which happens a lot) writing about these failures and why I think they happened can be a real drag. Its almost like preparing a defence in a court case.

On the other hand when I design something that I know is great, the writing FLOWS. Its like someone saying - "here take this pen and paper and write down all the reasons why you think you are so cool" ... :P

Incidentally what are you working on?

Cheers
Kais

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

Kais,
thanks! :-) it's nice to hear from comisserators, always. :)
i'm a molecular biologist, trying to understand how a particular parasite works, - how it lives, and how it causes disease. it's cool, when you think about how a measly little one-celled organism can trick the human so effectively. :)

it's true- writing about things that "failed" can be even harder- to write, and to publish- although they can be significant results in themselves....although in this particular case i had strong correlations..my biggest problem, i think, was getting motivated about a very old project. and that's a very important lesson i learnt. to write things up as soon as you find them, and not sit on results for years.

what do you work on?

greensatya said...

damn this busy week(not related to work). I will come back later and comment. I love 'rant' post.

Sirius Black said...

Besta luck for ur thesis , by readin this i can imagine how much of a pain it really is.
hope it goes well :)

Janefield said...

go! Go! GO, TGIF! You're almost there! Rant it out and write it out. Enjoyed this rant thoroughly, hope you complete the thesis soon, good luck :-)

Kais said...

Molecular biology...wow...I bet takes some serious brain-power. I liked biology but had to give it up because of the long latin(?) words for everything. I could never spell them straight! :/

I work in electronics - chip design. Not as complicated I'm sure, but still fun. Plus I get to create mini explosions once in a while, which are their own reward :P

Cheers
Kais

I am off blogger said...

Read the whole post, but i seem to have lost any ispiration what-so-ever left for writing either as comments or blog-posts...But still wanted to say something after so many days....dunno when (if ever)I will return to my blog.

The Girl Who Sold The World said...

Hahahahahahaha *points and laughs*. Hahahahahaha.
Poor, poor you...here I am, enjoying my summer vacation and poor you...working...muhahahahaha. I've not even started college...and my thesis writing agony is EONS away. Muhahahahaha.
Thenga! :P

Andy E. said...

Found my way here from gemini's blog, after reading your recent comment, and after reading this post, I'm kinda glad I did. That's probably the longest post I've read about a writer's block :)

Having been through the same process, but to a lesser extent (I bailed out after a masters), I thought I'd share some things I learned that might help you. The two biggest problems I faced when writing for a paper or a thesis were -

a. The idea of using five pages or a hundred and five to express something that I had long been referring to in a one-liner with my advisor.
b. The gigantic nature of the task itself.

I quickly figured out the way to combat (b), by keeping a journal. I'd been very idealistically thinking about it and had been putting it off until my advisor started to get very busy and I had to find ways to make the most of short meetings. So I started mailing him weekly reports the evening before, which he read right before the meeting and focussed on his criticism or suggestions rather than talking about progress (which the report did for me). I found that I spent less time writing the reports if I wrote down my day's progress in a journal (a bunch of text/Word files). I started to enjoy the journal-ing because it usually marked the end of my day and while typing out what I'd done that day, I'd usually catch something stupid I may have been doing and ensured I didn't waste more than a day doing it. I would typically be very comprehensive in these notes and so when the time came to write a paper, I could usually just copy and paste stuff into one document and edit and format. My 'writing' therefore was devoid of any writer's block (except when I tried to write an introduction, but that was manageable) because it wasn't a gigantic monolith. I'd recommend this very strongly for your future work, though it doesn't have to be a daily thing. I've used an event-driven approach on other projects where I noted down progress as it happened as opposed to doing it every day.

The other problem is essentially one of context. While you're friends are right that you need to be objective about it, by definition, you cannot. The best approach there is to get people to read what you've written, however brief it may be. I found, for this reason, that writing my thesis was much easier because I had two other professors who didn't have a very detailed understanding of the history of my work and so when they read the drafts, they would tell me if I've established context well enough or not. Alternatively, talk to people about your work. After a point in time, you would've explained your research so many times to people who haven't a clue that when you sit down to write something, the "background" section usually just rolls off your tongue. This can be your excuse to go out and be social when you feel you should be writing :)

My best approach to a writer's block (which worked much better for scientific writing that abstract blog-posting for some reason) was to just start writing without evaluating what you're writing. Most times, you write a crappy first paragraph or a even a crappy second one. At some point the writing picks up and you really get into it. (Of course, sometimes it doesn't and the best thing to do then is walk away and come back). Then after you're done writing whatever it is that you wanted, you go back and correct the first couple of paragraphs.

That's all for today's class, kids. Next week, we'll talk about how rude it is to leave post-sized comments on someone else's blog.

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

satya,
non-work busy week? watcha upto??? ;) take your time, take your time..

sirius black,
thanks buddy. i need all the luck.

t.c.o,
:) thanks ma'am. yes i'm _almost_ there. i just wanna get THERE!

kais,
chip-design sounds equally wow to me. :) the explosions must be fun, no? i get my thrills just from working with a needle and not jabbing myself with a good dose of the parasites.

SUMIT!!! ouch! i hope it was not my post that destroyed your inspiration for writing! ;)
jokes apart, where the hell have you been????? yeh bhi koi tareeka hai??? it's uncanny, how i was thinking about how long it is since you came here- and your comment has finally graced this space. tera draama chod abhi and please put up a post. what did you during your "break" from blogspot and the www?

tgwstw,
my dear girl. mere bhi din aayenge. when you're finally struggling with your first paper, i will be soaking up the sun in Koh samui. yeah!!

andy. e.
dude? what was that? trying to mock the length of my post by leaving an even longer comment????

:-) but seriously, thanks a lot. i read through your tips twice already, and the one about keeping a journal makes a lot of sense. it was an idealistic idea i had too, but never implemented. but i see how it'd do wonders now if i did. thanks so much for the reinforcement.

as for that "objective writing" bit. i'll have to try your methods. i haven't yet gotten the hang of it. in this case, only brute force helped. i also don't know that many people who'll read my stuff with so much attention,& that'd require me having it ready early on, and not in the last minute. hmm..that, is another story. but i think i should seriously consider it.

thanks again, andy.

now, if you will all excuse me, i have some fascinating proof-reading to do. :p

sharda said...

It was long indeed ,though interesting.As many people feel in the same situation at times as you do now.

qsg said...

Glad to read about your thesis on writing. So it is calligraphy or creative writing. Great read! :)
Amazing how you humanize writing. Beautiful!
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Nahin re, I read it...just giving you a hard time. I have never done a PHd or a thesis, so cannot really empathize with you. But, I have done a lot of work on presenting papers, power point presentations etc etc etc.... :)

I am off blogger said...

Arey nai aapki post to aaj hi padhi hai, and i was visiting all my relatives during my break. And contrary to what i expected, i had good access to net even in remote farmhouses, thanx to GPRS connection by AIRTEL, my friend who lend me his Nokia 3230 and Opera Mini......and the best part, i didnt have to pay anything more than my usual plan even while roaming!!
Apart from that, due to some unknown reasons, i am feeling a bt low these days, and have lost all taste for writing (tho feel like i am getting it back while writing this comment :)) nothing serious has happened but i am extremely bored these days holidays hain, and i am not doing any training/course/project etc. aur abhi kuchh padhne ka bhi mann nai kar raha, though i wanna start something new but dunno why i am hesitating and also, i had few false hopes which are having their toll.....my Orkut reads "Thats it....I give up" and few days back it was "I cant take it anymore"....i know they dont sound very nice, but many times this type of self-loathing has helped me in past,and i am hoping same again....

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

hi sharda! yes, it makes me feel better to know that others suffer like this. :)

qsg,
your comment evoked some really unlady-like language from me, here. tsk tsk.
:)

OYE sumit,
first of all, it's so nice to have you back. welcome back! :) so you didn't really get a break from the wired world, then, altho i suppose it was wireless, but.. u know what i mean...
well, sometimes moping is good, and sometimes taking a break and doing NOTHING is good too. so i hope you spring back into action soon. you owe me a post, man. itna jo mere peeche pada, update karne ko.

The Smiling Girl said...

Hey Bhagwan.. main ek din kya net pe nahi aayi.. tum itna bada post likh di?:)... good good..
Now I shall go back and read! *Realisation dawns on the Smiling Girl regarding Ipanema Girl\'s comment on her blog!*

I know the woes of writing.. when one of my best friends was about to submit his thesis.. he literally drove me wild. Everytime he would call me, he would talk about that.. the worst part was that he started talking about it exactly one year before he had to submit his thesis!:)

But I love transition in the thought-process (After all, Smiling Girl has to return the compliment!:)) while starting the writing , through the writing, making changes to the draft, thinking about the paper, and finally completing the paper..

[I particularly liked this - You hate the eff-ing paper. Nice to see that somebody talks like me - Effing...:)]

*Silently smiles and acknowledges the Congrats!*

And buddy... wish you all the best with the rest of the formatting thingy.. As you know and said, its all a passing phase.. Thinking of the joy it will get to you when it gets published makes me all the more excited.. I know you are going to write a longer post than this when that happens, right? *Secretly decides to write longer posts so that she can compete with Ipanema Girl*

And keep ranting and cribbing.. as it goes out of your system, you will see that cleaner thoughts pass in.. (*Thinks in shock that Paulo Coelho\'s ghost has possessed her*)

Venky said...

hey lots of ppl have beat me to it :( they have given u tips, advices, their best wishes and of course their congratulation. But anyways here you go..a toast, to the best ever doctorate thesis your university has seen and to a even better blogger who can put her thoughts into setences that actually makes sense..way to go gal!!!

But yes the article was loooonggg

ps: btw what is molecular biology? :)) --> Imagine a straight faced innocent Moose type (the one from Archies comics) look on my face

Andy E. said...

Glad you found my ramblings useful. For prospective reviewers, I'd suggest non-advisor professors or post-docs, fellow grad students (with an understanding that you'll help them too when they need it), or in the worst case, grad students from the dept. of English (they come with a nominal price-tag though).

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

s.g,
:) i dare not reply to all the points you made in your comment. :) but yeah, this post was a build-up of months of frustration and it was so nice to get it out.

venky,
gee, thanks. :) if only everyone thought like you.
and you're saying this post is long, i'd have to write a book to explain molecular biology to you...;)

andy e,
i almost forgot. so somewhere during this saga, i involved a post-doc in the reviewing process. problem was, the stylistic difference was huge between my advisor and the p.d. and i was too naiive to differentiate. so when i accepted most of the changes the p.d made, my advisor rejected them all. then microsoft word could not handle tracking two different people's corrections. i do think, tho, i will be in a better position to discern corrections i get next time round.

qsg said...

:) I know the feeling - in biz school we had to do a communications class, and the professor was this really crazy person - she loved the color red - and smeared your whole paper with it!!!!
She kept making "take decision" redder and darker with each paper - I still didn't get it, or maybe I was rebelling - I have no idea... - but it truly frustrated her!

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

:-) "Take decision" ??
haha your prof and my prof must've been langoti yaaren.

greensatya said...

I read it now. This post is so original and that makes it so good. I have not done PhD but stil I can relate to it.

Whenever I see someone doing PhD,I really admire their perseverance, their will power and the industrious attitude. Not many do get a chance to do it though.

I guess by now your work must have progressed further. The sweet success of your hard work must be something to savour.

Wish you many such successes!!

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

hey satya!
heeheh, i see you're trying to make a point here, about how long the post is ;)

thanks..i guess it's original- in that, nobody had such a hard time writing their paper as i did, and nobody wrote such a long post about it ;)

thank-you for your comment & wishes. very motivating. yes, made lots of progress since then, i think the vent session really helped. :)

liddlekogis said...

OHH GAAWWDD. I have to write my senior honors thesis, and it sucks big time. At least you people in the sciences can entertain fragments of the possibility that your research will have some meaning: any at all. I'm studying literature and I'm convinced that this whole literary criticism academia research is all BS. It's all totally pointless. Thus, I have decided to not go to grad school. I'm glad my stupid honors thesis is showing me that. And I don't have a great relationship with my teachers either, because this is how I was initiated into the departmental honors program: the director called me, said that my writing wasn't "as sophisticated" as the other candidates, and that the committee didn't think that I would be able to handle the research, but if I "still wanted to join, they would let me." At that point I was still considering grad school so I humbly said yes. Next thing the committee director goes and says to my advisor that they were unsure about me and that I should be kept an eye on. This advisor, in the recent past, had had a student who didn't finish the full honors curriculum and barely made the honors with a B. So now the advisor is always abrasive, requires drafts all the time, and interrogates me constantly on whether I am serious about this topic or that. Gosssshhhhhhhh. CANNOT WAIT to graduate. I'm not sure if I'll ever read or even like Shakespeare after I'm done. RESEARCH IS EVIL!

Anonymous said...

Hi

I have been doing my Phd for the past 6 years. Due to the huge demand for professors in my field I happen to get a visiting faculty position in my 5th year.
I hate writing. It is my biggest fear. It is taking me forever to write my thesis. I feel exactly the same way you do.
My family is so tired of me trying to get done. But they still want me to get done. They are forever asking me when I am going to get done. They are very supportive and do everything for me.
I feel very bad that I am not trying hard enough to finish up. I hate it so much that I don't want to do it any more and I do everything else to avoid writing.
I hate myself for making everyones life miserable.
I just have a bachelor degree. If I give up now I don't even get a masters. All I am left with is a bachelor degree after six years of feeling miserable.
Please help...

the_Girl_From_ipanema said...

hi anonymous.
trust me , i went through the exact same motions. fearing the thesis. hating myself for being so slow with it. feeling guilty with regards to my family because they were also patient and supportive.

i also went through the avoiding it and all the self-loathing.

but i finally made it! and you will too. you've got to stop thinking that you have a choice, though, because you don't.

set up small easy targets, and get someone (preferably a not so close friend) To bug you about them. like tell them every day how many pages you plan to write and ask them to call and bug you every few hours. that really helped me.

small easy do-able goals, and STOP beating yourself up. believe me , MOST phd candidates go through this procrastination and avoiding it. so take comfort in that, but get going because the more you avoid it the more hard it gets.

if you need more help/support/just wish to vent, email me @ trillian26@gmail.com. i actually found someone via this blog who kept bugging me and egging me on to finish.

best of luck!

Anonymous said...

Hi the_Girl_From_ipanema,

Thanks soo much for getting back to me.

I will set small goals and try to get it done.

I plan on playing racquet ball today..This kinda helps me with the stress.

Thanks for your help.