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! :)