A couple of weekends ago I found myself helping Thesis Whisperer Jnr, aged nine and a half, with his first real ‘essay’ for school.
I was been looking forward to this moment because, to be frank, I’ve been pretty useless as a homework helper. I have long since forgotten all my long division and have only the vaguest grip on biology. Since I supervise PhD students for a living I was calmly confident that I could be a primary school writing tutor in my sleep.
It took us nearly 6 hours to write around 500 words and by the end of it we were screaming at each other. Mr Thesis Whisperer even had to step in and break up the fight with some stern words (“Listen to your mother son – she has a PhD”).
We fought because we had fundamentally opposing positions on how writing should be done. Thesis Whisperer Jnr objected strongly to changing anything once it was written. While he wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible, I wanted to linger over the details. For me the first draft is just a starting point for further work. This episode made me think about how difficult it is to learn how to be edited (and that primary school teachers have a much harder job than I do!).
I have come to view the big red editing pen as a tool of kindness. For this reason I am equally brutal with the red pen when I am asked to edit other people’s work. Thesis Whisperer Jnr could not cope with this approach and he is not alone. People often react with shock to my editing style; perhaps because I am generally mild mannered in person and my vicious red pen seems out of character.
I understand how they feel. While I mostly enjoy the process of editing my own work, I still find it painful at times. Losing words you have carefully crafted hurts and I still have trouble accepting uncomplimentary peer reviews. Although I recognise the value of letting other people into my work, at some primitive level I just resent being criticised. But I have learned to swallow my pride and accept it (or at least fake a good natured acceptance, while continuing to seethe inside).
There is a strong emotional side to writing and I think Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stage model of grief is a good way to think about it. Kubler Ross interviewed people who were dealing with a terminal illness in order to better understand the (Western) culture around death. Her five stages of grief describes the process of dealing with death and dying: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally, Acceptance. These feelings are not necessarily sequential – it doesn’t always follow that you will get to acceptance straight after depression. This is especially true when you apply this concept to writing; you may jump around these feelings, or even be in two states at the same time.
Denial is a trap that is easy to fall into. It can be emotionally easier to stay in Denial about the quality of our writing rather than work to improve it. Part of this is a fear of criticism, which can manifest in resistance to showing your work to others before it is ‘perfect’. Writing is part of the way we express ourselves; criticism of our writing ability is often taken to be criticism about our thinking ability.
Anger is a common emotion to this perceived criticism of the self. Facing up to feelings of failure or inadequacy is confronting, especially when we are adults. Sometimes Anger is directed at ourselves because, in retrospect, writing those lost words seems like a waste of time. Occasionally the Anger is directed at others, like the anonymous peer reviewer, or your supervisor.
It can be particularly galling to be asked to take something out of your thesis which the supervisor suggested should be there in the first place. When you are Angry it is easy to see this kind of supervisor behaviour as capricious. It takes an effort of will to put yourself in their place and realise that they can’t always predict if something is a good idea until they see it on paper.
When the Anger cools off we may slip into Bargaining in the vain hope of avoiding making changes. Sometimes supervision meetings can turn into unproductive bargaining sessions, especially when student and supervisor disagree. My PhD supervisor realised early on that a chapter I had planned was just not going to be feasible and told me so. It took me a year or so to accept this and I wasted meeting time trying to convince him that he was wrong.
In my experience the idea of losing words is often more Depressing than the reality. When I have bitten the bullet and done a good hard edit I usually feel a sense of accomplishment, but contemplating that task can induce lethargy and procrastination. This is where you just have to harden up and, as Stephen King once said:
“… kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings”
Ultimately I think we need to work towards inhabiting Kubler Ross’s final stage – Acceptance. Acceptance is when you stop caring about your writer’s ego as much and can be more open to suggested changes. When you have managed to internalise this state of mind you can critically evaluate any suggestions for improvement on their own merit, not merely react to them emotionally.
So next time I have to help Thesis Whisperer with an essay I am going to try to have more patience. At 40 I am still striving to conquer the feelings aroused by the editing process and I suspect that it might take me a lifetime to do it with grace.
How about you – have you suffered any of these feelings? Are there any strategies you would like to share?