Writing Your First (or next) Paper: Part III

on 13th of August, 2010 in Writing, Publishing & Presenting
About the Author:
I earned my PhD in Biochemistry from Duke University, then did a postdoc at the University of California at Davis. I am now the Scientific Illustration Manager at American Journal Experts, where I continue to pursue my interests in visual communication of science and developing my ability to make data pretty.

This is part three of a four part series on writing your first paper. For the first part in the series, click here, for the second part, click here.

Once you have written the first draft and handed it off to your mentor, the editing process begins. Depending on the personalities involved, this could be a very difficult time in the relationship between you and your mentor. Here are the perspectives (perhaps mantras?) that I try to maintain during the process.

It isn’t just your paper
After spending a lot of time working on the experiments, presenting lab meetings, and maybe even presenting a poster or giving a talk, you have come to think of the project as yours. It’s understandable, and perhaps even necessary to maintain the level of dedication required to bring many projects to fruition. With the edits of the first draft can come a hard truth – it isn’t just your paper. Your mentor thinks it is also, or even primarily, his or her paper. This isn’t an entirely unreasonable perspective, since in all likelihood the rest of your field will actually refer to the paper as “the new one out of Dr. Bigshot’s lab,” and your mentor will be held far more accountable for what is said and how it’s said than you will. Therefore, your mentor may have some very strong opinions on the exact wording of the manuscript.

Don’t take it personally
Everybody has their own way of saying something, and if your mentor has crossed your way out and written his or her way in, don’t take it as a personal criticism. It may well be that your phrasing was just fine, and they aren’t necessarily correcting what you wrote, but rather putting their own stamp on the manuscript. In this process you will discover that they have words they love to use, and words they hate to use. Over time, you’ll likely discover that you have similar lists of words.

In the last article in this series, I warned against spending a large amount of time and effort to fine tune a difficult passage in the first draft of a manuscript. Not only should you not do this because of time and effort considerations, but because spending that amount of time and effort makes you more invested in those areas of the manuscript. This makes changes or deletions of these sections much more frustrating to deal with.

In terms of a learning experience, one of the most difficult aspects of the editing process can be separating the changes due to stylistic differences from the changes made in the name of a more universal truth. Stylistic differences are just a matter of personal choice, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, while the later changes are things you can learn from and use in the future. The easiest way to tell the difference is to go over the edits with your mentor. They will have a definitive reasons for the changes that you should probably learn something from while you’ll hear things like “I thought this sounded better” or “I just don’t care for that word” for the edits that come down to stylistic issues.

Sometimes things change
The line-editing isn’t necessarily the most frustrating element in the editing cycles. A number of times I’ve seen mentors get a manuscript full of experiments that they’ve seen over and over again, incorporated into a narrative that the student has discussed with them (and hopefully they approved of at the outline stage), and it wasn’t until they saw the whole package put together that they realized that they didn’t like the story. This can results in a major re-structuring of the manuscript, changing everything from the title on down. Sometimes it also means re-doing experiments to address subtly different questions than the original experiments addressed or including totally new experiments.

This can leave you with the feeling that a contract has been broken, and is usually expressed with sentences that begin “But you said that…” It undermines your confidence that the next version of the manuscript will be acceptable, as though you are trying to hit a moving target. I mean, you did everything they said to do with the first draft, and that wasn’t good enough, so why should you believe that doing what they say now will be acceptable either?

Now, I believe that this particular scenario happens less often with good mentors, who are engaged with their students and actively thinking about their projects long before it’s time to write the paper. But even with really good mentors, you have to realize that sometimes things change. Sometimes when everything is packaged together, you realize that you need one more experiment to prove the model you’ve put at the end of the paper. Or, after talking to a colleague at a meeting, your mentor thinks that the field would be more receptive to a closely related, but slightly different focus of the paper. There never was a contract between you and your mentor that said “I will do these ten experiments, and you must publish them without asking for any more.” Try to keep an open mind and see how the new requests will make the manuscript better.

You and your mentor are on the same side
In these situations, it’s critical to try to maintain a healthy perspective, like the one above. My own rule is to look at each change that’s made and ask “Is the new version incorrect or misleading in any way?” If the answer is no, then accept it. If it’s yes, then set it aside and discuss your concern with your mentor. Take big deep breaths when you need to, and set time aside in your schedule to do relaxing activities if things start getting under your skin. Look for the humor in the fact that in the second round of editing, your mentor is quite likely to re-edit their own work from the first round.

And remember each round of edits gets you closer to publishing your first paper, and each paper gets you closer to graduating.

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