Tag Archives: writing

Respect (and honor) your process

Tonight I was conversing with one of my clients who’s finally found her way through the tunnel she was in when we first started. As I told her, to be perfectly honest, if it had not been for what I know about the psychology of writing and learning to write (after decades of working with people at various levels of skill), I would have responded to her first drafts with something like “Who let you into graduate school?” Her work appeared to be about the level of a first year student in need of remedial instruction. And it would have been easy to dismiss the job and say “sorry, I don’t think you are cut out for this.” As, apparently, other faculty have implied. But I knew there had to be something deeper going on. You don’t get to that point in graduate school without being smart.

And then there was the topic of her dissertation, about what African American women students have to deal with, particularly the isolation, and being bombarded with cultural images telling them that they will never have what it takes.

I knew something deep was going on here, and we had to track it down and work through it.

And we have. Much of it has to do with the process she must go through in order to learn the material and apply it. This is very much like the process I had to go through with my then undiagnosed ADHD, where it took me forever to do the same work other classmates did in no time. (Though, to be quite honest, their end result often was nowhere near as good as mine, as reflected in my receiving my department’s award for Outstanding Doctoral Student in Research.)

She said she felt embarrassed about the work she had submitted earlier. I said, no! Don’t be embarrassed about it.  Don’t let yourself get bogged down in that self-criticism. Respect and honor your process. Clearly there are some people who will not understand, and from them you need to hide your process. But don’t let their lack of understanding give you something to beat yourself up over.

That’s how you work your way into another block.

Equally important, I saw how she was bound up in the very same conditions about which she was writing, in the same way that another client of mine who is facing blank page panic. Both of them must deal with not only all the conditions that lead the rest of us to have that panic; they must also deal with the cultural images telling them that they as black women aren’t cut out for academia.

All the more reason to respect and honor the process. This is how you get where you need to go.


Silencing the critical voices

All of us at one time or another have had to confront “blank page panic.” There are many reasons for that panic, but the #1 reason is that the voices of all those critics who have torn apart our work are blasting in our ears, making it impossible to hear our own voices.

I have two clients right now whose various advisers and committee people have responded to their submitted chapters with criticism that, however polite, however much phrased in the language of “nice,” has made the authors feel as if their committees believe, deep down, that they are grossly incompetent. Surely they must be thinking, “How in the world did we allow this student into our program? She’s clearly not cut out for it!”

Whether or not the committee members are ACTUALLY thinking that is irrelevant, particularly (but not only) for minority students, because for so much of their lives they have been told that they will never measure up, that they will never be good enough no matter how hard they work, because they were born into the world as second-class human beings.

White (majority) students do also encounter that deep and abiding sense that they are somehow frauds, and when their work is being criticized harshly it must be because their true incompetence has been revealed. Every one of us at one time or another had that nightmare where our degrees get stripped from us, or we are told our admission to graduate school was a mistake.

Women also are particularly susceptible to feeling inadequate or having low self-esteem and minimal self-confidence. We’ve been bombarded with messages from every which direction telling us that we will never be good enough, and especially, we will never be SMART enough to be anything more than second in ability or accomplishments. And these feelings stick with us, often, no matter how many accomplishments we have listed in our CV’s.

Men (or at least, white men) don’t understand this. My graduate/thesis adviser (both the same person) told me several years after I started the doctoral program at Iowa that the department determined that it would give me its award for outstanding doctoral student in research after my first semester there. But they didn’t tell me how highly they regarded my work for fear I would get a “big head.” I did eventually receive the award, but I can guarantee that the danger of getting a “big head” was never there! Throughout the entire program I struggled with self-confidence. I sorely needed reassurances and support.

Minority students, especially female minority students, are hit even harder — a double, even triple whammy of cultural forces telling them that they are no good and never will measure up to the best.

So when you are sitting down and facing that blank page, all those voices of criticism come back to you, telling you that the “fraud” you’ve been perpetrating all this time is now being revealed, so you might as well give up. They become a wild chorus, rising in number and volume, to the point that your OWN voice becomes a whisper, or is silenced altogether.

Here are three strategies to counteract that deafening crescendo:

1. Utilize whatever means you have developed to help you relax. Do deep breathing exercises. Listen to soft music. Take a hot bath if need be (assuming it won’t put you to sleep!).

2. Break your tasks down to manageable chunks. I have a “five minute rule” for most of the tasks that I avoid. That is, I know I can do anything for five minutes. After five minutes I can go do something else. Usually after I get started on something that way, I want to keep going.  But even if I don’t, I will have at least accomplished that five minutes worth of work. And it’s amazing what one can get done in five minutes!

With writing, five minutes won’t get you very far. So instead of five minutes, maybe you can say you will write five paragraphs — some small enough quantity that you no longer feel overwhelmed with all that you must get done. The trick is to psych yourself out by breaking your project down into small, do-able chunks.

3. Substitute MY voice (or the voices of members of a support group) for the voices of your critics. Although I am very demanding in my expectations for quality writing, whatever critique I offer has the sole purpose of helping you to succeed. Your success is my success. I’m not there to weed you out of the game. I’m there to help make sure you win it. You are not alone. I’m on the sidelines, cheering you on.

4. Join a writing support group. As of this date, there are five spaces left in “A Room of Our Own.”  Substitute the supportive voices of your friends for the vicious, harsh voices of your academic critics.

A Room of Our Own — new writing support weblog

I created a shared weblog titled “A Room of Our Own” in order to help my clients stay on track with their academic writing by getting support from others struggling with the same difficulties. Clients are encouraged to share their troubles and their triumphs as they negotiate their way through the academic maze, which sometimes seems designed to frustrate and destroy hopes and dreams.

This blog is private. That is, whatever is shared here can be read only by the administrator, Georgia NeSmith (sole proprietor of Matrix Editorial Services) and other participating authors. Authors are invited individually and personally. Additional viewers may be invited with the permission of other participants. Viewers may comment on posts but may not create posts.

Because it is private, I cannot post a link here. Anyone who wishes to participate (it is open to non-clients as well) may go to my contact page here and select the writing support group radio button. Tell more about yourself in the description box.

Participation is limited to 15. Subscription fees are as follows:

Every client of Matrix Editorial Services is invited to participate in “A Room of Our Own” as an author free of charge for six months or until graduation, whichever comes first. Authors are allowed to create their own posts, categories, and tags.

After six months (or after graduation) you may continue to participate for a subscription fee of $15 per month until graduation or an additional six months, whichever comes first.

In addition, writers who do not require editorial services but want the benefits of a writing support group may join for free for three months, after which they must pay a fee of $25 per month if they wish to continue.

Currently the site is “bare bones” but eventually many resources will be added, and the site will be organized to ensure participants can easily track categories of information relevant to them.

If you wish to participate please

My commitment to supporting minority achievement

One of my current clients is working on a dissertation about academically successful black women, and what it takes for them to survive and succeed in academia. Among the issues she raises is the isolation that black women feel — the sense that they are out there, alone, struggling against internalized critics spouting racist denigrations of their character and ability, and having those voices reified in comments made by cohorts, faculty and administrators, albeit  often in unconscious ways.

These internalized critics can have a profound impact on the student’s ability to write. Much of good writing boils down to confidence in yourself. Without that confidence, getting the words out is extraordinarily painful. And terrifying. That critic within — the combined voices of all those committee members clearly horrified with your “obvious” shortcomings — stands over you as your worst enemy, ax in hand, ready to cut your head off if you don’t produce, and the words just won’t come. Or when they do, they are squeezed into incoherent, turgid, upside-down, inside-out sentences and paragraphs — making it appear as if you are so lacking in intelligence and skill that faculty wonder (behind your back) how you ever got admitted to graduate school in the first place. They may privately shrug their shoulders and believe you made it in solely because of affirmative action, unable to say what they really think because, well, there are all those pesky lawsuits just waiting to be filed, and they fear being named.

And then there are those who want to help, but don’t have the slightest clue how.

Beneath it all, however, there is this: without an advocate, without someone believing in you, without someone recognizing the psychology behind your frozen writing, you are at sea in a world that doesn’t understand, that cannot see the value of your contribution. You are caught up in a sticky, unrelenting web, and every effort to find your way out just binds you tighter.

There is a way out. I am more than an editor: I am a coach. I am that advocate. With me, your success is my success. I feel deep satisfaction as you work your way around and over and hurdles placed in front of you. I “walk the walk” right along side you, cheering you on, helping you find your way, filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle that somehow never made it into your preparation for academic work. And when the breakthroughs happen, I’m jumping for joy.

What do (journal) editors want?

Thought this article would be of particular interest to my clients and potential clients. From the Chicago Manual of Style monthly newsletter, Shop Talk:

Shop Talk

Authors Philippa Benson and Susan Silver offer a guiding light in the academic publishing process

Image For many authors of academic papers, the specific rules of Chicago style may be some of the only straightforward guidance they get during a perplexing publishing process. Papers seem to disappear into a submission system only to mysteriously reappear with a decision. What is it that journal editors are really looking for? Authors Philippa J. Benson and Susan C. Silver decided it was time to pull back the curtain and demystify the process. While their work looks primarily at scientific publishing, their advice will ring true for anyone hoping for an “accepted” in their decision letter.
(Click title to link to the article.)

The joys of being an editor

Today I am in awe of the performance of one of my clients whose revision of her final dissertation chapter is such a vast improvement over her original that it brings tears to my eyes.

It is often all too easy for editors to become utterly frustrated with fixing all the little things that are wrong, and to lose sight of the big picture.

If  someone has been admitted to a graduate school and has reached the point of writing that dissertation, clearly that person has the capacity to perform well. Early versions of the dissertation may hide that capacity underneath the students’ struggle to find her own authority and personal voice, especially when the text contains a significant number of minor errors.

The editor’s job is to look past all those little frustrating things to help the client find the diamond in the rough, waiting for the right chisel and vision of possibility. Once that happens, everything else falls into place. The empowered voice takes over and suddenly the student’s contribution to scholarship becomes clear.

Of course, the pleasure I derive from seeing that happen is the same joy I always felt when I was a teacher and a student made substantial progress in any of my courses. There’s nothing like it!

Writing the Introduction

As I continue working with new clients I am discovering a great deal of common ground: graduate schools appear to do very little to help prepare their students for the rigors of academic writing.

The first draft of most dissertations seems to be very similar: the student is trying to demonstrate competence in all the major literature in any way remotely connected to his or her study. This is not only unnecessary, it is annoying for the average reader.

The Introduction or introductory chapter is often rambling and extensive, leaving the reader who is interested in the actual subject of the research feeling very frustrated. Get to the point! one wants to shout. The literature review and methods sections continue in the same vein.

This is perhaps most characteristic of the qualitative study. Unlike quantitative studies, which have very specific expectations for how one is to proceed, qualitative studies have no predetermined methodology or research design. Often, especially in certain fields for which qualitative studies have only begun to be accepted, there is still the need to JUSTIFY doing qualitative instead of quantitative research. And very often one needs to review and integrate large bodies of literature from outside the field, literature unfamiliar to many readers WITHIN the field. All too often that leads the writer to spend way too much time covering that literature before you get to your actual study. There are huge bodies of potentially relevant literature, and it is difficult to distinguish among literature that

  • 1) sets up the background for the study,
  • 2) provides the theoretical framework that
  •        a) justifies taking a qualitative approach,
  •        b) defines the acceptable parameters for the study, and
  •        c) enables interpretation of the data.

I find that  good deal of the material presented in first chapters is “front-loaded” — i.e., it more properly belongs to the literature review or methodology sections, or even the study section where the researcher explicates what is perceived to be occurring in the data.

The introduction to a dissertation must do the following, and the following ALONE:

  1. It identifies, locates, and justifies your study within your field. It demonstrates that your study attends to something entirely new, never examined before in the field.
  2. It states the specific problem that your study is to address, a problem not heretofore addressed by previous studies
  3. It states the research questions to be addressed by your specific study
  4.  It states the methods to be used
  5. And finally, it outlines the chapters to come.

The introduction answers the following questions:

  • What is the problem? Why do I study this issue? Why should it be solved?
  • Who will benefit the most from this piece of writing? What is the contribution?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What are my methods?
  • What can the reader expect in the subsequent chapters?

Except for an overview of the literature that needed to demonstrate that the study at hand is unique and adds important NEW understanding to the existing literature, the major literature reviews are saved for the literature review and/or to the methodology sections.

The introductory chapter of a dissertation is much like that first paragraph in the old “five paragraph theme”: essentially, you tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em. The big difference is that you must also demonstrate that the study about to be read is unique and makes a major contribution to the field in which it is located. .

I will discuss the literature review and the methodology sections in separate posts.