The dreaded red

May 27 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

By the time I was a postdoc I felt as though I had developed my writing skills to the point that I knew what I was doing. I had written several papers and a thesis, and even though those were heavily edited by my PhD supervisor, I had learned a lot about my own style and writing.

It only took a single draft of my first paper as a postdoc to have that little illusion shredded. In less than 24 hours after handing what I thought was a solid draft of a manuscript to my PI, I got it back drenched in red. The carnage was horrific. I think a new Masters student had to leave the room to throw up. My first reaction was to wonder if I had inadvertently handed in an early copy, but alas, it was the new version. So, I sat down and picked through the remains.

Much of the damage was stylistic (though both excellent writers, my PhD and postdoc PIs have very different styles), but it forced me to think hard about my audience, the best way to communicate the message and finding my own style to accomplish the goal. I fixed it up and turned it around.

24 hours later*, another blood bath.

WTF? I thought I dealt with all the issues that came up from the first draft?

But the paper was changing, and with it, so was the "pitch". The subtle and not so subtle refinements along the way were absolutely critical in revealing the message and making it stick out over the layer of data below. This might have been the most useful skill (of many) that I learned as a postdoc - effective writing that goes beyond "getting the story out there" and gets into the realm of making people want to read it.

I haven't mastered this yet, but my postdoc set me in the right direction. It amuses me now to see the reaction I get from my own trainees when I had back drafts of their manuscripts. In the end, however, I think they appreciate the effort I'm putting in to both their drafts and to pushing them to be better writers. It's a craft we all need to hone at every opportunity, because most of the people that ever come across your work will do so in its written form.

*Yes, my postdoc supervisor was a fucking machine and dealing with text and getting things turned around.

10 responses so far

  • Zeeba says:

    As a graduate student my advisor would just hand back
    drafts, say the sucked, and tell me to re-write. No direction, no
    comments, no editing... it was like trying to find the light switch
    in a dark room I had never been in before. The best I got from him
    was to read some papers in our field and do what they did. WTF? I
    like to read novels too, that doesn't mean I know how to write one!
    My post-doc advisor hands back things to me dripping in red and I
    love him for it. LOVE! I am becoming such a better writer because
    of it. He often explains why he is editing something a certain way
    in the comments which is super helpful. So yeah, I love the red,
    and am very grateful for it.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    There is a good bit of literature suggesting that corrections should not be in red, because red conveys a subliminal message that the editor is angry. I've known about this for maybe 30 years, and am surprised when young sprouts are unaware. Did you ever wonder why there is a tradition of editors blue-penciling manuscripts?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm aware of the aversion to red, but in reality most of what we do now is track changes (except for early drafts that I like to do in hard copy). Since I talk through the edits with my peeps, I'm not too worried about them thinking I'm angry.

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    Luckily, my PhD supervisor was just like that. I say luckily because getting red carnage means that they care. At first I took it personally, but I have come to appreciate that if someone puts that much red ink on the page, they probably care about the work and by extension me/you.

  • I agree with Zeeba, bring on the red! I do like some kinds of red more than others. The best comments on early drafts are the ones that help me notice when a section is unnecessary, the presentation is bad, the thinking is wrong, I've omitted important literature, etc... Less helpful is getting early drafts marked with comments on sentence structure, word usage, and typos. I know the problems are there and they'll get fixed when I read my own drafts.

  • Karen says:

    I have an MS thesis advisor who cares, and I really appreciate it; he's quite capable of telling me that a manuscript covered in blue ink is "good, it just needs a little tweaking". I took some classes from him, and he was a great teacher, too, always giving lots of good feedback on anything turned in. I recently asked him how many blue pens he goes through in a semester. He just said, "lots."

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    Regarding "track changes" I think it's a terrible idea. As a student, I think it's too easy to accept all without really understanding what the issues were with the writing in the first place.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I do hard copy edits on everything until the finalish drafts.

  • George D. Gopen's "Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Readers Perspective". If you can't take what he teaches, and put together a decent manuscript based on his recommendations ... you have no business writing manuscripts.

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