This is a guest post from Carly Ziter – liberally red-penned by Steve, who couldn’t agree more!
As a PhD student, I’d often arrive at my office (characteristically, late in the morning) to find a marked up manuscript waiting on my desk chair. My advisor preferred to comment in hard copy, you see. The comments were typically in bright red ink, often plentiful (and then some!), and included comments in shorthand – a lost art to me and to my millennial lab-mates.
As grad students do, we shared stories (and a few laughs, and a few complaints) about these comments over the years. One unnamed lab-mate had trouble reading the cursive – now becoming another lost art – and only admitted 4 years into their PhD that they’d secretly relied on a since-graduated colleague to decipher the comments. Another lab-mate came across an online key for shorthand symbols just months before graduating, throwing years of comments into much sharper relief.
While we may have joked about our mentor’s (excellent!) feedback, all of us shared one sentiment. We understood that the heavy mark-up and lengthy commentary our papers received wasn’t a sign that our writing was bad, or that our ideas were lacking. Just the opposite! A well-marked draft was a sign of engagement and investment on the part of the reviewer. Red ink was being expended with care, more than with disapproval. This is a critical lesson that I now hope to pass on to my own students and trainees.
I worry that early career researchers too often infer a negative correlation between the quantity of edits and the quality of a piece of work. That inference is misguided. I know I’m not alone in finding it much harder to comment thoroughly on some “very poor” writing than on some “totally on the right track” writing. With the very poor, there often just isn’t enough there to work with! A decent first (or more likely, second or third…) draft, on the other hand, is the perfect framework on which to build a compelling narrative. And it’s part of our job as advisors to help trainees figure out how to complete the construction. If we use a lot of red ink, it’s because we care so much about the construction, and the training. And who better to pass on hard-won revision tips than those who have struggled through it ourselves? So, enter the red pen.
Now, none of this means the feedback didn’t – and doesn’t – sting. I’m not sure any of us feels entirely grateful when a draft comes back covered in red ink and commentary. And even the most helpful of manuscript reviews may elicit a few curses on first read. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that when I send this post to Steve, and he’ll remove some of my favourite bits*. He’ll push me to kill my darlings – if I don’t find them and kill them myself on my next edit. Similarly, my students will probably gripe a little about the feedback I give them, and that’s ok. As long as they know that it all comes from a place of deep caring.
Lately, when reflecting on writing (and revising and editing), I often find myself thinking about Bob Fischer and Nathan Nobis’ argument that writing well is an ethical act. “Ethics concerns, among other things, how we treat people. Since writing is an action, done for an audience, it matters how writers view and treat their readers.” In other words, the effort that we put into our writing matters, and writing well shows that we respect our readers’ time. Similarly, the way we treat our trainees matters, and editing well shows that we respect our trainees’ time and efforts. I hope my trainees know that when I send back their track-changes-riddled pages (my “red pen” of choice in 2020), I do it to push them – and to help them – to be better writers, and better colleagues. Draft by draft.
© Carly Ziter March 3, 2020
Image: Carly’s first draft, liberally decorated with Steve’s red pen.
*^Steve here. I couldn’t let Carly down, could I?