Drafts and Guts

jls asks: 

I would really love to hear your (further) thoughts about writing drafts with students and in particular how you go about teaching students to write. I know this is a subject you’ve touched on often, but right now the work I need to get done is almost 100% editing student drafts, and let’s just say I can’t help feeling that there must be some ways to improve this process.

Writing with graduate students is a perennial challenge. I have written extensively (and I mean EXTENSIVELY) about it, probably more often than about anything else, yet it never ceases to be a problem. (Check out Academaze, where a whole chapter was devoted to this particular circle of hell.)

Dear readers, there are no static solutions for anything in life, at least not for anything that means anything. Or at least no solutions that guarantee you will always be at peace and not, you know, blow your lid with some regularity at the hopelessness of your predicament.

I spend a lot of time editing students’ writing. And I know the only way for them to improve is to practice.

But, holy $hit, if it isn’t annoying as all f*ck!

I feel that working with students on their writing is the canary in the coalmine for my general grumpiness about work (can’t wait for sabbatical next year, honestly). When I am grumpy about work, editing the messes that I am usually given becomes completely unbearable.

There’s a book chapter that a postdoc and several of my students (one a native speaker) have drafted together. I have been sitting on this draft for months. I have picked it up and put it down dozens of times. I hate this goddamn document with a passion usually reserved for my flesh-and-blood nemeses. My hatred toward this document stems from a combination of: a) not wanting to look at that bloody material ever again; I’ve written so many papers and proposals on it, and if I have to now write this stupid intro for the millionth time, someone will lose their head; b) the fact that it really should look better than it does, considering I have a postdoc on it and I provided them with a ton of raw material they could work with (papers and proposals).

Today I talked with a colleague who says he and his collaborator write most of their papers; they don’t really have students draft them. I understand why they do it, but it still constitutes a failure of an aspect of graduate education.

On the other hand, so many students don’t want to write or don’t improve fast enough or don’t particularly care to improve (just do it to appease advisor and get out of here) or maybe they have limitations or for other reasons find it hard to write to the standard that I expect, that I worry the whole process of teaching them how to write (read: forcing them to write and me to edit) is not very helpful and instead just extremely frustrating for everyone involved.

Still, teach them how to write I must.

This is what I have always done: A student  drafts a paper on the work where they’re the lead junior researcher. I pull hair over it for days or weeks until I manage to get through the whole thing. The student and I will go back-and-forth several times (I mark up a hard copy, we discuss edits, the student enters them) but eventually I take over and clean up. This ensures the paper gets out in a reasonable time and the student gets writing practice.

People have suggested hiring external editing help; that’s not for me. First, I have been unimpressed with the input from the university editing resources and I am too cheap and distrustful to pay for external work. Second, I want the papers from my group to look a certain way; I would just end up rewriting everything regardless.


My big issue with people (some of them in my family) is that most aren’t as intense as me. I feel like they move slowly through the stress-light molasses of their lives and I wonder how they don’t just explode with the pressure that built up from boredom. In turn, they probably think I am downright nuts; I know many in my family do.

Same with work. I will never understand how someone just doesn’t want to LEARN EVERYTHING JUST EAT EVERYTHING UP JUST GIMME GIMME MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE!

I mean, obviously I understand all this intellectually, but my gut rolls its gut eyes and rejects — as guts do — that there is any other way to be than how it itself is.

Guts, man. Guts.


In far awesomer news, lyra211 just had a baby! Go say congrats!


  1. I’m a big fan of making them outline before they send me a copy. Usually my students are fine on individual sentences but are missing organization and topic sentences. (What is this paragraph about???)

  2. I tooootally know the feeling of being intense and not understanding how people can live any other way. I am also super energetic and productive and work intensely at whatever I am interested in at the moment. Other people who are more laid-back are so confused by my approach to life, and I feel the same way about them…

  3. my grad advisor had a policy that another grad student had to edit your work before it went to him. It helped…

  4. I am baffled by the many ways in which my students write poorly. I’m always discovering new pathologies.

    Someone who wrote thousands of technically accurate, modular, and well-organized lines of code cannot for the life of her describe succinctly the main pieces of the model. She defines unnecessary terms, switches notation halfway through, and scatters her arguments across pages. We’re on the bazillionth revision and it makes me so. mad.

    My students’ drafts affect my mood more than any other part of my job. Somehow it feels more personal. I don’t know why.

  5. When a paper comes to me and it’s really bad (not uncommon!), typically I can’t stand to work on it for more than a couple hours. That inevitably means I only get through the first 2 pages or whatever. Then I send back covered with comments and request fast turnaround. Next time it gets back I still spend nearly the whole two hours I can stomach re-editing the same two pages. Happy if I get to page 3. Repeat a stupid number of times until finally we are done on 19th round or whatever.

    This is the best case scenario, when I have a responsive eager-to-learn student. If I have an agrumentative know-it-all first author, the whole process is more draining. My turnaround time becomes longer, as I am procrastinating entering the argument phase, and it takes far more energy to focus on keeping my comments constructive. I have had to take over the paper before because I just didn’t have the mental energy to keep fighting.

    Looking back, I’m amazed by how my PhD and postdoc advisors were so patient with me and managed to always turnaround drafts in under two weeks. It’s one more area I guess I will never be able to match up.

  6. thank you for writing this, and many apologies for not replying when you wrote it — I admit I have had it open in a tab ever since November. (It was a rough semester — but then they always are, aren’t they?)

    I have students who give me (A) fast, interesting results presented in snarls of word salad, and (B) slow, interesting results presented reasonably well but interspersed with an elaboration of rabbit holes. Either way I get “drafts” that are 50-page monsters that I have to figure out how to dig reasonable papers out of, and it is agonizing. My brain just shuts itself off in self-preservation after five pages of mush. I’m starting to think the only way for me to address this sustainably is to get on top of the writing from such an early stage that I never let the students build up a backlog of mush, but I’m worried that this strategy will result in an unsustainable level of micromanaging. ugh.

    Student A also argues with me about the word-saladness of his drafts. It’s infuriating.

    Part of why approaching bad student writing has been so bafflingly depressing for me is that technical writing has always been, if not always easy for me (my besetting problem has always been perfectionism), at least always completely obvious how to do well. It’s hard to figure out how to teach something that is simply obvious to you.

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