Focusing on the big picture: the ups and downs of writing a paper.

Figure 1.  A camel with many humps.  Probably a relative of Alice's given genetics and whatnot. (Credit: flickr user bristley)
Figure 1. A camel with many humps. Probably a relative of Alice’s given genetics and whatnot. (Credit: flickr user bristley)

I’m in the middle of revising two papers, with a third almost ready for submission.  It’s a great situation to be in, but it’s really time consuming and I feel like I’ve left some of my other projects in limbo.  The process for me is like Alice the Camel, there’s a lot of humps (continued after the break):

  1. I’m pretty excited.  I’ve done some analysis, enough that I feel like there’s something there.  I have an idea of where I want the paper to go, and I’m busy writing out an outline with some figure ideas so that I can sort out what needs to be done.
  2. Erg, something’s not working, some of my results are different than the last time I looked. I’m having some issues making graphs that look reasonable.
  3. Awesome!  The main analysis is done, I’m adding some descriptive stats which are pretty straightforward and I’ve got a good map of the discussion, I can see the end!
  4. Gah!  Sent the paper out to co-authors and they don’t see how awesome some of the things I’ve done are.  But. . .
  5. Sweet.  Working through the co-author comments helps crystallize the paper, and make it much cleaner.
  6. Aw man, journal submission is a drag.  Oh, and I forgot to write a cover letter.  What did Dynamic Ecology say about them?
  7. Yes!  Journal accepted the paper!
  8. Argh!  These reviewers are asking me to do some annoying things.  Resubmitting is just as annoying as submitting.
  9. Okay, it’s off my plate for a while.
  10. Yay!  Publication!
  11. Gah, more minor changes, no problem, off again.
  12. Look!  It’s my paper proofs!
  13. Arg, missed a couple typos, some changes are needed.
  14. Yay!  Everything’s done.
  15. Yay!  Someone’s cited my paper!
  16. Gah, on to the next paper.  Publish or perish young researcher. . .

Something like that anyway.  How common is this?  What’s your favorite part of writing?  Least favorite?

The big point here is that for all the ups and downs, it is important to look at the big picture.  Is the paper you’re writing important?  Are you, in a broad sense, excited about it?  Sometimes I have to remind myself of the big picture as I slog through reviewer comments, but I’ve been lucky to consistently have reviewers who are supportive.  On my first paper a reviewer’s comment on line 100-and-something was simply:  “This is really interesting.”  It’s these kinds of comments that help keep things positive.

So, back to revisions.  Hope you are all making progress too.


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Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.

5 thoughts on “Focusing on the big picture: the ups and downs of writing a paper.”

  1. I find that the hardest parts for me are transitioning to the writing. Sometimes, getting started can be the hardest. I haven’t found a method I really like, aside from just starting at the beginning. I’ve never found it especially helpful to work with outlines yet, but I’m working on that.

    The worst by far, though, is getting revision suggestions that would completely change the paper structure. It almost feels like starting over would be better.

    As a side note about reviews, I often read them and find them really frustrating, but then come back after a few days and I’m surprised to find that they’re so much milder than I remember them! As a reviewer, I do try to highlight the positives as well as the negatives, like “great point,” or “important contribution,” or “this is a very well-written paragraph.”

  2. Hi Simon,
    For me, generally, regardless of the journal, the more time I spend on the writing phase, the easier the review phase (but not necessarily faster reviews!). A difficulty I have had is deciding when to hold my own against a reviewer comment. Sometimes the managing editor will give advice, but if they do not give advice on a comment, or even side with the reviewer, its much easier to acquiesce than to hold out. In one case the impact of a paper suffered when I agreed to change the title to something more vague and boring.

    1. Absolutely. I haven’t yet had an instance where the reviewer and I had such a difference of opinion that doing some re-writing couldn’t solve it, but maybe that’s because I’m cautious both in where I send things and in how I write my papers. Interestingly, the reviewers suggested changing the title of the paper we’ve just had accepted to the Journal of Ecology, and I think it’s even punchier now than when I first wrote the article. It was much more descriptive then, something that was basically pulled out of the methods, and boring.

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