If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Drafts Versus Finished Products

When does a draft turn into a finished product? Many of my students (graduate and undergraduate) believe it is when they have covered all of the required fields and (hopefully) proofread/spellchecked the document. I often believe it is after I have written several drafts for myself--taking it as far as I possibly can with my limited knowledge/skills--and then, after receiving feedback from external sources, complete another round or two of drafts to incorporate that feedback. This takes a long time but "finished products" eventually get out the door.

Unfortunately they are not really finished products at this point. Inevitably, no matter how much work I put into a manuscript/grant and/or how much feedback I get on it before it is submitted, the peer review process quickly shows me it is but a draft. I like this about the peer review process. Yes it is painful to get the feedback. It stings in a very special way to have something you produced and believe to be "done" come back as "try again." However once I actually re-read the manuscript/grant I realize it is far from done. Ultimately when the product is truly finished it is a much better product and so I remain grateful to the process.

I have had the fortune/misfortune of having 3 NIH grants funded on the first submission. I have never had a paper accepted without at least 1 revision--usually major. This makes my grant rejections sting far more than my manuscript rejections. I have faith manuscripts will eventually become papers (even though I have a drawer full of manuscripts that never made the grade). I know persistence pays off with grants as well but the work often seems more futile. A manuscript is reporting on work already completed. The work is done so how can I NOT see it through to publication? A grant is potential work; a grant is an idea for work; yet it takes a considerable amount of effort to package that idea into a fundable application. If it is not funded that idea may never come to fruition and I get very attached to my ideas.

On the flip side, I have had manuscripts that--after a round or two of revisions--I know is done. There is no more or no less to the paper and if reviewers don't agree with me there is no choice but to either trash the paper or find another journal and start the process all over. I am currently there with one manuscript. After 3 revisions I gave up and sent it to another journal. If the reviewers of this journal need major revisions, the manuscript will end up in the dead zone drawer.

I am getting close to that point with a grant application. I am about to submit a version of it for the third time. I knew it was a draft on the first submission. The second submission seemed like a finished product (fortunately/unfortunately it was kicked back for a technicality and not reviewed) but working on it for this submission I realize it was still a draft. I am sending this current version out to many people (those who know me and those who don't) before I submit. It is not a finished product yet but there is a good chance it will be before it is submitted. With NIH now, we only get 2 submissions. Through another technicality this will actually count as its first. I can see doing one more revision if necessary, but if more are required I will (a) not be eligible and (b) not be motivated.

For me there comes a time when I'm finished with a product. If others still see it as a draft then I have to believe it was not meant to be.


Annie K said...

I can apply what you're going through to creative writing. I've written several short stories that have been through numerous revisions with and without constructive feedback, and there has come a point where I feel they are done. You've said what you want to say and what you can say and how you can say it. The work crystallizes and it's time for the work to either be accepted or rejected, but you can applaud your own efforts.

Julie said...

I like reading about the process you have to go through in order to finalize grants or research. It gives me an inside look into a world I would never know otherwise.

Sometimes, I think I'm insane when it comes to revision. Mine never stops. I know you can't do that in academic writing, or nothing would ever get done. In creative writing, it sometimes hinders me, because I am slow to submit due to constant revision.

With college work, I always turned everything in on time, but I stayed up late for nights on end, picking and changing. This constant need for perfection can be hard on the health. You and Annie have a good handle on it. I should use you both as examples.