Revision Sensitive Dysphoria
Working through revisions is easily the hardest part of writing for me. I know a lot of people report the opposite — you know, “just get something on the page, that’s the hard part! Once you have a first draft you can always edit :))))” kind of lines. For me, the blank page is easy. Editing is excruciating. Revisions from advisors, reviewers, and editors are even worse. It’s this horrible combination of fighting my impulse to just call it done and move on, and the feeling that every little comment or suggestion constitutes this global censure of my worth as a person.
It may shock you to learn this, but that’s a symptom of both ADHD and trauma! However, this is not a post about mental health — this is a post about how to actually work through that difficulty. I focus on harm reduction and emotional regulation because it’s the only way I can do revisions without wanting to self-immolate. This method is not an organizational system per se, but it’s also part of my ADHD-coping to keep track of comments from multiple reviewers. (When I was writing my dissertation I had to run chapters by each committee member, and I was co-advised by two chairs so I really had to make sure I addressed each edit from each advisor.)
Outline of the system:
- Put all the comments in a spreadsheet (this involves some exporting nonsense — I’ll show what I did, but it depends on how you got the comments)
- Make columns for information about each comment (including which reviewer/editor made the comment, what action you plan to take, how difficult the action is, and how distressing you find the comment)
- Use the last two columns to sort/filter the spreadsheet so that you can do edits that don’t make you freak out — it lets you make continuous progress on revisions even when the work of revising is emotionally very burdensome
Advantages of this system:
- Harder to lose track of comments (and who said what)
- Lets you convert (possibly nebulous) comments into actionable items, which are easier to actually take action on, as it turns out
- You can take out the difficulty/distress columns and then send this whole spreadsheet back to your editor to show responses to line edits (very very useful for journal pubs)
- Less likely to be totally paralyzed/avoidant of revisions because of the difficulty, because the filters let you decide, like, “Okay today I’m going to only work on easy edits because I’m feeling fragile” or “Okay, I have the whole day to myself to tackle a couple of these really difficult ones”
- Actually counting out difficulty/distress for me has been helpful in seeing, oh, it’s not nearly as bad as I thought! I can even color-code by difficulty and use pivot tables to make little progress bars to track myself
Part 1: Put all the comments in a spreadsheet
I’ll be using as my example my revisions from a handbook chapter. I submitted the chapter as a word document, and I received revisions as comments on the document.
[Screencap of word doc with comments in the side]
Obnoxiously, Word doesn’t have a native function for exporting all the comments as a csv or something sensible like that. The workaround I found by googling is really ridiculous.
- Select the entire document (I use Ctrl-A) and copy it (Ctrl-C)
- Paste it in an email draft (Ctrl-V)
- The comments now appear as numbered endnotes with hypertext links.
- Now copy just the endnotes into a spreadsheet (I used Excel for this but it doesn’t really matter)
Why was this the easiest way to do this? I don’t know! It does mean that it’s a pain in the butt if your comments are on a PDF (there’s another way of getting those). If you know ahead of time that you’re going to be using this method, you can make a point of submitting it as a .doc/x and ask advisors/reviewers to submit their comments in a format that’s friendly.
Here’s what my pasted email looked like:
[screencap of pasted email draft with endnotes]
Here’s what my pasted spreadsheet looks like when I paste those endnotes into it:
[screencap of Excel with just pasted comments]
Part 2: Columns for information
If you decided to set up your spreadsheet like I did, then you have one column that’s just each individual comment, one per row. I used columns to track important information — this includes information that’s important for organizing the revisions for myself, information that’s important for handing back to reviewers, and information that helps with the emotional regulation/brain budgeting part (Part 3 below).
Organizational information (for my own reference) included:
- Where is the comment in the document (page / paragraph / line if necessary)
- Who made the comment (in this example I had two people reviewing in the same document)
- Category of revision (is this a formatting issue? Content issue? Writing issue?)
- What action I plan to take about the comment, which can include -Rephrase/reword; Add citation; Delete or relocate something; Re-make a figure; Add subsection/section/line of reasoning, etc.
Information for handing back to reviewers included all of the information above, plus:
- What I actually did with the action (“reworked figure” or “added citation XYZ”)
- Pasted lines from reworked/added prose to make it easier for them to find
[screencap of info for reviewers]
Information for difficulty/distress was two columns:
- I titled one column “How difficult is this to fix?” and rated it numerically 1–5 (one being easy, 5 being very difficult). Doing it with number ratings let me use Excel’s color coding, which was a nice visual cue that let me zoom in on certain ones and get a nice overall image when scrolling very fast through 100+ lines.
- I titled one column “How distressing is this?” and rated it the same way, 1–5 (one being totally fine and five being very distressing). I went with my first instinct/intuition about this, and tried not to spend a lot of time worrying about why something was distressing. I also color-coded this one, which let me notice some interesting patterns. I’ll talk about that in Part 3.
[screencap of ratings columns]
Part 3: Emotional regulation and brain budgeting
This was the hard part, and is the actual reason I finally caved and made a spreadsheet. In the summer of 2019 I was working through two sets of significant revisions: my dissertation and my handbook chapter. My dissertation was defended but needed hundreds small clean-ups throughout, and my handbook chapter was accepted but needed some restructuring and reframing for the audience it was intended for. All the examples I’ve shown you have been from my handbook chapter because it was, during that summer, massively backed up. I had to keep putting off the chapter to work instead on the dissertation, or job applications, or whatever else, and I was incredibly sensitive and miserable for various other reasons. The spreadsheet was my last-ditch effort to say to myself: okay, this is doable, and it’s going to be hard but forcing myself to plow through it is going to burn me out and make me freeze up even more.
The title of this post, Revision Sensitive Dysphoria, is a play on Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, a type of emotional dysregulation that often comes along with ADHD and certain types of complex PTSD. Without probing the etiology too much, I would generally say that getting my PhD has been agonizing in part because criticism of any kind feels like my skin getting flayed off. It is incredibly painful. One of the things I have had to do has been to stop fighting with myself about the pain I feel, and instead work on planning around it.
I knew that revising this chapter was going to be painful, and I knew that I had to do it anyways. This contributed significantly to my procrastination, which makes sense! It’s like procrastinating on touching a hot stove. You know it’s going to suck and injure you and of course you’ll do everything in your power to put it off as long as you can!
Except, you know, touching a hot stove is different because 1.) it is a momentary injury, and theoretically you can heal afterwards, and 2.) other people can see your nasty burn and sympathize with your pain. RSD is harder because the pain is ongoing and invisible.
Instead of asking myself to just push through as fast as possible through this painful process, I needed to dissect which parts were painful and which parts were actually fine. I also needed a way to bargain with myself — if I do some of the ouchy parts, then as a reward I get to do some of the easy parts too! So the spreadsheet was a way of doing this inventory, and it’s why the Distress and Difficulty columns were necessary for me. It let me prepare for the discomfort, space it out, and reward my endurance with the pleasure of accomplishment.
When I actually tallied up the Difficulty and Distress, I also found something interesting: there were a lot fewer scary edits than I had thought there was going to be! I made a little chart, because I am that sort of nerd, and the distribution was sort of hilariously skewed — there were WAY more 1s and 2s than 4s and 5s. If you had asked me before actually rating everything, I would have guessed that they were about half 5s. That’s a very very different picture than the actual ratings:
[image: bar chart of difficulty and distress ratings]
This is why I taught myself pivot tables, by the way. It was actually an important part of being able to approach the revisions in a way that didn’t cause me to go into a downward spiral: I had to see the data for myself, to soothe my panicky animal brain and say, like, listen, it is really not all that bad! There are a lot of nitpicky annoying little edits that are going to take a few minutes each, and we can plug away at them without freaking out. There are a few edits that make us genuinely upset, but that’s more because we have used our Anxiety Brain to read them instead of our normal-person brain. We don’t have to evict Anxiety Brain or convince it to listen to logic and reason, we just have to soothe it and make it feel safe enough that we can unfreeze.
You’ll also notice in the chart above that there were more 5s in Distress than in Difficulty. What that means is that there were a number of comments I found upsetting but, when I thought about how hard they would be to actually fix, they weren’t that bad. Here’s one:
[screencap of an edit that’s a 5 Distress but only a 3 Difficulty]
It was distressing because, as it turned out, I was feeling defensive about a statement that I couldn’t really defend. It was fine to just delete it! That ended up being a VERY quick fix, but it’s one that I was very avoidant of because it felt like a personal attack on my merit as a scientist (it wasn’t). Once I realized that the statement wasn’t at all necessary for the argument or conclusions of the piece, and I just deleted it, I felt way better.
Of course, when I was rating these, I didn’t know that the fix was going to be as fast and easy as it was. Part of the point of rating the distress is to let Anxiety Brain tell me what it’s afraid of, and to structure my workflow in a way that let me approach the scary stuff carefully without putting Anxiety Brain in full-on panic mode. I used the ratings to regulate my workflow and plan my days based on how I was doing and how my mental health was in general. I had a lot of different kinds of days while editing that chapter. Here are some examples of ways I used the ratings:
Bad mental health week, high fatigue, poor self-care, stressed, shitty:
- Plan an “easy edits” day where I go sit in my favorite cafe and have a nice treat. Use the spreadsheet to filter by Difficulty and Distress so that I literally cannot even see any of the comments rated higher than 3. My goal is to check off as many of the 1s and 2s as possible. I added in at this juncture a “checkbox” column that contained literally nothing but a check or no check — and used a pivot table so that some numbers would go up every time I checked something off.
- Be aware that if this week is bad, I probably get one or two solid sessions of editing, tops. For one bad week, I’d say okay I’ll do an afternoon in a cafe on Tuesday, and a different one on Thursday, and other days I’ll do other work.
- Do not force myself to approach difficult/distressing edits in the bad weeks. It ends up making me so miserable that I just don’t do anything, and go home feeling angry at myself.
- Reward myself for what I did accomplish. Every little bit is something! Rewards include food treats, or cute stationery, or putting sparkly stickers on my planner. Some little id-pleaser that can slowly retrain the brain to associate edits with positive feelings
Okay week. Kinda tired, kinda stressed, but feeling good about one or two things:
- Maybe I get three editing sessions this week. I’ll do one in a cafe with a friend, one in a cafe by myself, and one at home. I don’t try to spend more than an afternoon on edits, because I know that I’m just on the border and I can push myself back into a bad week by burning out. Stop at 5 PM no matter what!
- As a challenge, I ask myself to do a warm up, a push, and then a cool down.
- Warm-up is 30 mins or ~5 edits of easy changes (1s and 2s)
- Push is to tackle one or two of the moderately difficult edits (3s and 4s in both distress and difficulty)
- Cool-down is to tackle a few high-difficulty low-distress edits (3 or 4 difficulty but 1 or 2 distress was stuff like reorganization of ideas, reformatting or remaking figures, annoying citation-wrangling)
- Okay Weeks often meant that, as long as I didn’t over-do it, the week after would be Okay or Pretty Good. The satisfaction of checking off a few of the difficult and distressing edits honestly is really motivating. The checkbox column feels less important for those but maybe you set up your pivot table fancier than I did.
Pretty good week. Stuff is going okay, I feel like I’m finally making progress again:
- I don’t go more than 3 or 4 editing sessions (~ 4 hrs) in a week, but I intersperse them with writing or other work that feels pleasing. I treat writing as a reward, because I really like it so much more than editing. A pretty good week might have 3 editing sessions and 3 writing sessions.
- I do the warm-up/push/cool-down structure but try to ride my good mood. I also try to save easy edits for when I inevitably have Okay or Bad weeks later down the line, or even one bad day later this week. This is a slightly more intense version of the one above:
- Warm-up is 30 mins or about 5 edits of easy 2s and 3s
- Push is to tackle two or three of the distressing edits — 5s, if I can manage it. Do not do more than a few before moving to cool-down, because the cool-down can be longer when I have more endurance.
- Cool-down is often 2+ hours, and I try to work through more of those high-difficulty low-distress edits. I try to really ride momentum on this phase, because the sense of accomplishment from getting some of the 5s checked off can take me quite a ways.
- The sense of accomplishment from a Pretty Good week is frequently its own reward, but I also make sure to really relish it and tell someone (usually my spouse) about how good that accomplishment feels. It can be really validating to tell a supportive friend or partner “I did two 5s today! And I didn’t cry at all!” and have them be genuinely happy for you. Surround yourself with people who will be earnest in validating the everloving shit out of you, because you really want to classically condition the soft animal of your brain to pursue that incremental accomplishment and train yourself away from all-or-nothing thinking.
I didn’t, during this phase of my life, have any weeks better than “pretty good,” to be honest. If you do, maybe you can blast through a bunch of your edits, but I recommend pacing yourself and doing the warm-ups and cool-downs as a way of budgeting your brain energy. Editing is cognitively taxing and it can be exciting to get a really good flow going, but if you forget to take breaks or stop at the end of the day it’s really easy to set yourself up for burn-out. If you’ve read this far down in this article, you probably are very familiar with the feeling of cycling through overachieving and total frozen miserable procrastination — stopping before you’re exhausted is the best way to break that cycle.
At some point, you’re going to finish. I did! It feels incredible. You email that sucker to your editor or your advisors and the ball’s in their court and you get to stop looking at this god damn spreadsheet! I recommend taking a complete break from editing anything for a couple weeks, to let your brain and emotions rest and reset. Work on something different and fun for at least a week, and ease yourself back into the revisions cycle when you find yourself actually wanting to get back at it.
Eventually, the idea is to de-escalate the feeling of agony or retraumatization that happens every time you get revisions. It will probably take a long time to slowly retrain your brain to associate editing with a feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment, but that’s the eventual goal — and it will not work if you ignore your discomfort or pain while working towards it. Be gentle with yourself, and find a way to do the work that you want to do within your limits!
- Editing and addressing reviewer comments can be incredibly painful and distressing
- Logicking yourself out of finding it distressing isn’t going to help. You have to plan for and work around that distress
- Instead, counting up how many comments are actually upsetting lets you choose when and how to approach the upsetting ones. You can use this spreadsheet format or something else to track it
- An editing session can be structured like a workout: you warm up with easy stuff, you do the difficult or high-intensity part, and then you have a cool-down