12 week article

Revising After Rejection

I’m working on not one, but TWO articles right now. I submitted the first one late November and I received the rejection notice in late January; however, I decided that I wanted to be the kind of writer who perseveres in the face of rejection. Despite my resolution, I’ve found a million reasons not to put my intentions into action. I’ve procrastinated, justified, and made any number of poor excuses for not working through the revision. This week, I finally sat down to start dealing with the reviewer’s suggestions.

I had to remind myself to be an emotional grown-up. I hate receiving criticism, even of the constructive kind, as I interpret it as rejection. If there’s anything that I can’t stand, it’s feeling rejected. For me, even mild feelings of rejection trigger massive emotional avalanches; small rejections start to snowball as I start telling myself horrible stories about rejection until I’m pretty sure that I’m going to die alone in a gutter somewhere. So I had to remind myself to behave like an emotional grown-up. “Self,” I said sternly, “just because you feel rejected doesn’t mean that you’ve been rejected as a person. This is just a story you’re telling yourself.”

I started by re-reading my article. I hadn’t looked at my article since I'd submitted it. I’m often surprised how different a piece of writing looks after some time away from it. When I re-read my article with fresh eyes, I saw places for improvement that I hadn’t seen earlier. I also saw some things about my article that were better than I remembered. 

Reading Reviewer Comments

I unearthed the reviewer’s comments and re-read those as well. Because I’d let some time elapse, the comments didn’t sting anywhere near as much as they had when I’d first read them. I was still annoyed by the general tone of the comments, which were phrased in haughty and pedantic reviewer language. However, determined to behave like an emotional grown-up, I tried to find where the reviewer had left me some actual constructive criticism. Lo and behold, I discovered that the reviewer had actually given me some very helpful criticism.  

I picked out the three most pressing problems that the reviewer identified:

  1. The main contradiction around which I’d based my article was actually just a manifestation of a larger contradiction in the development of the Guatemalan state/economy in the late nineteenth century.
  2. Give more historical context to emphasize the above contradiction.
  3. Greater engagement with the theoretical framework that I’d used.

Rewriting the Abstract

Next, I focused on rewriting the abstract. If I was going to submit the article to another journal, I’d need a new abstract. As I started working on it, I kept thinking about how I might re-frame my argument to speak to larger contradictions in Guatemalan state formation and economic development. I wrote down some ideas, thought about them, wrote some more, thought some more and wrote some more. Slowly, I could see a new argument starting to take shape in my mind.

The new abstract reads like this:

This article examines the failure of the Central American Exposition in Guatemala in 1897. I compare the competing ideas and objectives of both fair organizers and visitors to show how the fair exemplified the tensions that emerged between the objectives of Guatemalan state formation and economic development. I compare a written narrative by Dr. Karl Sapper that describes his day at the fair with documents generated by the fair's central planning committee. Although scholars have often viewed world's fairs as cultural sites where elites exerted hegemonic structures of social control over visitors, I argue that this exposition shows how, rather than conflicting in their interests, fair planners and visitors collaborated to create a visual narrative of a modern export economy based on coffee production, yet that depended on exploitative labor systems and feudal landholding patterns. I suggest that world's fairs show us how fair visitors, rather than planners, constructed a web of new power relations, obscured under the guise of science and new definitions of race.

I'll continue revising it, but now I've got a new direction in which to proceed.

Addressing Reviewer Comments

I reworded the reviewer's comments into my own words, just so I wouldn’t have to feel so annoyed by the language.  I cut and pasted the newly reworded comments into my article draft in Scrivener. I still think the overall structure of my article works pretty well, so I left that alone. I started in small sections, first revising the overall argument, reworking the theoretical framework, and finally then moving on to including more historical context. In truth, the revisions were not as time consuming nor as difficult as I’d expected. I’d had nightmares of having to scrap much of what I’d written and start over. I was pleased to see that addressing the reviewer’s comments did not require the extensive revision that I’d imagined. I did have to reinterpret pieces of evidence to match my new argument.

I also had to re-read some notes on theory. The reviewer noted that although I’d identified a theoretical framework on which to hang my analysis, I hadn’t really talked much about why I’d chosen it. Reviewing some theory stuff helped me figure out how to justify my theory of choice.

Writing a New Query Letter

As a final step, I decided to send my revised abstract to the editor of the next journal on my the list of potential journals I’d identified. I drafted a new query letter and waited, convinced that no journal would be interested in my rejected article. Much to my surprise, I received a prompt and encouraging response from the editor. While an encouraging response in no way guarantees publication, it boosted my confidence. I started thinking that perhaps I still had a good idea that I could publish.

Overall, I still like my journal article, even if it does need further revision. I’m hoping to be done with the revisions in a few weeks and will send it out again.     


Photo: Metropolitan Cathedral, Guatemala City, 2012. Full image available here.



Learning and Re-learning How to Write an Argument

At times, I can’t believe how difficult writing can be. Just when I think I’ve mastered it, I realize that I’m still a beginner in so many ways. I thought I’d have nailed this whole argument writing thing by now. (Somehow I’m still short of the 10,000 hours that it supposedly takes to master a skill.) Even though I know how to write an argument, I still struggle to write them. I’ve been wrestling with the argument about my new twelve week article on pseudoscience and the ancient Maya. I’ve made all of the possible mistakes that I warn other people about.  I realized that I needed to review the basic steps and re-build my argument from scratch.

I’m revising an old conference paper about junk Maya science. I want to know why people still insist that the ancient Maya came from somewhere other than the Americas. Why does it seem more reasonable to insist that they were paleo-astronauts than that they built great cites and developed sophisticated civilizations in the New World? In trying to answer this question, I keep falling into the trap of mistaking my topic for my argument. In the last week, I’ve written a lot of non-arguments.  

In my conference paper, I wrote this as the main argument:

I argue that ongoing debates over the origin of the ancient native civilizations of Mesoamerica reflect a deep ambiguity and uncertainty over the very nature of native peoples.

Despite the italics added for super emphasis and the fact that I’ve provided readers with a nice signpost (”I argue..”), this is an okay, but not stellar, argument. It’s sort of debatable; someone could disagree with me. (”Wrong. Theories of the ancient Maya don’t really reflect ambiguity. These are just crackpottheories.”) But it’s vague. And not particularly interesting. And repetitive (ambiguous and uncertain?). Blaaaaaaaaah.   

Putting aside my pride and frustration that I still had no argument. I decided to return to the instant thesis maker.

The instant thesis maker, for the uninitiated, is a creation of Steven Posusta (1996, 12) and goes like this:

#1 Although X,
#2 I argue Y
#3 Because ABC

Here goes.

Step One: Figure out what other scholars have argued.

Although X. Here I need to identify what the conventional thinking is about unorthodox Maya theories. In my mind, I always think about this as “Scholars have argued X about [topic].”  Okay, so what have scholars argued about junk theories about the ancient Maya? Mostly, they’ve argued that these theories aren’t worth serious attention. They’ve written them off as sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. One classic book about junk Maya science depicted (uncharitably) the amateur archaeologists who cooked up these theories as victims of their own ignorance, engaging in fake science they believed was real. Some people write these folks off as delusional crackpots, not to be taken seriously.

So the first part of my argument should probably be about this. Scholars have dismissed unorthodox theories about the ancient Maya as mere pseudoscience and fantasy.

Step Two: Add my idea. (However, I argue that...)

I argue Y. Here I need to insert my own idea. I think it is worthwhile thinking about weird Maya theories; they aren’t just sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. I think these theories tell us something about what people thought about native peoples in the past, but also how people thought about the world. No, I don’t think the ancient Maya were from Atlantis, but I believe that it’s worth thinking about why some people might think so.


However, the unorthodox theories people created and propagated about ancient native peoples were not merely sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. Instead, I argue that unorthodox theories persisted because of the way deep racial ambiguities about native peoples shaped public understandings of archaeological evidence of the ancient Maya.  

Step Three: Show some evidence.

I’m basing my argument on my readings of newspaper reports about archaeological excavations during the 1930s and books from the time period that claimed that the archaeological ruins of Central America and Mexico were so unusual that they could not have possibly been the work of native peoples.  

Et voilà! A thesis statement is born. Together:

Scholars have dismissed unorthodox theories about the ancient Maya as the work of amateur crackpots, mere pseudoscience and fantasy unworthy of serious study. However, the unorthodox theories people created and propagated about ancient native peoples were not merely sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. Instead, I argue that unorthodox theories persisted because they reflected how deep racial ambiguity about native peoples shaped public understandings of archaeological evidence of the ancient Maya. I base my argument on my readings of historical newspaper reports about archaeological excavations during the 1930s and books from the time period that claimed that the archaeological ruins of Central America and Mexico were so unusual that they could not have possibly been the work of native peoples.  


Is this a statement with which readers can either agree or disagree? A topic on an argument?

YES! An argument!

There's undoubtedly more revision in this argument's future. But, I'm willing to call this problem solved, at least for now.    

[Photo: Sunrise at Parque Nacional de Tikal, 2012]

Writing Without Time

One of my goals this year was to write two new twelve week articles (as well as revise and resubmit the one that was rejected). Swept up in the enthusiasm of the new year, some friends and I created a new writing group. Armed with a fresh Scrivener project and a conference paper to revise (analyzing the history of archeology through the early twentieth-century excavations at the Quiriguá site in Guatemala), I’m off to an excellent start.

I expected this time around with the Twelve Week article method to be easier, as this was my second time writing a twelve week article. I was pretty sure that I’d learned everything I needed to know about article writing when I’d written the last one. I expected to identify similar obstacles to writing. However, I discovered that this time, I was facing a different set of issues. Right now, the biggest problem is lack sufficient writing time.

The editing biz has been slow for the last few weeks, so I decided to get a temp job. After years of part-time graduate school employment, I’d forgotten what it was like to work forty hours a week for someone else. Despite angst about participating in the gig economy (more on this in a future post), I remember how much I enjoy going to a regular job. I like feeling like I have co-workers. I like having an actual office. I most especially love being paid regularly.

However, there are some serious downsides. My time is now so often not my own. I’m working on other people’s projects and helping other people achieve their goals. I have little time to write.

I felt so crunched for time that I wondered if I should tell my writing group buddies that they’d have to continue without me. I felt myself succumbing to the myth that I could only write if I had long, uninterrupted stretches of writing time. I felt too busy to write.

But one of my 2016 goals was to write another article. If I wasn’t going to write an article now, when exactly did I think I would? Besides, I didn’t want to let my writing group down.   

Recalling all of my experiences from the last twelve week article, I realized that I needed to schedule short writing sessions during my small blocks of free time. When I looked at my schedule, I panicked a little bit, horrified to realize how precious little writing time I really had. I ruled out writing during my lunch hour, as I’m trying to squeeze more walking into my life. I didn’t want to write after work, either. I’m tired after work. I don’t feel motivated to work on my article after staring at someone else’s computer screen for eight hours a day. I can only imagine how people who have demanding jobs and small children to care for must feel about their lack of writing time.

I realized that I would have to schedule my writing sessions early in the morning before leaving for the office. Sure, I’d love to have endless blocks of time to write. However, I’ve often only got thirty to forty minutes in the morning before I have to start getting ready to leave home at seven, so I have to take full advantage of that little window of time. This week, I scheduled my writing time from 5:15am to 6am, Monday through Friday. I planned my writing time on my calendar and then tracked my actual time with Toggl. Much to my surprise, I stuck to my schedule.

In other words, I was accomplishing actual writing despite feeling like I was too busy to write. Magic!

Writing first thing in the morning has had the unexpected advantage of literally making my writing my first priority. As I wrote about in this post, I often struggle with the idea of prioritizing my writing because I’m really struggling with the idea of prioritizing myself. When I leave early in the morning for my temporary office, I feel good knowing that I’ve already accomplished the most difficult part of my day.

Writing first thing in the morning has also done wonders for the anxiety I feel whenever I’m staring down the barrel of what seems like an overwhelming writing project. As always, it’s the act of not writing that causes shame and anxiety; the act of writing is the cure. If I have learned one thing about being a productive writer, it is this: write a little bit every day.
Seriously, those people who say we need schedules for writing are absolutely right.