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.



Twelve Week Article: REJECTED!

A few days ago I received a polite but firm email informing me that my Twelve Week Article had been rejected. Yes, that article. The one to which I’d devoted several months of my life. The one that had inspired an entire series of blog posts. That article.

I had been expecting to wait six months for a response, so was thrilled to receive a decision so soon. When the email landed in my inbox, I skimmed it to find the word “revisions.” Instead, I found a simple sentence explaining that the journal editors had found my article “unsuitable for publication.”

This was was not the outcome I’d hoped for; however, when shitty things happen in life, I try to give zero fucks, write a blog post about it, and learn something from the experience. I had not expected any journal to accept my article without revisions, major or minor. I knew my article had some (okay, several) flaws. I never thought that it might rejected outright. In retrospect, rejection is probably the better outcome, as now I get to have a “learning experience” (as my mother would say) and write about how to get through rejection.

I let the rejection sting for twenty-four hours or so. I let myself feel angry at the journal and its reviewers. As is my habit, I said several bad words in several languages. I’d worked really hard on this article. The version I’d submitted was a million times better than the cringe-worthy version I’d started with; it seemed unfair to me that the editors had rejected it. I reasoned that someone should reward the amount of effort that I’d invested.

Intellectually, I understand rejection, both of the professional and personal types. Nevertheless, much as in life, intellectual understanding of rejection never leads to emotional understanding of it. Rejection, regardless of its packaging, feels shitty. I could feel a big knot of angrysad sitting right under my solar plexus. I gave myself permission to feel it. “Self,” I said, “It is entirely okay to feel rotten about this.” And then I let it be.  

After I got tired of carrying the rejection around everywhere, I took some deep breaths and meditated on acceptance. I decided that I would accept this outcome, even as I wished that it could be different. I even let myself consider the wild possibility that the reviewer might have given me some useful feedback. The grownup part of me grudgingly conceded that this was possible.

 I forwarded the rejection email to Writing Buddy so that I wouldn’t have to re-read it. She reported that that the comments weren’t so bad.

When I finally got up the nerve to read it again, the flaws that the journal reviewer flagged surprised me, as they were not the ones that I expected. I I cut through no small amount of haughty reviewer language to extract useful bits of constructive criticism. Experiencing article rejection and confronting difficult criticism has reminded me again of the importance of separating the message from the messenger. This was not the kind of deconstructive criticism that I’ve written about earlier, but nor were the reviewer's comments worded in a way that suggested that I might be a competent adult and scholar.

Sandwiched between pedantry were three specific criticisms:

  1. Provide more historical context and integrate Source X a bit more
  2. Provide more theoretical analysis (in addition to using Theorist A, consider using Theorist B, too)
  3. Fix typos and some weird sentence constructions

The biggest flaw that the reviewer found was a lack of historical context? In addition, the reviewer noted that I could have made more of a certain source and provided more analysis using my theoretical framework of choice.

Well, okay. Color me surprised, as these are these a totally fixable problems.

And here's what I've learned: sometimes journals just reject articles with totally fixable problems.    

So, here I am again with an unpublished journal article. However, I feel like some things have changed since I wrote it. Namely, I’m working on becoming a persevering writer. I am, of course, tempted to throw my article on to the scrapheap of broken dreams and bury it under a bunch of other stuff. I’m always quite willing to let myself give up when things get rough. However, I don’t want to be that person anymore. I’m going to learn to perservere.
My new plan is to make all of the revisions that the reviewer suggested, including greater historical content and discussions of theoretical frameworks, and resubmitting it to a new journal. Fortunately, I did quite a bit of research to figure out where to submit this article in the first place, so what I’ve really got is a publishing plan.  I’m planning to start revising over the weekend.
Rejection in writing, as in life, is inevitable. It’s up to me what to do next.