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.



Rewrite, Revise, Rinse, Repeat

Academic writing is often such a grueling process that we celebrate the moment we put the period at the end of the last sentence of the rough draft. The writer feels a euphoric rush. “I’m done!” he or she crows in triumph, “I’ll send this to my committee (or other reviewer person) right now!”

Before sending the draft to anyone, however, the writer must revise and rewrite the text. To paraphrase William Zinsser in On Writing Well, even seasoned writers need to revise many times to craft polished writing. Every piece of writing needs revision, from tweets (an alarming number of mine contain serious typos) to Facebook posts to dissertation chapter drafts. By the time you read this blog post, I will have revised it at least three times and spent many hours rewriting.

Revision and rewriting is much more than just correcting grammar errors and typos. Revision is the step-by-step process of reviewing the work in stages for structure, style, and mechanics.

Before any revisions begin, take a short break and return later to the work with fresh eyes.

When you start revising, work in multiple rounds, from from the biggest problems to the smallest.

First, evaluate the work as a whole. People in the editing business call this developmental editing. Look at the overall structure of the entire work as if making an aerial survey. What does the text look like from the air? Have you used a chronological, thematic, or unique structure to frame your argument and evidence? Is this a logical way to organize your work? Would a different structure work better?

Identifying all of the topic sentences of the individual paragraphs helps to evaluate the organization of the text (at least those structured in more traditional ways). The reader expects that the first sentence of the paragraph will be the topic sentence. If you’ve buried the topic sentences somewhere in the paragraph, find them and move them to their proper place. Using the topic sentences, make an outline with them, placing them in the order in which they appear in the text. Based on this outline, can the reader understand the logic of the route you’ve chosen?

Make sure you’ve clearly articulated the main argument. This often requires a direct, declarative sentence (”I argue that…”) to help the reader find your major point. Thoughtful writers place the main argument in a place the reader expects to find it. I know of one influential work of history (names omitted to protect the guilty) in which the writer chose to put the argument at the end of the work. This is not where most readers expect to find the main argument. As a writer, be kind and don’t make them to wade through the entire text just to find the main point.

Judge all the evidence you present to make sure it supports the main argument. If the argument falls apart halfway through the chapter (the argument substantially changes throughout the work) or a gaping hole exists in the evidence (it doesn’t support the argument), deal with these problems first. The writing can be fixed later, but if the argument or evidence doesn’t hold together, no amount of good writing will save it.

Once you’ve evaluated the work as a whole, revise individual sections and paragraphs. Identify the purpose of each paragraph. What does each one do? How does it relate to the one before and the one that comes after? Do the paragraphs move the work forward or do they trap the reader in verbal quicksand? If certain paragraphs don’t work together, reorder them. Sometimes reversing the order of a section or a piece of writing that isn’t working sparks some new ideas to improve the overall flow of the text.

Conclude with a conclusion. What have we learned from your text that changes the way we think about the topic? Writers often arrive at the conclusion having discovered along the way what it is they want to say. The first draft of the conclusion sometimes makes a better introduction. If this is the case, move the conclusion to the introduction and write a new conclusion.

The first round of revision sometimes involves destroying certain parts of the text. Novelists long have heard the old adage, “kill your darlings,” meant to spur writers to sacrifice a cherished passage for the greater good of the work. Nonfiction writers must do the same. Many writers find it hard to raze parts of their writing that they treasure. Nevertheless, not all writing, even those pieces crafted with love, serves a purpose in a text. A dazzling section can become dead weight if it serves no clear goal. If you must chuck large pieces of your writing into the scrap heap, hang on to them. You may be able to recycle these discarded bits and pieces into a future work.

Second, move on to copy-editing. Copy-editing improves sentence structure, clarity, and style. Here, you shift focus from your needs as the writer to those of the reader. As I talked about in my last post, you need to make friends with the reader; editing for style and clarity creates a good basis for this friendship.

Break up long sentences, focusing on one idea at a time and then moving to the next. Academics often forget (guilty as charged!) that short sentences have just as much force as long ones. Over-stuffing a single sentence with multiple ideas leads to bloated sentences that confuse the reader. Inserting some short, punchy sentences into your writing creates variety and rhythm.

Remove all jargon unless it’s absolutely necessary to what you’re saying. Jargon often seduces beginning writers because it sounds so important. Don’t fall for this trap. Be ruthless and remove it. Examples of academic jargon include words like, the Other, discourse, hegemony, and teleology. Most jargon also makes awkward clunking sounds when read aloud and ends in -ity, ion, -ize, -ness, -ence, -ism, etc. Performativity (does anyone really know what this means?). Ambiguousness. Problematize. Conceptualize. Marginalization. Contestation. Transcendence. Antidisestablishmentarianism.

Remove as many conceptual nouns and verbs as possible and replace them with concrete nouns and verbs. Just as short sentences can be powerful, so too can short words add vigor to your work. Concrete nouns include words like sky, child, home, student, and ice cream.

Remove all words that add nothing to your writing. Some old standbys:

  • In this way…
  • Needless to say…(THEN DON’T SAY IT)
  • It is known that…
  • It is important to note that…
  • Very, actually, really, etc.

Root out passive voice. Make sure your sentences have actual people doing things, not some people standing around having things happen to them in that awkward passive-voice kind of way.

Make sentence structures parallel. Here is an example of a non-parallel structure:

They went to the meeting and would learn about botany.

This is an awkward construction because the verbs aren’t in parallel form, but are instead in different tenses and forms. Non-parallel structures ruin the flow of your writing. To fix this problem, make the verbs parallel and use the same tenses.

They went to the meeting and learned about botany.

Third, proofread your writing. Look for the little things, like mechanics and punctuation. Read at a slow rate; consider each word by itself and then as part of the sentence to which it belongs. Read aloud to find words that may be spelled correctly, but which are the wrong words in your sentence (e.g. the ration-state). Check all punctuation.

Finally, style guides are not just for citations. The Chicago Manual of Style looks intimidating, but can solve many style mysteries. Is it “the president of the United States” or “the President of the United States”? (Chicago recommends the former.) Do you italicize foreign words? Is it Malthus’ or Malthus’s? Tiny details seem tedious to find and fix, but using a style guide simplifies making these types of changes. Using a style guide creates consistency and makes reading a smoother experience. Fix any remaining formatting problems: indent footnotes, center headings, and adjust font.

Revision doesn’t happen overnight or in one session. Once you’ve revised your work, start again with the big picture and work through the entire revision process. Each round should polish the text a little more and leave a sparkling final draft in the end.