Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers April 2006
vol. 2, no. 4
Rejection is the worst. Even though none of us believe that we are great writers, getting an article returned from a journal always feels like a direct blow to the chest. And yet, rejection is the common experience of both the great and the terrible. You are never more of a writer than at that moment when your hard work has been returned with a curt word or devastating dismissal. Like most things in life, you can't fail if you haven't tried. This month, two readers wrote in about the business of handling rejection and failure. I'm always interested in hearing readers' thoughts and experiences.
Some words of wisdom and comfort from a faculty member in literature.
"I'm sorry to hear about the experience with the journal. I've had that happen to me---I've seen some of the most inexplicable (and sometimes careless or rude) reader's reports. Once I had an article rejected in three days! (With the glacial pace of peer review in the world of academic publishing, this must be some kind of record.) The editor told me that it was so bad that he wasn't even going to send it on to his readers. Well, I didn't change it at all, and send it to another [better] journal and they accepted it without any revisions (and it was published last year.) Go figure. I just thought that it was a good piece---that editor did shake my confidence a bit, but I just decided to keep believing in the piece.
"The best advice I ever got came at a seminar on publishing--the scholar told us that when we were ready to send out an article, make out three different envelopes to three different journals. Send it to the first--if it gets rejected, then send it to the second. If it gets rejected again, send it to the third... His point was that the whole process is so subjective that you need to give your work the benefit of the doubt a few times before pulling the plug on it (or putting it in a drawer indefinitely). I basically follow this process, unless I find something in a reader's report that is so compelling that it makes me revise a bit. But, I always try to get it back out ASAP.
"I too feel like I have a terrible time finding the right journals for my work, and this is half the battle. I'm not theoretical enough for some journals; too theoretical for others (one report complained that I cited Edward Said, for example). And when my work is on really obscure materials, it adds additional complications. I often get reports where the person clearly doesn't know much about the material. It is sometimes hard to find good readers for your work, who, even if they don't accept the work, can offer good revision suggestions. Aargh! It is frustrating, but I hope that you send that work back out a few more times! I've been told that PMLA is a great place to send work---they don't accept a lot of articles, but they always find good readers and give suggestions."
Reader: After a fairly successful graduate school career, I just got my first tenure-track job. I need to write, but I find that I don't know how. There is something wrong and I can't figure out what. So I get anxious and don't do it. (My dissertation was ambitious but sucked.) I am hoping that information might alleviate the anxiety and I can be more productive. Do you have any thoughts?
Wendy: I can certainly understand the anxiety. I think graduate students are caught between the ideal world where all graduate students receive mentoring and the real world where busy professors have little time to instruct graduate students in the brass tacks of writing articles and books. Students think it is just them, but it isn't. It's a general problem in graduate education. So, you are not weird or alone. Fortunately, you don't always need a human being, there are a lot of helpful books out there, some listed at my website. I can highly recommend any book by Robert Boice. Be of good courage!
Reader (one month later): Just wanted to drop you a note about how things are going. I have been rethinking the writing process and the Boice has been very helpful. Writing daily is important and writing in small increments even more so. And, I finally understand that, at least for me, I need to rewrite! I had never gone through the full editing process before, and it has helped me to see that … brilliance is work. The fear of stupidity that many people, and I think especially women, struggle with comes from the immediate sensation of failure that drafting induces, the failure to be brilliant from the get-go. I think you need an experience when writing happens gradually to realize that most, if not all, can write and write well.
News from the Editor
I've been working on a revise and resubmit notice from a journal. It is always difficult to get my head back inside an article that I haven't worked on for a while, but fortunately I had really good recommendations from the reviewers. I haven't taken all of their advice, but seeing the article from their perspective helped to estrange it from my brain. They saw as unclear parts that I had thought were perfectly clear, but on revisiting those parts with their comments in hand I saw that the reviewers were right: I hadn't been clear. Such recommendations make the peer review process seem like a great invention.