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Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers September 2007

vol. 3, no. 8

Never underestimate the power of ambivalence. When it comes to writing, we do well to acknowledge our conflicting feelings. For instance, it may not be possible to complete an essay, dissertation, or book without acknowledging the negative feelings associated with finishing. Finishing a writing project means accepting that the work is not as good as we hoped it would be when we started. Finishing means handing the work over to people who will criticize it and may think less of us for it. Finishing a dissertation specifically means, if you are lucky, entering the cruel world of the tenure-track job. It may also mean leaving friends, family, the big city, your yoga instructor. No wonder we procrastinate! If we assume that, of course, we want to complete these writing projects, we may never complete them. But if we acknowledge all the good reasons we have for not finishing such projects then we can better access all the reasons we have to get the heck on with it. Because change comes whether we finish or not.

More Stories of Revising and Resubmitting

A student who took my writing workshop wrote in about her experiences with the first article she ever submitted:

I initially submitted the paper to a journal with a well-recognized name in the field, but that was also known for publishing a lot of "first" academic articles by graduate students and newly minted PhDs. You had to be good to be published in the journal, but you could also publish work there that couldn't get into more competitive journals.

After the paper was received, I received some encouraging comments from the editor, who made some suggestions for revising some wording and hinted at the likely acceptance of the paper for publication. He also said that the paper would be sent out to reviewers. Then I heard nothing for about three months. I finally wrote to the editor to ask about the progress of the review. The editor assured me that he would remind the reviewers about their obligations and within two days I received one (yes, only one) review that was a severe blow to my ego.

The review stated that the paper was clear and well written, but the reviewer learned nothing new from it. That comment was painful for me to read. My greatest disappointment was the superficial attention that the reviewer paid to the content of my paper. For example, the reviewer criticized me for not addressing a particular point, although I mentioned that point specifically in one of the sections of the paper.

Nevertheless, the review had some very helpful suggestions for minor content revisions. I fixed the problems quickly (literally, within a couple of hours) and then proceeded over the next couple of years to revamp the paper significantly. I realized that the reviewer’s comment about not learning anything new was due to my not drawing attention to my significant claims and to how the paper diverged from the previous literature. What I needed to do was to thrust my point forward. I couldn't (and didn't want to) make it the central argument of my paper (as it was relatively minor compared to my larger point within the theory), but I needed to highlight it, which I eventually managed to do through multiple drafting and re-drafting.

The happy outcome is that my paper, with very significant revisions, is coming out in a different but much more competitive journal this fall. For all intents and purposes, it is a different and much better—even if I say so myself—paper. It will be part of a special issue, which probably made its submission and review process easier, but I received positive and encouraging comments from the new reviewers. In fact, the paper has already been cited by another scholar.

I am just starting my career of academic publishing and teaching, but I learned a lot from this first experience that has boosted my morale. One thing I now know is not to take even the most cutting rejections personally. If the paper is rejected, there is a reason for it, but that doesn't mean the paper is worthless. Sometimes revising and resubmitting to a different journal, even if it is years later, is the answer.

Online Resources

If you are interested in some of the business research on productivity, you can check out the group The Efficient Academic (for academics interested in getting things done more easily and quickly), which has a discussion board and links to other sites, including that of David Allen's Getting Things Done site.

If you do a search at Google with the phrase “how to read an academic article” (quote marks included), you come across many useful websites. I thought the websites of Len Holmes and Becky Rosenberg were particularly helpful.

News from the Editor

I'm getting ready to lead two writing workshops this fall: one with students who are trying to complete their dissertations and another with graduate students who are not at the dissertation stage yet. I am looking forward to the chance to try something less structured with the dissertating students, something more collaborative, something more like the writing groups to which I have always belonged. These are support communities for talking about writing and commenting on each other's writing once a month. Such groups have always been a big part of whatever successes I've had as a writer and I am grateful to them!