Use Post-its. Many years ago, I read an article by the author Michael Ventura in which he talked about writing bits of scenes and dialogue on Post-it notes and putting them on one wall of his office. As he used a bit, he moved it to the other wall. He could also easily stand in front of the wall with the notes to see where he might go next, and move ideas around, physically. Being able to step back and take a long look at your ideas can help tackle difficult organizational issues.
Consider your props. If changing your shoes and putting on a sweater like Fred Rogers seems a bit much, consider changing your outlook with a small change. Years ago I saw Anne Sexton’s eyeglasses on display at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center. Oddly, it was deeply affecting. What does your writer’s outfit look like? Try a hat, a headband, a particular piece of jewelry, and see what works. If you have a lucky shirt that you wear hoping your favorite team will win their game, why not a lucky writing shirt too?
Today is the day. This week has been a bit of a blur of teaching and thesis work, and all I wanted to do today was make sure that everything was ready to go for the final submission of my article. Earlier in the week I crafted, and then redrafted, and then edited, and then reedited, and then rewrote entirely my cover letter according to Belcher’s instructions. The first draft sounded altogether too needy. The second draft sounded too caviller. I was starting to think that I was completely written-out. But then, I went back and re-read Belcher’s advice from this week (and some of the advice from week four, when we drafted a query letter for the editor) and sat down and just followed her formula. It turned out to be fine – not over the top, without an undertone of ‘please, please, please publish my article!’ even though that’s exactly how I feel. I also went back and thoroughly checked over the style notes from my selected journal, and then spent two afternoons going through every single stylistic point that Belcher mentions (in a very handy table) and that was on the style notes and making sure that each of these things was correct in my article.
I have been told numerous times (and Belcher mentions as well) that making sure your article is in the correct house style is pretty important, so I wanted to make sure this was right. It probably didn’t need to take two afternoons, but I have put so much work into this article that I’m not prepared to trip at the last hurdle (if only I could put this much care into my thesis!) I don’t have any illustrations, tables, figures or similar so I didn’t really need to worry about permissions and getting good quality images, but Belcher has some great advice about this process.
This week I was a bit worried that the whole chapter would be devoted to preparing print versions of articles. Even though the edition of the book I have is from 2009, I imagine that a lot of journals are increasingly moving to online submission systems, or – at the very least – to email submissions, and the journal I have chosen has such an online system (where you upload everything via a webpage). While Belcher doesn’t specifically mention online-based applications systems I think this is pretty much covered by her electronic-version advice (there isn’t very much difference between submitting via email and an online system after all.) I wish she’d mentioned a bit more about email etiquette (for example, should you upload your cover letter as an attachment, or paste it into the body of the email?) but as it happens, it wasn’t that necessary for me in the end. I was a little bit dismayed by some of her advice in the ‘Preparing the final electronic/print version’ checklists. Namely, she very emphatically says ‘never use footnotes’ (rather you should use endnotes). This is probably sound advice for many people, but might be a bit confusing if a journal’s house style notes specifically request footnotes (she mentions that you should follow house style to the letter, but doesn’t say anything about following this style even when it conflicts with her own advice). So, it’s all done and dusted.
Final version finished, style updated, edited, rewritten, loved, hated, cried over (okay, not quite – but there were some close calls!). Cover letter ready to go. All that remains is to upload the lot of it onto the submission system and wait. And wait. And wait. I finally wanted to say a few words about how I found the programme as a whole, and the last chapter of the book (titled ‘Week X’). There were parts of this process that I found overly tedious – I noted those along the way, but specifically I found parts of week four (Selecting a Journal) and parts of week five (Reviewing the Related Literature) to be tedious and excessive. Having said that, I can understand why some people would find these tasks to be both timely and interesting. I have always been in the habit of reviewing literature as I go, and keeping on top of that as a matter of priority (in articles, conference papers, theses, essays etc.).
The week I found the most useful was Week ten (Editing Your Sentences). I think it’s worth getting this book (or checking it out from the library) for this chapter alone – looking at the microstructure of my article has improved my writing much more widely than any of the other exercises in this book. The book ends with Week X. I haven’t read though this section is great detail, but it deals with waiting for the journal’s decision, how to read the decision and how to respond – basically a ‘where to from here?’. I like the idea of including this information because the process certainly doesn’t stop once the article is submitted – there is a whole new process to go through, and Belcher’s informative (and extensive) advice on things like types of acceptances and rejections, how to go about revising or restructuring a rejected article, how to respond to reviewer’s comments will certainly be something that readers of this book will benefit from. I’m looking forward to getting to that stage, but for now – I think I’m ready to take a break from my article. Thanks for following along with these blog posts – I have learned a lot in the last twelve weeks, and I have a lot of new awareness about how I work and why I work the way I do (and I now have a much healthier writing habit!)
Dress for work. If you’re writing at home, it can be difficult to separate your writing and research time from the flow of your everyday activities. The children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would always open with Fred Rogers changing his shoes and switching out his coat for a sweater. What change of clothes or accessories might denote your change from one environment to another? The physical act of getting ready to write can prompt the intellectual and psychological transformation as well.
I have long since accepted that my thesis won’t be perfect – that I just have to get it to good enough to pass (with minor corrections). Why cannot I do the same with this article? I am starting to feel like it will never actually be finished. This week – the penultimate week of the programme – I can finally see how far my article has progressed, but it doesn’t seem quite good enough. Thankfully, Belcher opened this week’s reading talking about just this issue, and she comes to basically the same conclusion that I have about my thesis: there needs to be some kind of problem for the examiner/peer reviewers to latch onto in their report – not to try and cover up any glaring mistakes (which at this stage, should have been sorted out anyway) but simply because they have to write something on their reports, and you don’t want to make them go digging for something to pick on.
The tasks for this week were pretty straightforward. Spend one day working on finalising the argument – reading back over week 3 and following the advice. The next is spent getting the literature review sorted out – we covered that in week 5. Then going over the Introduction – week 8. Getting the structure and sorting out the evidence come next – that’s from weeks 6 and 7. Finally, getting the conclusion together – week 8 again. So this week gives you a chance really to look over every aspect of the article in quick succession, and to gain a more general overview of the article as a whole. I started – as Belcher suggests – by actually printing out a copy of my article and marking it up (although, she suggests this under finalising the argument, I found it helpful to keep that hard copy to refer to during the rest of the week.)
I was initially a little bit scared at the concept of printing out this article and looking over it. I have done so much work, I thought, what if I find some really big, glaring errors or mistakes (oh no, I’m still doubling!). What if the article doesn’t actually make sense, or if I have to re-write whole sections! I think I’ve said before that I wish I had kept a copy of my article before I had started – the original product, as it were – so that I could do a bit of compare and contrast along the way (if you haven’t yet started Belcher’s programme and you are going to, this is my one big piece of advice!). More than any other week I think it would have been nice to go back and read my original article this week. I think it would have put some of my fear to rest, being able to actually see how far I have come.
And, even from my memories of that early piece, it’s a long, long way. So, after getting over my initial apprehension, I knuckled down and tackled this week’s tasks, half expecting a large amount of work still to do. Belcher even comments that going over each of these points might take more than a week. It didn’t (this bring on another set of anxieties though, of the ‘have I done enough?’ kind).
I had a few things to fix up in most of the categories – my literature review didn’t need any work because I have been fairly vigilant to keep on top of it during the whole process. My most troubling day was the last day – conclusion – which I have never been particularly confident with (I’m also currently tackling my thesis conclusion and having the same kinds of problems!).
But at the end of the week, there it was – in all it’s (highly edited, revised, rewritten, rethought, reworded) glory: my article ready to be sent next week.
And, I am excited. And, I’ll admit, more than a little bit anxious!
Today’s post reflects on one of the commonly experienced–but less often discussed–aspects of academic writing: receiving a negative review of your work. The author, Virginia Yonkers, is a long term adjunct in the Communication Department at the University at Albany. She has written articles in the fields of Language, Communication, Marketing & Management, Education, and Business Ethics.
A couple of weeks ago I received a rejection of my article submission from a prominent journal. What made it especially difficult was that it did not even get to the peer review process, but rather was filtered by the editor who decided it “would not fit” the journal. That was it: “would not fit.” My first inclination was to throw the article away, crawl up in a ball, and just stop trying. Of course, I did not. But that is the natural inclination when you receive such a strongly worded rejection.
We are often taught in Phd programs how to succeed, but not how to be rejected. A very successful colleague of mine related how she had at least 15 articles completely written her first year of post-phd, which she never resubmitted until mentor encouraged her to do so. She had 7 articles in a year as a result.
So how do you get over the feeling of rejection, especially as an early career researcher? Here are some tips in getting over the barrier of rejection in journal publishing.
1) Give yourself a week before you do anything after reading a rejection. It takes some time to disassociate your emotions (rejection, anger, disappointment) from the piece you have written. It is necessary to disassociate them when you need to make decisions about your next step. After you have given yourself a week, reread your rejection letter/email for any feedback, then reread your submitted to piece. This allows you to analyze what your next step will be.
2) You have 3 choices: Rewrite and resubmit the piece; submit the piece as is to another journal; or scrap the piece for a better time.
3) If you decide to resubmit, you will need to do some additional work. You may want to email the editor to see if you can get specific direction in how to make the manuscript more acceptable. If your manuscript has made it to the peer review process, review each comment. I find having a table which addresses each point helps in your revision, but also in the follow up letter you will submit with your new manuscript. If the manuscript was rejected outright (without indication of revisions), you will need to justify how the revised manuscript is substantially different than the original. In your follow up letter you will need to address each comment made by editors/peer reviewers.
You do not have to revise everything a reviewer comments on, but you do have to address it. For example, one of the reviewers of an article I co-wrote used a different theoretical framework in his analysis of our research. We maintained our methodology and justified it in our comments (and why we DID NOT use the methodology he would prefer).
4) You may decide to submit the same article to another journal or publisher (Note of warning: you should not have the same manuscripts at two different places at the same time). One possibility is to email the journal from which you were just rejected for recommendations for other places in which your piece might be more appropriate. This does two things: 1) it insures that the other journal knows you are withdrawing your article and will be submitting it elsewhere so they will not be allowed to print it in the future; 2) you may receive some additional feedback so you can make adjustments in your next submission.
If you decide to go to a different publisher, you need to do a little more homework. Based on your rejections, try to identify a publisher by which your ideas will be accepted. My recently rejected article was in a top journal (which I did not know at the time of the submission). In reviewing the list of reviews and the authors’ names, I discovered that there were very few outside of Ivy League/top 20 international universities represented in the articles and none represented as a reviewer. My assumption is that since I was not from one of these institutions, nor a leading researcher in the field, editors filtered my article out. Often they will have 100-200 submissions a month, so this helps decrease the workload for reviewers. Now when I look for new journals to submit to, I look at readership, topics (usually they have a description on their website), reviewers, and any professional organizations they are affiliated with.
There are two areas you MUST change when you resubmit to another journal. The first is the style (most websites have a style guide). The other is your introduction. You need to always include in your introduction how your article will be of interest for the journal’s readership.
5) If you decide not to resubmit your manuscript, you should consider how you can still communicate your research. You might want to consider submitting a paper to a conference (even having it published as a conference proceeding), upload it to a public depository (such as Academia.edu or your university’s working papers depository), or blog about it. Make sure you save the article. One of my most successful articles was an update of a colleague’s article that had never been published. She gave it to me to update and the two of use worked on creating a new model based on our discussions.
As an early career researcher, an article that was not accepted is a good starting point for collaboration or new research. So do not think of the unpublished manuscript as a failure, but rather a future starting point. It is important to continue to work even if you have had numerous articles rejected. If you feel that you are not getting anywhere with publishing, work with a mentor in your field who can give you direction on places to publish, ways to make your manuscripts more marketable, and motivation to continue to submit for publication.
Make notes while reading. While seldom an advocate for multitasking, this is an instance where I would recommend decompartmentalizing: we often think of research and writing as two separate steps in a linear process, or a cyclical one. I’d like to suggest that writing while reading can have great benefits. Instead of underlining, highlighting, or marking in the margin, what if you put down the book and wrote a memo that ties your research to your writing? Focus on what inspired you to mark that passage in the first place. It’s much easier to remember why you wanted to refer back to another text when you have a meaningful prompt. And, you’ve already started writing that part of your essay/book/thesis/dissertation.
With two weeks to go it’s time to get into the nuts and bolts of fixing up this article for good! So this week is all about revising at the sentence level. I recently read George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ and I think this gave me the perfect mind-set to tackle this huge and ominous task. Everything to this point has been what Belcher calls ‘Macrostructure Revising,’ we’ve done literature review, identifying the debate, looking closely at the overall argument and structure. As she says: ‘Macrostructure revising involves big changes.’ This week is all about ‘Microstructure Revising’: grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice.
Belcher does acknowledge that it’s normal to be sick of your article at this stage. I’ve been living with this article for ten weeks now, and I am ready to send it off into the big bad world – but it’s not quite ready for the same thing. So, we start this week’s exercises with some simple rules from (American) academic English:
- Don’t use two words when one will do
- Don’t use a noun when you can use a verb.
- Don’t use an adjective or adverb unless you have to.
- Don’t use a pronoun when a noun would be clearer.
- Don’t use a general word when you can use a specific one.
- Don’t use the passive voice unless the subject is unknown or unimportant.
(Incidentally, here are Orwell’s rules:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.)
The main part of this week is contained within Belcher’s own ‘Diagnostic Test,’ which has three main parts: ‘Words that might need to be cut,’ ‘Words that might need to be added,’ and ‘Words that might need to be changed.’ These categories are fairly self-explanatory.
Okay – here’s my weekly confession: I am a doubler. I have discovered that I double words. The very first point under Belcher’s very first Diagnostic Test and I well and truly failed. Here’s what I mean by doubling (or rather, what Belcher means): using two words with (near) identical meanings separated by the word ‘and.’ Here’s her example sentence and the fix:
‘Yang and Yu argued that emotion is necessary and essential.’
‘Yang and Yu argued that emotion is necessary.’
I don’t even need to read though my article to know that I am guilty of this. The rest of this category, which includes list making (also guilty) and run on sentences (this is something I have been very guilty of in the past and have come some way to overcoming).
This week’s workbook is worth reading, even if you’re not going to follow the whole twelve week program. I haven’t done the depth of information justice in this post. Belcher’s diagnostic test could be easily applied to any number of types of writing, and would be helpful and useful (see, still totally guilty of doubling!). Belcher gives really clear examples to illustrate each diagnostic point and provides both ‘better’ and ‘best’ revision sentences for a lot of the points, along with clear explanations of exactly why each sentence has been improved.
The basics of the diagnostic test are summed up by Blecher as: scrutinise your lists, scrutinise your verb, scrutinise your pronouns and cut unnecessary words. After coming to terms with the diagnostic test, the next thing to do is to take to your article armed with coloured pencils and start to strip (Belcher also says you can run the test using your word processor, but I wanted to break out the coloured pencils and do a proper mark-up). At the end of the day I had a pile of pages that were scribbled over in red, blue, purple, orange, green and brown (I did just use the colours suggested by Belcher). I’ll be honest, it was a little disheartening to see all those pages absolutely covered in marks. I spent the next two days diligently ploughing through the pages and happily throwing each finished page into the recycling bin. This took a little bit longer than the two hours scheduled by Belcher, and I spent around two hours on each of the two days to get through the whole article. The final day is to fix other types of sentence-level problems including looking at things like making sure your quotes are correct (in a technical sense, more than in a ‘being accurate’ sense), checking your punctuation (Belcher specifically mentions exclamation marks) and capitalisation, checking that you’ve italicised the correct types of words, that you haven’t included any non-explained acronyms, and more generally that your spelling and grammar is correct. I found this final day a lot easier, and it didn’t take the whole hour set out by the schedule.
I’m starting to feel really proud of my article now. It’s certainly a lot better than it was at the beginning. Next week’s task are all things we’ve covered before, but doing the final checks – I’m actually looking forward to seeing exactly how much better my article is!
Write a memo. Credit for this goes to Cheyanne Vanderdonckt. Sometimes an idea, a thought, an epiphany even, takes shape when you’re not in the midst of writing. Or, you are in the midst of writing but working on another idea. Those ideas can be fleeting, and may not even seem relevant or useful when they magically appear. Take a moment and take a memo. Whether in another file, on paper, or whatever method works best for you, jot down that idea. If you try to figure out how it fits in or where it goes in your document, it may slip away from you. And if it ends up not being relevant to your current project, it may be the seed of the next big idea you develop.
Ellie Mackin is a third year PhD student in Classics at King’s College London, and is working through Wendy Belcher’s ‘Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks’ while attempting to finish her thesis.
It’s already week nine. That means there are only three more weeks to go before my article will be ready for submission, and sent off into the big, wide world to fend for itself against peer review. So, I was pleased when this week was all about getting and giving feedback.
I’m not the best at giving feedback, I think. I am highly critical of my own work but I tend to give others the benefit of the doubt (perhaps I am not a peer reviewer in the making!). Because of this lack of feedback-knowhow on my own part I was pleased that Belcher started this chapter by talking about what makes good feedback and how to give good, constructive feedback. Of course, being a PhD student I am no stranger to receiving feedback, but the process of giving feedback is somewhat alien.
The first point that Belcher makes is one that I found very surprising at first, but the more I have thought about it the more it make sense: don’t obsess over the bibliography. Sure, you can recommend texts that might provide additional proof, or suggest something that a peer reviewer would notice is missing, but don’t go overboard on it. As Belcher points out: ‘An article is not meant to be exhaustive.’ I think that’s part of the trouble switching from thesis to article writing. One is clearly meant to be exhaustive and there is an element of ‘look how much I have read!’ to the thesis that just isn’t needed (or appropriate) for an article. Her other points (don’t approach the article as a writer trying to fix it, and don’t judge the work) are clear and make a lot of sense.
Finally, this section ends with a few paragraphs on what you should be doing when giving feedback, and I found this to be the most useful, even though it goes a bit over the ground of ‘positive-sandwich’ but goes on to some very good stuff: be specific! (how often have we all got back essays that just have a tick or cross, ‘good’ or ‘needs work’ or some other vague comment and it doesn’t help you very much! I think I am particularly prone to doing this!). The most useful part of this section was the comment that you should focus on telling the other author what you understood and didn’t, what the main argument you took away was – all of this helps the author to make sure they are clearly getting across what it is that they are trying to say. Tied in to this is to focus on the bigger picture – view the article as a whole, rather than looking right down at the micro-detail.
After this, the chapter started on what to do when you are getting feedback on your own work: ask, be specific about what you want, try to ignore the emotion in the reviewer’s words, and listen to what they have to say (I am particularly bad at these final two points, both in terms of writing and in life in general!).
So, I shared my article with a good friend and scholar from Australia, and did as Belcher suggested and gave detailed instructions on what I wanted to get out of the experience, based on Belcher’s own feeback form. My instructions included: ‘please write a short abstract for this article, so I can see what you took away at the main argument,’ and ‘please comment on the flow of the article’ which is important to me because my article covers two separate topics for the majority of the length, and then brings them both together in the conclusion, so I wanted to make sure that this worked. I also gave my friend a copy of the pages with Belcher instructions, which include giving instructions of the types of feedback, but also how to go about reading the article: once without a pen, looking at the whole, on the second read you tick or mark the good parts, third time you circle the unclear parts, the you write a summary of what you think the article is about. Then you go over the marks (good and bad) with the author. Although Belcher suggests exchanging articles, we didn’t – she didn’t have anything ready to review at this stage, and we also did it all over email (which I think worked just as well, and now I have a written record of what she has said, so that’s a bonus for me).
I have only just got the feedback back from her, so I haven’t had a chance to really go through it. Her summary points out what my main point is, but I think I will need to clarify some of my sub-points which she seemed a bit confused about. Overall, the first look at the feedback (with marks and circles done on track-changes) seems to indicate that my idea is clear but sometimes my delivery is not as clear as it could be. There were a few passages that I wasn’t surprised to see big red marks around.
I’m going to go through this feedback in much more detail and make some revision to my article based on them.