Reflections on Rejection, Revision, and Resubmission

Ariadne weeping

Ariadne weeping (Huntington MS HM 60)

Rejection sucks. I think we can all agree on that. And rejection in an academic context especially sucks. Job applications, grant applications, and research submissions. And I think this is because- however much we know that our real selves are not determined by the outcome of our academic work- these kinds of rejections feel personal. Blood, sweat, tears, and hours of work go into every application, every article, every book proposal, and it is really difficult to separate the way we feel about ourselves from the way we feel about our academic work. Sometimes, academia feels like this:

Toy Story meme

I know because I’ve been there! So what I want to do in the post- which I’ve been promising on twitter for a long time!- is to think a bit about rejection and academic feedback in terms of academic articles and to offer some advice, both my own and that of the excellent twitter hive mind, for how to deal with rejection and how to approach revisions plus top tips for how to deal with reviewers’ feedback and how to put things into perspective.

An important caveat here is that, as ever, I am writing from my own personal experience- and I recognise that I am writing from a position of privilege as I do have a permanent job. The situation for PhD students and ECRs is very different now from when I finished my DPhil and I am aware that what my teaching job has given me (in some ways) is time. It took me ten years to write my monograph but I was employed throughout that period (and for more on the ‘journey’ that was my monograph, see this rather long post here!). I have also had a lot of fantastic support along the way but sometimes it has felt rather lonely too, and this is where the amazing, generous, and supportive community of #medievaltwitter really came into its own. So one thing that I actively try to do is to pay that forward and support others, whether that is by face-to-face mentoring in Oxford, letting people read my book proposal (hit me up if you think it would help!), and offering to read and give feedback on academic work (again, let me know if you need a second pair of eyes on something medieval and if I can help, I will!). And I also try to write useful posts in this blog that as well as offering personal reflections, also give top tips and useful advice. Many of which in this case came from the twitter hivemind, so thanks to everyone who replied to my tweets a month or so ago on this topic.

It began many years ago… The story of the article that I thought would never see the light of day!

My impetus for writing this post comes from the fact that this year I had an article on Margery Kempe published that has been through a number of different incarnations before it finally came out in this form in Nottingham Medieval Studies:

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 14.56.21

So I thought I would start by talking a bit about how my article got to this point, as one of things that isn’t visible when you see a new academic publication is its back story! My article started out more than ten years ago as a chapter of my DPhil thesis! When I reshaped the thesis into a book, I ended up removing all the Margery Kempe material to make way for more relevant things (more on this here) but I had always thought that chapter 3 of the thesis, on Margery Kempe and her parish church, could work as a stand alone article. I wrote it up as an article of around 8,000 words and sent it to a journal about two years after finishing the DPhil, and I had it read by a professor who works on Kempe before I sent it. The professor seemed to like it but the journal wrote back after they had received one reader’s report and said that there were lots of problems with the article. I can’t remember the specifics because I was so traumatised by the negative feedback (which probably wasn’t phrased all that negatively actually!), that I immediately put the offending piece of work in a deep drawer and resolved never to think of it again. This probably wasn’t the best idea! I probably should have addressed the feedback and written back to the journal, and then they may have sent it out to a second reader, but I didn’t feel confident enough to do this so I just left it…

And left it… and then a couple of years after that, I decided that I really should try to do something with it. After all, I still fundamentally thought that I was on to something with Margery Kempe’s relationship with her parish church. In the original article, I had basically hung the argument on two quotations from Kempe scholarship that I was doggedly determined to disprove (you know that excited moment you get when writing a thesis, when you find something that someone has said and you go, ‘Aha! You are so wrong and my thesis will prove it!’). I had two such comments that, to be fair, I had probably slightly overinflated. One was about Kempe’s marginality and one declared that Kempe and the church were in opposition to each other. My original article tried to do two things, argue for Kempe’s centrality and argue for the importance of the church as a stage for Margery’s performance of mystical authority, but when I came back to it for the second time, I realised that Kempe scholarship had moved on, particularly after the publication of the Companion to The Book of Margery Kempe so I decided to ditch the first part of the argument in the way that I had framed it and come back to Margery and the church.

One of my favourite pieces of Kempe scholarship is Gail Gibson’s discussion of Margery as a ‘self-styled saint’ in her wonderful book The Theatre of Devotion. So I thought I would come back to this idea and argue that Margery’s interaction with the church further represents her as a saint… But then I went back to the Companion and realised that the brilliant Katherine Lewis had already made this argument… So I thought I would try to think about Margery more specifically as a patron saint of the church, given that in one of the major episodes that I’m interested in (chapter 67), Margery saves the church from a fire that is sweeping through King’s Lynn because of her prayers. I thought this was quite a good idea but it didn’t really account for the other episode that I was interested in, when Margery is in the church and a stone and beam from the roof fall on her head and back, and miraculously, she is saved (chapter 9). And then I couldn’t really think of enough ‘new’ things to say, so I put the article away, again!

By this point it must have been about six years since I wrote the thesis chapter. I had sent in my book proposal to Manchester University Press and I was waiting to hear back. So I needed something to do and since I didn’t have the energy to start from scratch, I decided to go back again to the idea of Margery and the church! By this stage I had finally had another article accepted for a journal (on Margery Kempe, devotional objects, and performance identity, available here to download) so I had slightly more idea what I was doing! So I decided to go back to basics and to ask myself why I thought Margery Kempe’s parish church was the most important place in her Book and not only what the church is able to do for Margery but what Margery herself was able to do for the church. I was able to reexamine Margery’s interaction with the church as a lay parishioner because by this point I had been working in more detail on the texts that come under the heading of pastoral care, the material used by priests to teach the laity about the faith and also about how to behave in and interact with their spiritual home, the parish church. Once I’d had this idea, I had a meeting with a colleague and told her all about it and she made a brilliant point- Margery Kempe’s Book is full of places, important ones such as Rome and Jerusalem, so how was I going to prove my point, that her parish church is the most important place in comparison with those key spaces for medieval Christianity?

Good question! And this meant that I actually wrote an entirely new first section of the article which argued the case for the orientation of the Book around King’s Lynn, Margery’s hometown, and more specifically around her parish church. The new abstract for the article now looked like this:

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 15.53.22

I ended up with a really extensive article- in some ways, more of a book chapter!- but luckily for me, Nottingham Medieval Studies journal is flexible about word count and thankfully the anonymous readers were sympathetic to the reasons for its length. I still had changes to make though. I hadn’t really addressed the importance of Rome in Margery’s Book (after all, her mystical marriage to the Godhead takes place there!), so I went back and wrote a new paragraph to take this properly into account. And there were various other things as well. It probably took me a couple of weeks to make the revisions and then I sent it back in and it was accepted, hurrah!

So this is a ‘revise and resubmit [but to a new journal!]’ story that has a happy ending! I suppose I want to draw a few points out of this that I think might be helpful.

Top tips

Firstly, that no research is ever wasted! You can come back to it later and develop it with a fresh pair of eyes- even years later!

Sometimes rejection is a good thing! I think that if the article had been published eight years ago, it wouldn’t have been as ambitious in its arguments or, hopefully, as useful to Kempe criticism. I think it was far narrower in scope and intent. So now, I am very pleased that it was rejected but also that I persevered with it. The kernel of the idea was still the same, I just needed to reframe the arguments and be more interesting in setting out what was at stake. It was no longer about arguing with two particular sentences in existing Kempe criticism, I wanted to make a broader point.

Now I definitely wasn’t thinking in these terms when the original article was rejected so now I want to move on to think a bit about how we can deal with rejection but also with revising after reviewer feedback.

The dreaded reviewer 2…

But first, I had fun googling ‘reviewer 2’ memes. It’s always reviewer 2, isn’t it?!

Now one of the things that is so frustrating about anonymous peer review feedback, is that sometimes you get the mean, hurtful, and just plain wrong comments of reviewer 2 (and really, editors should be mindful of this when they are sending feedback to authors. It was definitely not helpful to me when I received a piece of feedback that said ‘the author of this paper knows nothing about the Middle Ages’, which is clearly WRONG and hurt like hell at the time!). When you get that kind of feedback, it is even more difficult to be objective! And that sort of comment should be immediately ignored and sent back from whence it came!!

But even when the criticism is fair and constructive, sometimes there can be a lot of it and it can feel like a mountain to climb. And it can feel like a criticism of your very identity, even though it is just a comment on your essay! And even when actually you’re being asked to do some revisions because ultimately, your essay has been accepted.

So how can we best deal with reviewer feedback? Here are some of my best tips and the tips from the twitter hive mind:

Discuss the feedback face to face with a peer, mentor, or friend. This will help you to be more objective. An outsider might read the tone of the feedback very differently and an academic peer or mentor can help you to sort the feedback into categories.

When I think about types of feedback, I think there are probably two types- the ‘useful / not useful’ and the ‘doable / not doable’ and these can intersect. Some feedback is useful and interesting but not doable in the context of your essay (due to word count restrictions or because really it’s outside the scope of what you want to do). I think it’s important that you are writing what you want to write- some feedback is clearly the ‘if had written this article, it would look like this’. Some of that feedback you can discard, it’s not useful and you need to stay true to your vision of the piece. But of course you also have to accept constructive criticism and not be so arrogant that you refuse to make any changes at all! Feedback is always a balancing act and it was a long time before I realised that you don’t have to implement every single suggestion that you are offered. You can write to the editors and explain what you have done and what you have not been able to do or chosen not to do- and the academic justification for those decisions (it can’t just be that you’ve had a tantrum and just don’t want to!!)

When I’ve read through the feedback and discussed it with an academic colleague (or my Mum!), I then write a list of the points that I need to address on a separate piece of paper in my own handwriting, and I put the reviewer comments away. I find it much easier to address the comments if I’ve rewritten them in my own hand and in my own words, and once I have sorted out the ones that I do and do not intend to address. At the top of this piece of paper, I also write down any compliments from the reviewers so that I can refer back to the positive comments if I get a bit overwhelmed! Doing revisions is always tough, however much you know you need to do them and that they will make the essay better in the end, so it’s nice to have some positive affirmation too!

If you need to do some thinking in order to decide what your response is to each point, then do that in a separate document or by hand. Write down the points and the free write your immediate response next to each one. Why does a particular criticism make you feel anxious or fill you with dread? Thinking about how you feel about the feedback can help you to sort out your emotional response from your objective, academic response. Maybe this was a paragraph that you worked really hard on and found tough, and it still isn’t right! Or maybe this is a point that, if you were really honest with yourself, you would agree was a problem area from the start.

I then tend to divide these ‘action points’ into ‘easy, medium, and hard’ and use that to help me prioritise how and when to address them. I usually do some easy ones first! So that might be adding in some factual information or tinkering with a footnote or slightly changing the phrasing here and there. Medium points might be rethinking the argument in a couple of paragraphs where the argument seems unclear or reading a new piece of criticism and taking account of it. Hard points require serious thinking! I had to rewrite the conclusion of a recent piece and I had to write an important caveat for the introduction, explaining what was (and wasn’t) in the scope of the article. I tend to do ‘hard’ revisions first thing in the morning when I’m at my sharpest or I build up to them by crossing off lots of easy ones first!

Here are some of the other responses that I received on twitter when I asked my followers how they deal with feedback:

Helpful comments from twitter!

Early Modern Studies research hub recommended this blogpost: ‘How to Respond to a ‘Revise and Resubmit’ from an Academic Journal: Ten Steps to a Successful Revision’

Karl Kinsella tweeted, ‘the simple recognition that everyone gets rejected from high-flying professors to PhD students helped me. It’s part of a scientific process that creates knowledge.’ It definitely helped me to know that I wasn’t in it alone!

Laura Sangha noted the importance of getting someone else to read the feedback for you, ‘the rejected are prone to read much more into it and to read it more negatively than it might be intended’.

Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir said that ‘it’s often helpful to let it lie for a while and when you get back to it the comments don’t seem as bad and revising doesn’t seem as insurmountable as when the rejection is still raw.’ This is great advice! Don’t necessarily jump into the revisions immediately (especially if you know you are tired or overworked already because it’s the end of term for example!)

I follow lots of great writers on twitter and Melanie Hewitt suggested working on a separate, unrelated piece: ‘different subject matter, style etc. Then when you return to the original work it gives you a fresh eye‘.

Novelist Liz Fenwick also offered great advice, ‘first sleep on it… then separate out the useful from the non useful / subjective… then see if it chimes with my inner voice thoughts- those niggling noises in my head that tell me something isn’t right.’ This is a great point about criticism chiming with ones inner voice, sometimes we know that the criticism is justified and that bit in the essay that we knew deep down was problematic, does in fact turn out to be so!

Another creative writer Jane Newberry commented, ‘aim to cut out emotion- it’s never personal. I try to regard a rejection as part of ‘the process’ of writing. The rejection does not mean that the article/writing is bad, flawed or wrong- more likely it’s just the wrong person reading the material.’ This is great advice, sometimes it’s the wrong readers and the wrong journal! (But choosing the ‘right’ journal would be the subject of another blogpost!)

And in an ideal world, the reviewer’s aim isn’t to be personal and hurtful. I am new to actually doing peer review myself but when I wrote my first review, I realised how much easier it was to list criticism of a piece than to write down praise! I was quite shocked at myself actually as I always try to be kind and enthusiastic- I know how this process feels from the other side! But just like marking student essays, we can spot the problem areas really easily but we shouldn’t neglect to point out all the good too. Now I make sure that my reviews are equally weighted and give praise where it is due because that is so important!

Ellie Mackin suggested, ‘set a time limit and let yourself feel awful and then move on. Also, try to keep perspective on it- an article rejection isn’t the end of the world (ha, obviously easier said than done). Remember everyone gets rejected’. I definitely agree- let yourself have time to wallow and do whatever makes you feel better- binge watch Netflix, go for a run, stuff yourself with ice cream… but then start over!

Daniel Sawyer gave this helpful comment, ‘even negative reports which completely miss the point can sometimes be useful as a demonstration of exactly how a reader might miss the point– sometimes reports which felt unjust have still helped me reframe and clarify.’ This is a great point, sometimes we think we have been clear about something but when you’ve been writing an article for a really long time, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees!

And finally this great piece of practical advice from Julia Walworth: ‘a very successful senior academic told me that each time they submitted a research article they also addressed an envelope to an alternative publication. Kept said envelope to remind self that there is always an alternative’.

This is such good advice, there is always an alternative! You can revise and resubmit, rethink and start over, put it aside for years and come back to it… But just keep going! If you have any thoughts or advice, please do leave a comment or tweet me!

you got this meme

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3 Responses to Reflections on Rejection, Revision, and Resubmission

  1. Julian Brasington says:

    Excellent read, Laura. The terrible thing with review – any review – is that it’s a subjective process – one subject to mood as well as position. And yes, reviewers could do with treating authors with respect no matter how little they like a writer’s work.

    I wonder whether, once a writer has absorbed the initial shock of a rejection, they might find it helpful to think of feedback in terms of fair and unfair and, having considered considered why they’ve come to that conclusion, then think about how to respond. Fair page, 4 columns: feedback; reason for thinking this fair; reason why it might be unfair; action in respect to the writing e.g. strengthen the argument in respect to / leave it as it is. Ditto for unfair comments. Talking it through with a friend, colleague is, as you say, a great idea too. Writers need to talk far more about their writing than many actually do.

    • lauravarnam says:

      Thanks so much for this, Julian. I really like your idea of ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’- that really helps to sort through what’s going to be useful in this particular context or not. And definitely, I’m all for talking it through with others- always helps me when I feel ‘too close’ to the feedback! Thanks for your comment and for replying.

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