When ‘revisions’ are really about ‘re-vision’

So last week, June 2022, I resubmitted an article… an article that I had a ‘revise and resubmit’ decision on in July 2021! I posted a twitter thread on the resubmission and thought I’d write it up here, not least because I think as academics we could talk more about the process of drafting and redrafting work- and the fact that a published article or chapter is very rarely the first incarnation of a piece of work! (And most of our work that is out there has a complex ‘backstory’ that can’t be seen by its readers out in the world!)

I wrote a blogpost back in 2018 about an article that had been more than ten years in the making, starting life as a chapter of my PhD, being rejected in a first incarnation and then hidden away out of shame, being re-imagined when scholarship had overtaken my first idea, and finally seeing the light of day in a much improved form. In that blogpost I was talking more about rejection and how hard it is.

But I also think it’s also worth talking about revisions and how hard they can be too- even when they’re positive and you haven’t been completely floored by the notorious reviewer 2! In the case of the article that I’ve just resubmitted, it was an even more complex process. The article had already gone through a round of peer review at a journal that requires three reports- and aside from minor revisions, it was mostly praised (hurrah!). I did the required revisions, which were approved, but the article was too long. And in the end, for various reasons, I parted company with the journal as the publishers weren’t prepared to take the piece in its current form and I wasn’t prepared to cut it. (What can you do! It just didn’t feel right).

So I found another journal to send it to! The second journal were warm and enthusiastic about it but they suggested some revisions. Some were minor (adding some discursive footnotes on particular topics, being more careful about terminology in one particular area) but some were more significant and they concerned the argument. Both reviewers felt that the argument came into its own in the conclusion and that it would be much better if the conclusion became the introduction. And they were right! (Damn! I’d done exactly what I warn my students not to do- leave the best ’til last, like the final ‘aha!’ in a crime novel). One of the reviewers also noted, quite rightly, that the final third of the article because a little ‘compare and contrast’. (Again, I often tell my students to make sure that every single paragraph is driven by argument… Insert Hermione gif, ‘what. an. idiot.’)

So surely these things were easy to fix, right? Not exactly…

I received the feedback last July and a) I had other work on last summer and b) (for Reasons), I wasn’t really in the right headspace to tackle the revisions. So I decided to have a go at them in term time. (Cue absolutely appropriate laughter!) I did, however, have a few clear days that I circled for research in November and I read back over the article. The reviewers were correct that the conclusion should be the introduction and as soon as I shifted the material, I realised that there were other points that I could make to reinforce the opening. So far so good!

Then, of course, the rest of term happened, admissions interviewing happened, it was Christmas, I had another deadline at the end of January, then I had to submit a conference abstract… And while I went back to the article a couple of times, could I figure out how to fix the final third? Absolutely not. No idea whatsoever.

And you know why? I think it was for three reasons. Firstly, that psychologically, I just hadn’t quite squared myself with the fact that the article needed fixing at all (it had already been accepted by another journal, surely it was basically fine?!) and secondly, that in order to make the material in the final third work, I needed a stronger throughline. And perhaps even more importantly, the article just wasn’t ‘in my head’ any more. I wrote it originally pre-pandemic- in January/February 2020, and I revised it over Easter 2020. I couldn’t really remember the details and I was trying to do the revisions without really giving myself over, properly, to the material. I wasn’t immersed in it anymore, so no wonder I couldn’t figure out how to fix it!

Also- and this is significant- it mattered to me in a different way now. When I first wrote the piece, I was just desperate to write up my take on a fascinating text but it wasn’t anything more than that, really. By the time I came to revise it, the article had potentially become the building block for a bigger project- perhaps a monograph! So it needed to do more and to be more than merely a stand-alone piece.

Another factor is that I’d written two quite different pieces in the interim that had really developed my writing style in different ways. I could see that the main argument that I came to in the original version was, surprisingly, speaking to my new interests and new ways of interacting with texts– so perhaps I could lean into those ideas in the new version? Perhaps I should!

So at Easter, I went back to the article and started from the ground up. I reread the primary text, I reread some of the criticism, and I read some articles and a couple of books that I had been reading for one of my other projects but I thought might be relevant here. I got some material together and I wrote lots of random paragraphs in a word doc– copying out secondary quotes and saying something about them; typing up primary quotes that I hadn’t used in the original piece. But it still wasn’t quite fizzing for me, it felt routine somehow.

I consulted the twitter hivemind on how to get back into a piece that wasn’t quite working and the brilliant Emily M. Harless recommending reading something completely new– and that, quite honestly, was a revelation! What a great idea. Emily also happened to have recommended a book to me that turned out to be absolutely perfect because it spoke to the argument that I had identified as the driving force of the article but hadn’t quite been able to articulate in enough depth.

I then rewrote the introduction to incorporate this new theoretical material and started typing out the second section of the article (which just needed a few slight readjustments to account for the new argument) and then when I got to the third section… I realised that actually, it wasn’t really relevant anymore! Damn!

I tried rewriting it and I tried to come up with reasons it was there but then I realised that it was actually a hangover from an argument in my monograph. It had very little to do with the new argument I was advancing here! (There was certainly an article’s worth of material in the topic and if I were still pursuing representations of sacred space as a primary research interest, I’d have been well away! But that wasn’t what I was interested in here.)

So it had to go! I used a small part of it in response to the reviewer’s comments and then I ended up reimagining the third part of the article as a conversation between two key ideas that exemplified two interconnected strands of my argument. This then led to a more interesting conclusion and- after rereading the primary text again (yes, *facepalm*)- I realised I could develop the conclusion too and incorporate new material

(All the random paragraphs of stuff that I’d typed up over Easter came into their own here too. There were all sorts of things that I was able to weave in, as I was typing. And as a side note, when I’m editing on a deep level, I can’t just fiddle around with correcting text that is already there- either printed or on screen- I need to retype it word for word. It always helps!)

I should note at this stage that I have resubmitted the article but I have no idea what the editors think!! But I think the crucial point for me is that I’ve produced a much stronger, more precise, and nuanced piece of work, that I think could be a stepping stone for a larger project. And I’m quite proud of it, actually! I think it works!! (Let’s hope the editors think so!!)

So what have I learned from this process?

  • Definitely not to berate myself if I can’t do the revisions immediately. (I’m a conscientious and organised person and I felt like it was hanging over my head all year, but I was not in the right headspace last summer to do it- both personally and intellectually, and that’s okay!)
  • To step back and think about the revisions holistically. Sometimes even minor revisions aren’t a quick editing job, you may need to do more- and that’s okay too. Trust your gut!
  • To properly re-engage with the material. You can’t revise properly if you’re not immersed in the topic. (This was definitely a case of ‘revision’ as ‘re-vision’. A surface approach was not going to work).
  • To read something new as a way of getting my brain working again!
  • To recognise and embrace the fact that I had changed as a writer over the eighteen months since the first version was written and edited, and indeed since I received the revisions themselves
  • To really think about the purpose of the article– not just in scholarly terms, although that’s important, but for me. For my own work and where that work might be going. It’s better to slow down and consider than rush on in the hope of getting another publication out more quickly).*
  • To remember that things take time! (Says the person whose monograph took ten years. I know this and yet I’m easily impatient and want to rush on to the next thing!)
  • That sometimes the reviewers spot a point for improvement which might seem straightforward but sometimes requires considerable rethinking, and that it’s okay to take the opportunity to do that.

* This point might also occasion a conversation about when it’s time to just put something down for good. Sometimes, I think you have to know when to cut your losses with a piece or when to decide that actually, you don’t want to pursue it any further. I had a conference paper that I gave a few years ago- it was really hard to get the abstract accepted and the paper was hard to write. The conference went well and I was invited to submit a proposal for a book chapter. But every time I thought about writing it, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of dread. I knew, deep down, that the conference paper version was my limit and that I didn’t truly know enough to be able to develop the piece. And that was fine! I got onto the conference and I appreciated that very much. But that was the limit for me at that moment!

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on revision or on your writing process! I don’t think we talk about these things enough. Everyone has a unique process but I think we can all learn from sharing not only ‘best practice’ and what works for us, but also the reality of what revising an article might really mean.

TL/DR: sometimes revisions take time and that’s fine!

(Ps. Wish me luck with the editors!!!)

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