Revising

The words “revise and resubmit” carry with them a particular emotional response in academia: a unique combination of hopeful self-satisfaction, anxiety, and existential dread. Its a trite truism that we all need to learn to accept criticism. Academia turns accepting criticism into an art, that also happens to be part of our daily workload. Revise and resubmit is one of three possible responses when submitting an article for publication in a journal. Rather than outright accept or reject, revise and resubmit means that the core concept is good, but the readers had comments. “The readers had comments” could be written on the tombstone of every academic. Your peers, colleagues in your field, found some things worth changing. It could be that you failed to site a relevant study, or you used a word in a way that didn’t sit well with someone. The overall gestalt is “I liked it, but not as much as you wanted me to.” And the feeling that comes with that is being damned with faint praise.

Revising is perhaps the most essential part of my writing process. Something about how my brain works means that I need many drafts to get the point of my argument across without distracting my reader with something else. I wrote recently that it’s been my tone or my word choice that stops people from understanding me. It can also be the order in which I introduce evidence (apparently I think in concentric circles instead of lines), and as a result I have had editing processes that involved flipping the order of the entire paper.

But revising is still exhausting. Internalizing criticism is exhausting. Doing the same work repeatedly is exhausting.

Today, I had an epiphany about a piece of writing that I have been working on for a decade. In 2010, I wrote a paragraph-long aside in a junior seminar, which became a standalone MA seminar paper in 2013, which became a journal article in 2015. And since 2015 I have tried and failed to get this paper published. The criticisms of it have been varied, but all true. At the same time, I presented this work at a conference in 2016, and it’s up on my Academia.edu page, where the praise for it has been loud and consistent – this is a valid piece of scholarship that would be a useful addition to the field. So, every once in a while, I come back to this paper and revise it yet again, and submit it yet again. I have never been granted a revise and resubmit, just rejection after rejection, but the overall impact of the conflicting responses to it has been revise and resubmit. “I like it, but not as much as you wanted me to.”

My epiphany was a totally different framing to this piece. Instead of launching into the historiographical fray, trying to make my contribution in a debate that is already very full, I should be viewing things from above. What am I actually adding that is new – is what I asked myself. I’m suggesting a different methodological approach to the question. Whereas that methodological approach was a secondary point before (making the whole piece very complicated), I’m making it the main argument now. I can still use a lot of the work I’ve already done, but reframing the piece is actually an easier approach than trying to fix the problems that existed before. The reason this was novel for me was that I suddenly connected what I had been trying to do in this article with what I’ve been working on for my dissertation. I hadn’t thought about it that way before because I wrote this article long before I articulated the methodological argument of my dissertation.

Maybe this version of the article won’t get it accepted to a journal either. But it’s an interesting process to go back and fix what I was trying to say. There’s certainly a limit to revising, and there’s no point in revising something that is totally in the past. But here I have another chance to make this article work while it’s still relevant, and the process of doing that is potentially helpful for other things I’m working on too. That level of self-criticism, that internalization of the feedback I’ve gotten, also feels important, like maybe one day I can not only anticipate the criticism, but head it off entirely.