Some years ago, I spent a morning being interviewed for tenure-track jobs in English and that afternoon as the grad student member of an interview committee. Never have I experienced such cognitive dissonance: “They can’t know me!” I thought after an interview that I judged had gone badly. A few hours later, I was certain that I’d gotten an excellent bead on all the people we interviewed.
I would have suspected that my current split identity -- as a professor at a research university trying to get her own research published and as a co-editor of a journal -- would result in the same kind of dissonance: a belief that any editor who rejected my own articles is simply failing to be a good reader of my work while at the same time believing I can form accurate assessments of the articles I evaluate for my journal. Instead, my work as an editor has allowed me to understand why some of my articles never found a home in a scholarly journal while others have.
Let me narrate a few incidents from my own life as a literary scholar trying to get published through the lens of what I have learned as a journal editor. I want to part the curtain on an aspect of academic life that we don’t normally talk about: the story of our articles’ rejections and acceptances and what we think differentiates them. I’ll also describe how my sense of myself as an academic writer has changed over the years.
I started sending out articles to scholarly journals when I was in grad school. The first few were a bust. I sent them only to top journals and gave up after I received negative reports. I received these responses very quickly. I thought I was just lucky in how quickly I would hear; I knew it could take up to a year to hear back from a journal.
Now I know that my articles were being given what’s called a desk reject: they didn’t pass the first round of scrutiny. At my own journal, we skim articles to check on a few things: that they meet the length requirement, that their subject falls under our journal’s purview, that they engage in a current scholarly debate. If the article fails to meet any of these criteria, we’ll write the author a rejection letter in short order. In terms of my own early efforts, I was good at observing word lengths, not great at thinking about the purview of the journal (I did skim its webpage) and bad at entering current scholarly debates.
The first article I wrote that made it past this first hurdle -- that was sent out to two external reviewers -- garnered a split decision: one revise/resubmit and one thumbs-down. It was rejected. I knew an article wouldn’t necessarily get into the first journal I sent it to, and it was a good thing that I knew that. I tinkered with it and then sent it off to a different journal. And then I received a similar split decision. And then again.
By the time I had been rejected by the third journal, I realized that this article was probably never going to find a home; the tinkering I had been doing wasn’t enough to overcome the negative responses it was generating. With that realization, I got desperate, and in my desperation I began seriously rewriting the article. I saw that my entry into a debate about the relative merits about two 19th-century American literary works had ramifications for pedagogical debates going on today -- and after I revised the article to operate on both of those levels, it was finally accepted. It’s not that every article I write has to have a pedagogical angle, but it helped me to meditate on my own claim and to take it farther than I had been wont to take my research papers for grad school.
“Taking it farther” doesn’t have a formula, but I do associate it with a sense of doubleness. Here’s what I mean: many journals want articles to do two things at once. In the case of literary studies, they want an author to offer an original interpretation of a particular literary work and write about how this interpretation intervenes in a debate over method or literary history or literary theory, or, in the case of my own article, in a debate over how best to train our students to read critically. They want what we might call 2-D, articles and I realized that, at best, I had been writing in only one dimension.
I also realized that I shouldn’t tinker when I got back negative comments; I should revise. Let me fast-forward to an article about being a writing program administrator that I sent out a few years ago that went on a particularly exemplary journey. I sent it first to one journal, where it passed the first stage (you will quickly get better at passing the first stage) and was sent to two external readers. One thought it had some merit but also some serious problems; the other strongly disliked it. In the course of detailing her antipathy, the second reader, unusually, revealed her own identity: she was author of an article I had denigrated in the course of my own.
The journal rejected my article because the more positive assessment wasn’t all that positive. I revised the article: in response to the second reader’s comments, I cut out my beef with her article, since it wasn’t crucial to my own claim. In response to the first reader’s comments, I changed the opening of the article, added new sections and cut others. I also modified my thesis in answering an objection the reader had made: that my own approach wasn’t sufficiently distinguished from that used by people involved in Writing in the Disciplines. In the process of distinguishing my approach from theirs, I was able to clarify just what I was endorsing.
I then sent the article to another journal. Gratifyingly, I received a very positive response from the first reader, so positive -- and unusual in its positivity -- that I’ve had to resist the urge to frame it and place it over my desk. And attach blinking lights. The other response was much less positive but contained some useful suggestions for revision. The journal asked me to revise and resubmit the article. I did, based on the second reader’s comments. It was then sent back to this second reviewer and a new reviewer. However, this new reviewer turned out to be the first reader for the journal it had initially been rejected from. I was grateful now for strategic reasons that I had followed that reader’s suggestions. The reader noticed I had and was pleased; I had also revised the article sufficiently to pass muster with the second reader from the second journal. The upshot: an acceptance.
In terms of my evolving identity as a writer, I’ve developed an idea very much the opposite of the idea I formed after my bad interviews. Seldom are the readers of my articles at fault when my articles are rejected. My essays are often a little uncooked even after I’ve been working on them for a while. Despite ideas I had in my undergrad and even in my early grad school days about the inspired quality of my begun-at-the-last-minute essays, I see now that what makes my essays good usually comes in the fourth draft rather than the first.
Here, now, is a list of 10 lessons about getting published, both a distillation and augmentation of what I narrated above.
Avoid the desk reject.
- Make sure you conform to the length guidelines of the journal to which you’re submitting.
- Research that journal. Start with its webpage to find a description of its purview and then also read some articles, which will enable you to discover other important things about what its editors publish: e.g., do the articles share a certain method? Do they favor comparative work? Prefer a certain kind of scholarly intervention?
- Make sure you acknowledge both recent and seminal scholarly work on the topic you are writing about. Editors will normally send your article out to external readers who have also written on your subject, and these external readers will find it a problem if you haven’t acknowledged their own contributions (especially if not many people have written about the topic) or other contributions thought to be central to that topic.
Make your scholarly intervention explicit. It’s not enough to know in your own head that you’re addressing a question or topic that other scholars are addressing. Be explicit about how what you’re saying is different from what other scholars have been saying. Conventionally, scholars do it at the beginning of their essays. (Often, journal editors read the first few pages of an article and if they don’t see this scholarly conversation being invoked won’t read any farther). If you’re writing about something no one has explicitly written about, discuss how your claim has ramifications for conversations other scholars are having about related topics.
Be respectful toward the views you disagree with. This enables you to make your own claim more sophisticated (how hard is it to argue against a weak view?), but it also makes strategic sense: editors like to send articles to the scholars they’re disagreeing with. This doesn’t mean you should avoid disagreement; it means that you make sure that this particular disagreement is crucial to developing your own claim and is done with great generosity about the strength of the opposing view.
Make the article resonate along two different axes. In my own case as a literary scholar, I try to offer an original interpretation of a literary text that also operates at another level of inquiry as well: a point of literary history or literary theory or current pedagogy. Not every journal will require this (and hardly any of them require it explicitly), but it is often what differentiates a somewhat interesting article from one that seems particularly strong.
Even if your article gets rejected, take the comments you receive from your readers very seriously. We’ve all had people who misread our articles, but more often these readers will give you excellent advice on how to make your article better. And you never know, but that a new journal might send the article back to the same reader. In cases where you receive contradictory advice from your two readers, the lesson might not be “they don’t know what they’re talking about.” Instead, your readers might both be recognizing that there’s a problem with your article. But it’s sometimes hard to figure out what it is -- or there might be different ways of fixing it.
Rejoice at a decision of revise and resubmit. It’s rare for articles to get accepted directly.
Send the editor a letter detailing the revisions you’ve made to address the suggestions given by your external readers. List the different suggestions and discuss how you’ve responded to them and whether there were any you didn’t address and why. As a journal editor, I don’t expect authors to agree with every suggestion, but I do need to know why they didn’t think it would strengthen their article.
Feel free to query a journal after an appropriate length of time. You can check back in if you never received an acknowledgment that they received your submission or if it’s been five or six months after you initially sent it in. But you should know that it can take six months or so for a journal to contact and then receive reports from two external readers.
It’s not easy to get articles published in scholarly journals, and it’s extremely difficult (for me, at least, but I’ve heard that it’s this way for many others, too) to get them accepted immediately. I console myself when an article gets rejected by using the often useful feedback to develop the piece further. I rejoice at my revise and resubmits. I see revision not as a testament to my failure and not as a means of just (or even primarily) pleasing my detractors but as a way of attaining a level of sophistication that will make my article interesting to my colleagues.