How to Slam-Dunk a Revision

Peer review can sting, write Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist, but continued revision is the lifeblood of scholarship.

January 12, 2017
 
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After countless hours devoted to a research project, the act of finally getting a manuscript out the door can feel nothing short of euphoric. That is, until the reviewer responses are returned. While we have claimed before that one of the great things about academe is being judged by our peers rather than a single boss, peer review can sting. We might secretly dream of the manuscript that comes back with “Perfect! We’ll print it. Don’t change a thing.” But most mortals instead face rejection at worst and extended critique at best.

It’s important to remember that continued revision is the lifeblood of scholarship and the process of peer critique is how we hone that art. You should celebrate each submission as the movement of your work one step forward and not mourn suggestions for revision as a step backward. In this column, we give advice for how to take on revision successfully without losing that feeling of progress.

Why We Revise

Some of the resistance and stress that faculty members feel around revising reflects how they were taught to write as undergraduates with a final paper that received a grade “as is.” While writing pedagogy increasingly emphasizes multistep assignments including revisions, too few academics learn to see revision as an integral part of the writing process. Yet good writing always includes revising, clarifying and addressing logical lapses.

When writing about research, faculty members with expertise may have assumptions that are unstated. Lack of clarity may also lead the argument to seem unpersuasive. One of the keys to benefiting from critique is understanding what points are consistently confusing readers. When multiple readers provide critiques, it is effective to triangulate across the reviews. Each reader may suggest different fixes, but there are often shared themes across their suggested revisions. The analysis may have a conceptual flaw or weakness that the readers are all attempting to address in different ways.

A strong editor reads all the critiques and the original manuscript and identifies key issues shared across the critiques. Such an editor is often able to translate how the author can address the problem. But some editors only pass along the reviews -- or make bad suggestions -- in which case authors need to step back and formulate their own plan.

How to Revise?

It’s normal to feel particularly annoyed or upset when reviewers use a negative or dismissive tone. But try to tune out the tone and focus instead on the substance of the critique, some of which may reflect a misreading of the argument and some of which may genuinely identify flaws. In revising, you can create a better manuscript and ensure that other people do not similarly misunderstand what you’ve written or find the same flaws.

Thus, you should approach reviewers as though they are your allies, helping you to craft a more persuasive argument and make your manuscript a better version of itself. Ideally, good critiques will not only lead to publication but also to an article or book that others will read, understand and find useful. The best academic writing is easy to comprehend, even to those outside the particular field -- and hence gets taken up widely. Viewing revision as a means to create better writing -- rather than as an obstacle to overcome -- can make it a little less onerous.

Your first step should be to compile a list that restates reviewer critiques in neutral language. Making this list takes the sting out of reviews and enables you to return to the comments without getting distracted by the reviewers’ tone. It is also important to consider how each suggestion might strengthen or weaken the manuscript.

This process should also help winnow the list, as several critiques may turn into one point on the revision list. Grouping similar critiques together is crucial for making the revisions coherent. This approach can also clarify any underlying issues animating the critiques. For example, critiques might be focused on concepts, literature review, theory, data, methods, analysis or interpretation. Revision then should be aimed at communicating around those issues more effectively.

While it can easily seem like reviewers are critiquing the manuscript from all sides to destroy your research, it is best to consider instead why they’ve made the comments they have. What makes them read the manuscript so differently than you do? Most reviewers agree to write reviews because they are interested in your topic, so how can you persuade them that the manuscript is worthwhile?

There are, of course, some demon reviewers whose aim is destructive. Good editors will identify and discount such reviews; if they do not, speak with the editor about the review you feel is unfair. The goal should remain to create the best manuscript possible.

Types of Revision

There are many different types of revisions, including the stressful revise and resubmit, the hopeful conditional acceptance, and the distressing rejection.

A revise and resubmit suggests digging in deeply. Many authors see this outcome as a depressing battle of the wills, working to defend their manuscript against the slings and arrows of reviewers. But it is important to recognize that the editor is investing in the work. While an unsuccessful revision may mean that the manuscript is eventually rejected, editors only issue a revise-and-resubmit notice if they would ultimately like to publish the work.

The editor’s letter is usually a helpful guide to understand the issues to focus upon. A good decision letter will also help sort out contradictory advice from reviewers. If there are clear contradictions and the editor’s letter does not help, ask the editor for guidance. Few editors want to invest in issuing a revise and resubmit only to see it go down. Give them the opportunity to help you identify a workable revision strategy.

Documenting the revision, but not going overboard, is key. Many faculty members know that a revision memo is expected, but their strategies for writing this memo can actually work against them. One form of a bad revision memo is one that broadly summarizes changes to the manuscript but gives only vague indication of how the revisions address the critiques. This will often make reviewers feel that their suggestions were not understood or that the revision was not taken seriously.

It is also a bad idea, however, to cut and paste the original critiques with your verbatim textual changes in exhaustive detail. Reviewers have already agreed to read the manuscript, often for a second time. Asking them to read a long, repetitive revision memo can feel like a punishment to the reviewers who have already volunteered substantial amounts of their time to your work.

Instead, write a clear, point-by-point discussion of the critiques and revisions. We recommend using the list of grouped critiques as the skeleton of the revision memo. That allows you to identify each major comment and explain how the comment was addressed in the new manuscript -- providing page numbers to the text, where relevant. The memo needs to be long enough to show that you understood the critiques and have a response, while still being concise and clear.

If you disagree with a reviewer and choose not to address an issue, you need to explain why in the revision memo. Many reviewers want to feel heard, and taking the time to consider their suggestions and respond to them thoughtfully is more likely to lead to a positive outcome than ignoring those suggestions.

If you disagree with an editor, it is best to discuss it with that person directly to ensure that the manuscript will still be considered when you resubmit it. There is little reason to waste time on an outlet that has a completely different vision of the manuscript than you do. If you have many major disagreements with reviewers and the editor, it may make most sense to withdraw the manuscript and send it elsewhere (though this time loss can feel debilitating, especially to the untenured).

Before resubmitting, try to find a trusted colleague who will read the reviews, revision memo and final manuscript over. That serves as a check to ensure that you did not skip over or miss any important points. You should also pay attention to whether the editor plans to send the revision to new reviewers, the previous round of reviewers or a mix. New reviewers almost always mean new critiques, and it can be difficult to hit a moving target. Yet even new reviewers may have access to the editor’s letter and reviews from the first round, and may be annoyed by authors who avoid or ignore first-round comments.

Timeliness matters, too. You can ask for more time, but ideally you will revise as soon as possible, so that the manuscript is still relatively fresh in the reviewers’ heads and they will agree to re-review the piece.

If successful, a revise and resubmit may result in another type of revision: the conditional acceptance. This suggests that the work is almost entirely done but needs a few minor revisions to polish it. In most cases, a conditional acceptance will be decided by the editor and not sent back out to reviewers, so the editor is assuming that the revisions are not major. You should begin by making a list of the conditions you need to meet for acceptance and write a carefully documented revision memo, responding clearly and completely to those conditions. If the conditions are not extensive, such memos may be fairly short.

Some authors get a conditional acceptance and sit on it, cowed by needing to address the final critiques. But editors may give conditional acceptances with a particular time horizon in mind (a good fit for a particular issue of a journal or so the publication will be released at the same time as a related book in the series), and it is a mistake to wait. Ideally, you should address a conditional acceptance as soon as possible. You should also avoid making any major changes or overhauls without checking with the editor.

The final type of revision is a rejection. While a rejection may lead some authors to want to stash the manuscript in a drawer and never look at it again, it is best to revise and try again.

Some authors just send the manuscript back out without considering the critiques, which may annoy reviewers tapped by another outlet -- who then see that the author ignored the time and effort they spent on the manuscript. It’s best to create a revision list instead, make consistent changes and then send the manuscript out again. The silver lining is that there is no revision memo to write. If the editor has rejected the manuscript and that person’s letter is vague, ask colleagues to give comments and revise based on those. Or choose another outlet and try again without revising.

Sometimes, rejection simply reflects a mismatch between the outlet and manuscript. Working to ensure that the manuscript fits the outlet is paramount. In deciding where to submit, carefully review the mission statement for the journal, read recent issues of it and frame your paper so that it engages in conversations that journal has featured. Familiarize yourself with the editorial board and the authors who have recently published there, and remember that the authors you cite are often the people who will be asked to review your paper.

Much like democracy, peer review is an imperfect process: slow, inconsistent and occasionally biased. Yet if you take seriously how peer review can improve your manuscript -- while holding onto the integrity of your work -- the system can work to develop better scholarship. Revising is not failure but just another step in the writing process.

Bio

Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research and faculty development and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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