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’Tis the season …

No, it isn’t time to get ready for this year’s winter holidays. It’s time to write and submit those scholarly articles, book chapters and books you said you would begin as soon as spring classes end and the summer break rolls in. So, what’s stopping you?

One of the biggest hurdles writers say they must leap is their fear of an editor’s letter of rejection or a decision that the manuscript needs significant revision. Either response -- or any response other than a blanket acceptance -- can feel like, well, rejection.

As a writing coach and published author who also has edited a journal and several book collections, I get it. Twenty-three years ago, as a novice scholar, when one of my article submissions was returned with many editorial comments, questions about its significance for the discipline and concern that I had misunderstood essential theory and therefore had misapplied it, I sighed and put the piece in a file drawer. I didn’t have the time, energy or ego to tackle what felt like harsh messages. Although the recommendation was to revise and resubmit, which today I consider to be an excellent editorial response, I felt defeated.

It’s easy to see why an editor’s decision can feel so enormous in the context of a career. What’s a bit harder to see is what’s reasonable to expect from an editor and how that person can further your career regardless of the decision about any one manuscript.

Editors can engage writers in a disciplinary conversation. First and foremost, an editor is a human being just like you and me. This person has goals, frustrations, great days, bad days and -- given the largely service-oriented (often volunteer) construct of being an academic editor on a shoestring -- typically a strong desire to publish the best scholarship possible. Those traits mean that, while your editor might make a mistaken call on your piece, it’s more likely that any decision has been carefully considered.

Editors’ first loyalties are to the publication. Considering this fact, editors want your submissions. They want to like your manuscript and help you make it the best it can be. To that end, it’s incumbent on you, the writer, to research the journal or book, identify and understand the intended audience’s needs, and sculpt an appropriate proposal and/or manuscript for the discipline’s and publication’s concerns. Since editors are, in fact, people just like us, some will welcome a query letter that will engage their interest and enable you to test your ideas. Sometimes, such communication can help forge a relationship that works to both parties’ advantage.

Editors know their field and can teach writers about it, too. Their desire to publish powerful scholarship leads editors to study their craft and their disciplinary areas of responsibility. Good editors have both long-range vision to survey the field’s needs and short-range vision to see how your specific manuscript fits within it. You can expect your journal or book editor to know popular theory, what theories likely won’t stick, what research strategies and types are needed to advance the field’s general and specific knowledge, and what good writing looks like.

Therefore, you can trust the editor to have a sense of why and how your ideas do and don’t fit with that publication’s audience or scope. Most of the time, any letter from them -- whether of rejection, revise and resubmit, acceptance with revisions, or (rarely) straight-out acceptance -- may contain important information about how your scholarly work advances (or doesn’t advance) the field. Such nuggets can help you rethink your approach creatively, and, even if you decide to submit to another publication or to ignore the advice offered, smart authors will incorporate some of what they’ve learned moving forward.

Editors can mentor writers to improve their manuscripts. In academic publishing, it’s likely that many editors are practicing teachers at the top of their game. They often have a desire to mentor writers to become better at their craft. Therefore, novice writers and previously unpublished writers can learn a lot from a response to a submission regardless of the editor’s decision. Editorial letters can take more than two hours to craft, and editors typically consider both writers’ scholarly needs and human egos.

From a scholarly perspective, for example, a rejection can signal the important message I received from a professor years ago: not every idea is a good idea. That message feels harsh, yet it can lead an inspired writer to take a mediocre idea and give it new life using editorial suggestions. Or from the human ego perspective, an editor may take extra time to suggest other publications that might welcome the submission in its original or improved state. Such suggestions are gifts because they aren’t part of the editor’s job; figuring out the right publication venue is our job as writers.

Editors expect to read writers’ best work. All that said, sometimes a poorly written manuscript conveys inattention to detail on the writer’s part, indicating a lack of authorial ethos or general scholarly reliability. Inattention to detail frustrates editors, potentially leading to less encouraging responses and a more clipped tone. If you’ve received such a response, carefully consider the time, energy and effort it takes to read poor writing. Editing can be a thankless job, particularly with unengaged authors who fail to proofread and copyedit their own work before submitting it. If you need help with your writing, find a writing coach who can mentor you.

Remember that manuscript submission that I filed away 23 years before? Three years ago, I found it when riffling through a file drawer. Nostalgic and with fresh eyes, I read the piece and the editorial comments carefully. Time away from the manuscript allowed me to see that the editor was right in just about every comment. I saw new ways to revise the piece but didn’t have time to research the literature in my weakest subfield, so I found a colleague who was expert in that knowledge area, asked her to read the draft and revised with her as co-author. It was published in the original journal more than two decades after my original submission.

My advice? Don’t wait over 20 years to submit or resubmit, but do give yourself some time away from an editor’s response. Then look positively at the editor’s comments, revise and (re)submit the manuscript. Keep trying to publish by learning from the editor’s hard work. Then thank that person. Publication editing is a challenging and often thankless job.

So again: ’tis the season for publishing. Use it well!

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