Picking Up the Pieces

Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar gives advice for moving forward after your manuscript is rejected.

August 15, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Jane_Kelly

Publish or perish: it’s no joke in higher education, especially when facing deadlines for tenure and/or promotion. It’s why we sacrifice our free moments, skipping Friday night happy hours and Saturday afternoon picnics to hole up in our offices, sifting through interminable research articles and reams of our own confounding data.

Yet after all the grinding work, the missed soccer games, the bloodshot eyes and sallow skin, the constant checking of emails searching for that elusive acceptance or even a “revise and resubmit,” it’s sometimes all for naught. We read those soul-crushing words: “Your manuscript has not been accepted for publication.”

Yes, this just happened to me. The wound, stinging and raw, brings to mind all manner of past rejections, both personal and professional, from the time I didn’t get invited to a birthday party as a child to the time I didn’t even get an interview for a job that seemed so well suited for me. Rejection’s a bitter pill to swallow. Every. Single. Time.

But we need to get on with it and over it, or we’ll never publish anything for fear of reliving this dreadful feeling. Here are some dos and don’ts for moving forward from manuscript rejection.

Dos

Do actually read all of the reviewers’ feedback. Read it even if it’s framed in a way that makes you cringe or wish for the chance to tell off these anonymous critics. While some of what the reviewers have to say is just plain wrong (i.e., calling my APA citations “blotchy” when they were, in fact, impeccable) or unnecessarily negative (“the lack of transition is jarring”), some hidden gems are usually buried in the landfill of cruelty. The reviewer who disliked my (perfectly acceptable, to me) transitions also clued me in on some huge logic gaps in my writing, and I was able to fill those before sending the manuscript out to another publication.

As for the kinder, gentler reviewers, let’s raise a toast to them for letting us down easily. They have good advice, too, and the rejection is less painful when they’re not implying that we’re completely incompetent researchers. While an acceptance would have been wonderful, it didn’t happen, but at least we sometimes get a blueprint on how to revise.

Do take a good, hard look at your manuscript. Sometimes it simply isn’t strong or ready enough. While the idea may be solid, perhaps you should do more analysis. Or maybe the instrument needs fine-tuning. You might need to rerun the experiment itself to fix the problem or to increase the sample size. It could be any number of variables. Reach out to colleagues for advice on whether there’s more to the problem than revising the write-up. Some extra legwork could eventually secure that publication.

Do give some serious thought to the next stop on your manuscript’s journey. Several aspects come into play: Impact factor? Response time? Do you have a shot at obtaining an acceptance before your deadline? What’s most important to you: Where you publish or that you publish?

While the number and type of publication outlets vary by discipline, you will always have options. Sometimes a fast-responding yet less prestigious journal is a better fit than one that will take the better part of a year to get back to you with no guarantee of publication. Other times, your heart might be set on getting into that particular journal. Either way, take the time to read several articles to get a feel for the type of writing and research that your publication of choice values.

Don’ts

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If your hopes and dreams are tied up in one manuscript, and it takes six or so months before you even receive a response, chances are high that you’re not going to see your name in print any time in the near future. I always like to have a few projects in the pipeline to maximize my chance of getting something published, and I try to start something new once I finish and submit one manuscript.

Therefore, I’m working on empirical research while also channeling my ideas into advice columns and practitioner pieces. And I engage in collaborative work at the same time as my solo endeavors, allowing me to share the burden of one project while simultaneously pursuing a personal research interest. Multiple manuscripts equate to more opportunities for publication, and a yes on one piece always helps soothe the bite of a separate no.

Don’t fall victim to predatory journals just to get that line on your CV. They don’t look good, and they often charge a hefty sum for the “privilege” of publication. While many legitimate journals are forced to require author fees to stay afloat, with or without open-access options, predatory journals are just there to take your money. In a blog post, Victoria Glasson offers several helpful tips for avoiding this swamp.

Don’t send your manuscript out too hastily after receiving a rejection. At the same time, avoid dragging your feet. While a dormant file in your laptop will never have a shot at publication, many journals have their own distinct formats and quirks, so it’s rarely as simple as uploading your manuscript as it is. I hate the feeling of starting over when my article seems ready to go, but it’s worth investing the time to check if a certain journal is the right fit. Then, it’s important to make adjustments, from revising large chunks to tweaking headings. Some publications refuse to read articles that fail to follow their guidelines, and it would be a shame to set yourself up for rejection for what would have taken only an hour’s work.

Finally, don’t give up. Sure, eat that pint of Ben & Jerry’s and drink that extra glass of sauvignon blanc -- you’re allowed to have hurt feelings. But don’t wallow in them. It might feel personal, but it’s not. Your article wasn’t accepted; so what? If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I sent out one manuscript five times before finally receiving an acceptance about a year and a half later, and even then I had plenty of revisions before I reached the yellow brick road to publication. But guess what? It eventually was published, and I’m proud of it. So scrape yourself off the floor, brush off the dirt and grime, and keep going. Your acceptance letter awaits.

Bio

Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar is an assistant professor of writing at Bloomsburg University.

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