When last I wrote about writing, I was working on an article that had been at least five years in the making. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn't know how to say it. Having experience holding a few editorial positions with different journals, having been a peer reviewer, I’ve seen similarly afflicted authors. I try to read my own writing as an author with the eyes I would use as an editor. Recognizing the symptoms, however, and curing them in yourself are two different things. Conceptualizing the argument, articulating it clearly in a nontrivial way: this was hard. And this was where the work of journals -- and their editors -- came in.
There's been a lot of commentary on the work of journals, the nature of peer review, and the state of scholarly communication in academia (and in my particular field of humanities). There are lots of pieces I have found valuable in shaping my thinking about these questions; this recent one from The Scholarly Kitchen addresses a number of significant points I don’t bring up here but are, of course, urgent. This is not necessarily a foray into that discussion, but rather me thinking as a writer. I'd like to reflect as an author and editor on my experience with this one article, and what it means when one is lucky enough to have positive interventions in one's process -- what it means to have people skilled and willing to shape a new piece into its best form, and then shepherd it out into the world -- even if doing so involves rejection.
In every instance with this knotty, recalcitrant essay, as it made its way through a process that did not always result in favorable decisions, I received meaningful, useful, constructive, encouraging feedback. Each rejection meant an opportunity to revise, to make the essay better and to chisel away a bit more at the mess, because each was accompanied by detailed notes offering ideas for making the article better. Even though the editors in question did not find the article in its present state ready for publication, they still took the time to provide comments with the point of suggesting, even encouraging, revision. This strikes me as a profound valuing of the work we do as scholars and writers. The goal in taking the time and effort to provide such feedback is to prioritize the process of getting new work out to readers in the best possible form. It is to think about the scholarly endeavor as worthwhile, even if an individual essay is not ready to go.
I’m definitely not suggesting journal peer review is the only way this happens; there are lots of ways it happens, formally and informally, and I’ve benefited from many forms of collegial feedback (and I hope I have benefited others). And I know this sounds like a hopelessly idealized take on peer review, which can be a painful, torturous, ego-shattering, often unfair experience. (Rebecca Schuman’s recent piece in Slate gets at precisely this, as well as offers a solution. And a companion piece, on Chronicle Vitae, provides survival tips for working through the nastier forms of feedback.) A lot of us have gone through submitting an article only to be told that our work isn't significant enough, or doesn't sufficiently engage with a theory that actually has very little relevance to what we're trying to accomplish. We have received rejections that come not with generous encouragement to try again after meaningful revision and a fresh set of eyes, but with vitriolic negativity that serves only to generate despair for our profession and our own well-being. And no matter what, it sucks to get rejected, especially with a tenure or promotion application in the balance. It also sucks to simply never hear anything at all (something which strikes me as beyond the pale of professional irresponsibility).
But if I'm thinking of the process just as a writer, then when the process works, I feel a deep gratitude for the people who made it work. For the editors who probably looked at whatever I sent in its totally dubious form, shook their heads, and then put fingers to keyboard to try to make it better, even though they in no way benefited from the chore. For the readers who went line by line finding the holes, the questionable readings, and the crazy lapses in organizational logic. And if I'm thinking as an editor, I am grateful to those colleagues who have provided outstanding role models as I've done this work myself, and as I take on the job of editor for a journal starting next year.
I wouldn't presume to offer "best practices," or even "promising practices," in that role. However, I can talk about what I've tried to do as an editor and a colleague, and the responses I've had to my own work that have been positive for me as a writer. Most of this is common sense and good manners, with a dose of basic human decency, but for those reasons alone it might be worth repeating anyway. Being prompt and responsive to authors' submissions and queries seems like a minimum. There are many ways to engage in scholarly communication: blogs, commons, tweets, maps, interviews, comics, as well as longer articles, books, etc. Each serves its purpose depending on what the author is trying to accomplish, and choices should be respected -- as should the possibility that some forms work for some purposes and not others. Some theoretical tools work for some problems and not others. And some audiences are more receptive than others. The work of writing and editing is to figure out how to resolve some of these questions, through some kind of fortuitous combination involving mindfulness of rhetorical agency, generosity (on the part of everyone involved), and intellectual rigor. And then: to sculpt out the argument or discussion or whatever it is in the form that is going to do the most justice to the work. To point out when an author thinks s/he is arguing something clearly -- and clearly is not. Each part of the process should be devoted to that end: readers' reports, editorial correspondence, choice of venue, the whole of it. What's needed to make the piece the best it can be, even if the best place for it or the best form for it is not what the author originally envisioned?
It also seems to me (and this might go without saying but probably doesn’t) that as many of us as possibly can should make the case for the value of scholarly work in its various and multitudinous forms, as long as it's good and gets the job done, again with generosity and rigor, but that might be a subject for a different post.
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading