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Revising a paper for publication

As I read through the essay on my computer screen I found myself getting lost. What point was this person making? Where had the thread of the argument disappeared to? Why was it so complicated? I felt like I was marking the work of an undergraduate.

Unfortunately the author of this piece was no 18 year old. It was me. Admittedly the piece had been written about 2 years before I’d gained my PhD, but I was somewhat shocked by how incoherent it now seemed. Luckily the editors of the collection still wanted my essay, but obviously it needed ‘significant revision’. I was tempted to start again with a blank sheet of paper.

But I didn’t, and within a month I had a far more coherent, better argued essay that was far more appropriate for the collection. So, before I forget how I managed this, I thought I’d set down my reflections on this process, the stages I went through and the strategies I used when revising my paper. Some of them are specific to my particular situation, but it might be that some of them can be applied in other situations and could be of help to others struggling with that initially unwelcome instruction to ‘revise and re-submit’. I’m currently second-drafting another essay (less revision needed on this one!) and will certainly be following some of my own advice.

Stage 1: Dismay, anger, depression

Revise and resubmit

It’s never nice to get negative feedback, even if you know it’s going to be constructive in the end. I was dismayed by the amount of work my editors thought the piece needed and annoyed at some of what I initially thought were petty or not constructive comments. So after reading through all the comments, I closed the email and saved it for later.

Strategy: Take some time

In the same way I don’t think you should ever answer an email when angry, I don’t think it’s a good idea to deal with comments until you’ve had time to digest them. Time away from them tends to take the sting out of any objectionable comments and results in a calmer, more reconciled and accepting disposition. I took a week for this.

Stage 2: Rational re-evaluation

A week later, as I read over my essay, any negative feelings towards my editors were replaced by embarrassment, and any feelings of annoyance were now directed at my former self. Since writing this paper some eighteen months earlier I had come to a few realizations about my thesis subject and approach, and this piece seemed so inferior to what I had been confidently producing more recently. I couldn’t blame my editors for calling out the glaring mistakes which I myself now admitted to and had only recently solved in my thesis. Of course, neither could I blame my former self for not knowing yet what I knew now (that would be a bit unreasonable). I looked on the bright side, reflecting that I actually agreed with a number of the comments, and now had the chance to bring this paper into alignment with my new thinking. Many of the problems with it stemmed from a lack of clarity over what exactly I was trying to do – which I was now a lot clearer on – and others stemmed from the fact that I was an English literature student intervening in what was essentially history (interdisciplinarity poses challenges as well as providing opportunities…).

Strategy: Think through reviewers’ most fundamental issues and your responses to them

Being a great believer in Thinking Writing, I found it helpful to do this as a written exercise. I wrote out the reviewers’ issues as questions and wrote my immediate answers to them. I’d respond to these answers with more probing questions until I felt that I had the issue thrashed out to my satisfaction and was confident with my answers. I didn’t agree with all the reviewers’ comments, or the positions these revealed, but arguing with them in this way allowed me to realize how certain misunderstandings may have occurred and to articulate my positions more clearly. I was then able to use bits and pieces of these articulations in my re-writing.

Stage 3: Additional reading

My intervention in this collection’s rather wide field (nineteenth-century missionaries) was based on knowledge of one particular corner of the subject (missionary biographies). I had read pretty extensively, but I had tended to avoid case-study articles, in the belief that any findings which would apply generally to my question would make it into more general studies or surveys. Of course, in the few years that had passed since my initial research, much more had been published, and my editors were able to alert me to a number of really helpful case-study articles and newly-published works on missionary families, for example.

Strategy: Take the time to read and re-engage with scholarship

My editors had not suggested too many additional things to read, so I made the effort to read them all and add them to my references. I enjoyed this stage, as I found that more scholars were now engaged in the same questions that had interested me in the first place and were coming to interesting conclusions.

Stage 4: Re-reading and re-structuring for clarity of argument

A wholescale re-structure is probably not always necessary. For this piece however, the argument was rather convoluted. Now that I was clearer on my approach I needed to get clear about how my argument progressed and how each section of the essay contributed. To better organise this piece it really helped me to use a strategy I use with my students. 

Strategy: Paragraph analysis

I teach my students that each of their paragraphs should make one point and that one-sentence summaries of each paragraph (perhaps the topic sentences) placed in order should produce the outline of the argument. So I went through my essay and worked out what, exactly, each paragraph was trying to do. As I did this, I ended up deleting of a lot of extraneous material, combining paragraphs making the same point, moving paragraphs to different sections, and eventually I ended up with a much more tightly argued and better organised essay. I’m quite a logical person, so this exercise was really satisfying for me.

Stage 5: Systematic revisions and re-writing

By this point I had lost sight of some of the original comments, so it was important to me to come up with a way of being sure that my revisions had covered my editors’ points.

Strategy: Lists

I decided to make just one list, which would force me to work systematically through every revision necessary and not put off the more difficult ones. However, I imagine another way would be to group the comments/revisions by type in different lists (e.g. theoretical/methodological issues, grammar/re-phrasing, additional references). This list was useful in that I could then easily create a report for the editors if necessary, making clear what revisions I had made and which suggestions I had accepted (and which I had not). It was also pretty satisfying to cross off each item on the list once it had been resolved.

Stage 6: Final read through

By now I was pretty happy with my revisions, so I read the revised essay through for sense, tweaking the expression and language as I went, and deleting words and sentences where possible (to keep within the word limit).


Final reflections

  • Stages 3-5 of the process above can be carried out largely synchronously.
  • While I was engaged in all this I couldn’t work out whether I was more annoyed at the time-lag that publishing in the humanities seems to involve – it all seemed a very long time since I’d agreed to write the piece – or whether I was pleased – the delay had given me the chance to develop my ideas. I’m still not sure.
  • I was, and still am sure that the editorial process was highly valuable, as I was really pleased with how I was able to improve my work thanks to all the intervention from experts in other parts of the field.

I’d be very interested in other people’s advice about revising work – or any thoughts on the process of editing and publication more generally.