How I Revise Articles for Resubmission

A fan of printed out pages that include peer reviews for a recent article. It includes marginalia and highlighting from me. The pages are upside down, just to make reading them a little more difficult.

This fall, I had a piece come out in Feminist Anthropology. “Recomposing Kinship” is my attempt to get anthropologists (and others) to take technology more seriously as a social actor–or at least as something more than an object of fetishism. It’s something like my 20th article, and over the last 15 years of publishing, I’ve found that how I approach revisions on articles has developed into a system. This article, by way of example, first received a revise & resubmit, and then was accepted for publication after a second set of reviews were returned based on the revision. Parts of it had be presented at conferences or in workshops, but it had never all been put together before, so sending it out for peer review was a bit of a fishing attempt–I was really curious to see how people responded to an argument that put together Facilitated Communication, sleep apnea, genetic testing, and fecal microbial transplants.

I’ll chalk the speed with which I was able to turn things around and address reviewers’ concerns to 15 years of academic publishing–and that the piece grew out of a couple of projects that have had pretty long gestation periods. It was also really helpful that the reviewers were on board with the conceptual project (even if they didn’t necessarily agree) and that the editors were supportive of a revision. Since the process of revision has become largely the same for me, it seemed like a good opportunity to write about the process in case it helps other people approach their own revisions.

Whenever I get emails from editors about articles under review, I really try not to open the email immediately. I find that whatever the email’s contents, it’s likely to derail me for the rest of the day, usually due to a desire to get back to work on the article. I try, whenever I can, to save it until the end of the work day. That way, after I read it, I can mull over the contents while I cook dinner, take care of the kids, feed the dog, chat with my partner, etc. This helps to stop me from wanting to address the editorial and peer review comments right away and lets them simmer as I do some ambient processing. Generally, other work gets in the way of immediately getting back to the manuscript and so I try and take a week off of working on it.

When I get back to working on revisions, I start by rereading the cover letter from the editor and reading through the peer reviews. I read them in their entirety and then read them again. On the second pass, I try and come up with a list of the necessary and optional revisions. A lot of peer review is relatively phatic language which can sometimes distract from what the peer reviewers are actually asking for; I tend to underline the relevant parts of the peer reviews and make marginalia to help me extract the incisive parts of the peer reviews. I then write them up and group them–if reviewers are asking for the same kind of thing (or contradictory things) this helps me develop a sense of what kinds of overlaps there are in the reviews. (You can see examples of my underlining and marginalia above.)

With that list of optional and necessary revisions developed, I set about grouping them. The first pass at grouping puts similar kinds of suggestions together, and the second grouping pass orders the suggestions in terms of where they should appear in the body of the revised manuscript. This usually involves sorting suggestions into multiple parts of the introduction (opening, literature review, map of the article, thesis & argumentation), each of the substantive sections, the conclusion, and citations and endnotes. I find that the heaviest lift is the suggestions for the introduction, followed by the conclusion, and then the substantive sections of the paper, which usually most need clarifying and alignment with the article’s aims once I’m able to clearly state them and articulate their relationship to the evidence at hand.

I then try to address the suggestions in order of difficulty. Overlooked citations come first, with minor syntactic tweaks following, and then it’s on to the big issues.

I’ve found that one of the recurrent experiences I have is overlong introductions. I try and make them short and to the point, but after addressing reviewer suggestions, I find that introductions balloon to be 7-8 pages long, when they should be 4-5 pages. If I can, I move parts of the introduction into the endnotes–especially theoretical positioning that only certain readers care about–but I’ve increasingly begun to break introductions into two parts. The first of these parts is the usual, empirically-driven hook that readers tend to appreciate which helps to set the stakes of the piece. It’s followed by the thesis and a layout of the article’s structure. But then I have a second helping of introduction, which is usually the literature review and theoretical work. If possible, I break these sections apart with headings to make sure that they are clearly flagged for reviewers and readers. I wish I could do this in the initial writing of an article manuscript, but I’ve come to find that it’s really only through revision that I’m able to see where these breakdowns should be–usually as a direct response to peer reviewer suggestions.

Often, working through the revisions means substantially rewriting the conclusion. Conclusions are always hard for me to write, often because, generically, they waffle between recapitulations of what was just written and soaring calls for reimagining disciplines, theoretical frameworks and categories, humanity, and existence. I try and do a little of both in an initial manuscript draft and then rework the conclusion based on reviews.

When I resubmit a revised article, I always make sure to include a very detailed cover letter to guide the editor and peer reviewers through the revisions. It’s usually pretty easy to adapt the list of suggestions for revision into a cover letter. Where possible, I make sure to flag where a suggestion came from–i.e. which peer reviewer or the editor–and detail how it is addressed in the revised manuscript. I also try and include a page number and paragraph to make sure that it’s very obvious. One of the challenges I’ve faced as a reviewer over the years is having the original version of an article in mind as I review a revised manuscript. I imagine other readers have similar issues, and it’s particularly helpful to dispel specific concerns by addressing them in the cover letter in addition to the manuscript.

I recognize that this is all pretty dispassionate in its approach. And it’s true: I’m pretty dispassionate in my writing. Most of what I enjoy about writing is solving puzzles, particularly how to put certain kinds of evidence and argumentation together. Addressing peer reviews is a lot like solving a puzzle to me. Given all of the pieces that reviewers have provided me with, how can I fit them together into a coherent picture that abides by the aims of the original version of the manuscript (or “picture” in this metaphor)? Sometimes it’s harder than other times, and it requires some finesse in smooshing pieces together. Other times it’s really clarifying, and I find these to be the best rewriting opportunities.

How do you rewrite based on peer reviews? Other suggestions for techniques? Tell me about them in the comments.

10* Experiments with World-Building (that aren’t Ursula LeGuin)

One of the first books I read that really impressed on me what the powers of world-building could be was Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. As a rough analogy to Haldeman’s experience in the Vietnam War, the novel depicts a near-future in which a distant, interplanetary war is unfolding. Earth soldiers are shipped to the front through space travel, but due to the effects of relativity, when they come back home, much more time has passed for the people on Earth than for the soldiers. The novel follows a series of distant battles with encounters on Earth that are estranging, both for the protagonist and for the reader, as decades pass on Earth while mere months pass for the protagonist. It’s elegant in its premise: less than instantaneous interstellar travel means increasing disjunctures in personal experience with a quickly-changing society. As a world-building technique, it means that there’s a logic to the universe–even if there are aliens, space ships, and weapons of interstellar mass destruction.

A map of Earth that points conventional understandings of north to the bottom, making the south the top of the map. It’s an elegant disruption of accepted aspects of our world. It’s borrow from “Why Is North Up on Maps?

In working on this list, I set a few rules for myself. First, it couldn’t include Ursula LeGuin. That’s not because I don’t like her work (I do!), but rather that it so often gets talked about that it obscures a lot of other, often more recent, work that’s just as good. Second, it needed to not already be included in one of the syllabuses for my Human Futures class or discussed in Theory for the World to Come. Third, it needed to stand alone as a short story or novel–meaning no multi-volume series (which excludes tons of great stuff, but none of it could viably be taught in a college class). Fourth, it needed to be focused on the United States. That was mostly to limit the sample size and make it possible to actually compile a list with an ending–I encourage experts of other national traditions to compile and share their own lists. And, fifth, it needed to be based on one fundamental and identifiable change or premise from which everything else followed.

This last rule is borrowed from Hal Clement’s “Whirligig World,” which describes how he set about building the world that Mission of Gravity takes place in. That world, which he named Mesklin, was characterized–no spoiler here–by its severe gravity, relative to Earth’s, because of the planet’s oblate shape. When astronauts from Earth find themselves stranded there, they come to rely on the local inhabitants to help. Most of what the reader experiences is from the perspective of Barlennan, a ship’s captain who is embroiled in the rescue efforts of these stranded humans. Through his relationship with a human helper, the reader comes to understand how the planet’s oblate shape affects gravity, weather, species and their evolution, and social structure. It all spawns from Clement’s initial experiment in literal world-building, which many of the texts below diverge from in that they assume an Earth-like world with small and large changes mapped onto a world similar to what the reader already knows.

I don’t want to spoil any of the following, so I’m leaving my descriptions of the stories relatively vague–and in some cases not revealing what the central change is, particularly if its revelation is integral to the plot. I’ve tried to group them thematically in case you’re interested in treating the list a bit like a syllabus.

In Stephen Graham Jones’ The Bird is Gone and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, what might be thought of as a relatively straightforward social–and specifically legal–change leads to a cascading series of effects. Jones imagines a near-contemporary United States where the government has ceded back most of the middle of the country to Indigenous groups. Robinson posits a change to the size and structure of corporations leading to a more communitarian ethos. Both texts are interested in how these legal changes lead to new ways of relating to one another, although in Jones’ book its more explicitly tinged with the racialization inherent in American settler-colonialism. They’re both, maybe not coincidentally, very fixated on ideas about property.

The feminist speculative tradition of imagining a world without men, which starts in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, flows through Alice Sheldon’s “Houston, Houston, Do you Read?” (writing as James Tiptree Jr.), and continues with Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed” and more recent work, is variously fantastic or scientific, relying on women finding new ways to reproduce without men. In each case, getting rid of men–accidentally, deliberately, or violently–opens up new social possibilities for the women who remain, which range from changes in gender roles to the entire structure of society. In many cases, men are the visitors to these men-free societies, and the narrative is told from their perspective as they struggle with realizing that they’re useless in the new social world. They also offer stinging rebukes of patriarchy and heteronormative social structures, and bring assumptions about American gender roles into stark relief.

Experiments with human consciousness, which are well represented in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” play with the idea of small changes in human capacities having profound effects on the structure of society, and, ultimately, what it means to fit into the category of human. In both cases, assumptions about what the human is and can be are disrupted by something novel, questioning, in Dick’s case (no surprise), what sanity is and, in Chiang’s case, how human cognition shapes the worlds we live in. (In many ways, this is my favorite subgenre of world-building, and I recommend Steve Shaviro’s Discognition for its engagement with this strain of work.)

Encounters with aliens are by their very nature experiments with world-building as storytellers develop whole worlds populated by a species that is influenced by different social and environmental rules, but there are aliens who are more and less human and who are governed by more and less human rules. One of the best encounters with the alien, notable for the alienating alterity of the aliens involved, is Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Ostensibly a sequel to his more popular Ender’s Game, most of Speaker for the Dead follows a family of xenoanthropologists (although I don’t think that’s what they’re called, since it would basically be an oxymoron) as they attempt to unravel the symbiotic interconnections of a group of species on a distant planet. The rules that govern life there are different than those on Earth, which reveal the anthropocentric biases of human administrators in their assessments of what needs to be done on that foreign planet. In a very different vein, Rivers Solomon’s The Deep imagines a more terrestrial kind of alien, born from the adaptation of escaped slaves to aquatic life. It’s based on a clipping. song, which is an homage to Detroiters Drexciya‘s electronic music. Solomon’s novel imagines a form of life that is haunted by its humanness, but is ultimately something quite different. Taken together, they offer a beginner’s course in Afrofuturism and a challenge to the often obligatory whiteness of speculative world-building. (Thanks to Elizabeth Fein for this suggestion!)

I’m technically over 10 entries if you count Haldeman and Clement. There’s a ton more (see below), but this set of stuff gives a pretty good sense of the parameters that people work with in trying to spell out the repercussions of sometimes subtle, sometimes enormous changes and their effects on a shared world. At their best, they posit a cascading set of changes that alter everything from individual subjectivity to forms of social relations (especially kinship structures), to forms of labor and governance, to planetary politics. Bad world-building usually makes no sense when it’s closely scrutinized.

I’d love to hear about people’s other favorite built worlds and the kinds of traditions they see unfolding in them. Suggest your own in the comment section below.

*Here’s me cheating–this is the list of stuff that I’ve used in classes that I’ve found to be especially effective helping students understand world-building: the first five minutes of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the first half of Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Greg Rucka & Michael Lark’s Lazarus series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Darmok” episode (Season 5, episode 2). Check out the syllabuses for Human Futures for even more.

Can We Have a New Emotion?

Recently, working through a series of memoirs of assisted suicide, I began to wonder if the kinds of emotions that Americans have available to them are sufficient to think through the ethical decisions that we face on a changing planet, in a changing society, and across tumultuous life courses. Do we have the language — as individuals, as a society — to describe the kinds of feelings that we’re faced with on a daily basis? Have our emotional tools lost their teeth for describing experiences of the contemporary?

Anthropologists and historians have been pretty resolute that emotions are culturally variable, and that what’s a possible emotion in one society is not necessarily a possible emotion in another society. Even emotions that are sometimes thought of as universal — joy, anger, sadness, disgust — have been shown to be historically and culturally particular, with no clear analogues cross-culturally. Emotions that Americans take to be sacrosanct — like romantic and filial love — have also been shown to be historical by-products and socially constructed. If we can accept that emotions are culturally-produced, can we have a new emotion? Not just in the I’m-feeling-something-I-don’t-know-how-to-name way, but in the let’s-invent-an-emotion sense. And how would we go about experiencing it?

That is an image of the imagined heat death of the universe (borrowed from Elixir of Knowledge). It looks like a multi-colored gas cloud that is growing darker from the outside in. But don’t despair — it’s a long way away…

The feeling I have been thinking of is “subjunctive grief,” an of anticipation of loss that might motivate action in the present based on assumptions about the future. When Americans experience grief, it is often cast as grief for something that has been lost, situating grief as something that can only be felt after the fact. I started to think that the old Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) might be bent toward the future, providing a foundation for ethical decision making. In reading those memoirs of assisted suicide I was struck by how family members narrated their relationship to dying kin through something like the Kubler-Ross stages of grief — and it was only when they reached some kind of “acceptance” that they could aid their loved one; but, in a strict sense, they hadn’t lost anyone, yet. That loss would only occur in the future, and working towards that loss meant grieving in anticipation.

As a comparative example, consider navigating the politics of contemporary global climate change. What scientists, activists, and reporters tell us is that we are already in the process of losing a lot — island nations, coastal cities, a wide variety of species of animals, coral reefs, etc. – and that we’re likely to lose a lot more (diets, gas-fueled cars, coal and gas powered heating and electricity, etc.). There are clearly a lot of people in the denial stage, and maybe some in the anger and bargaining stages (if all the faux-meat start-ups are any indication), and probably a lot in the depression stage. Where we all likely need to be is in the acceptance stage. Accepting inevitable losses might serve as the basis for making decisions that preserve what we have while working to undo trends towards future damage (which is an argument not unlike that made by Elizabeth Kolbert in her The Sixth Extinction, which I write about in Theory for the World to Come).

How might one come to feel subjunctive grief? Maybe we’re feeling it already and just don’t have a name for it? In reading all of those memoirs of assisted suicide, I think I began to feel something akin to it, coming to viscerally experience — through the medium of the memoir — the experience of loving family members retelling their experiences of anticipating loss and its aftermath. In reading recent climate-change focused speculative fiction (or “cli-fi”) — and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is exemplary of the genre — there’s something therapeutic about reckoning with a world that has already changed. Situated as we are in this moment of global climate crisis, it sometimes feels like there’s an overwhelming number of actions to take to make the smallest possible difference; resignation seems justifiable in that context. But looking comparatively between a well-modeled, imagined future and our present might serve as a way to facilitate a kind of acceptance of inevitable changes (even if they don’t work out quite like a novel or model suggests).

There was a segment on WNYC’s “On the Media”in 2017 that featured an interview with Robert Macfarlane about neologisms for our catastrophic climate age, which pointed to the need to name experiences that our current moment is creating, but which we have no language for. Without names, those experiences lack tactility; they’re too fleeting to work with. Which is all to suggest that new emotional registers might do political and practical work, and that one way forward in our societal moment of environmental crisis — and in the everyday moments of personal, anticipatory crisis — might be the elaboration of new emotions or new terms for feelings we’re already having. Subjunctive grief might be just one emotional tool to implement; what are the others to help make sense of slowly unfolding catastrophes?