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.

The Best Advice I Have to Give About Writing Dissertations

Reading other people’s dissertations as an adviser and committee member has familiarized me with some common oversights that writers make, which basically fall into two camps: being too ambitious and overlooking the obvious. Now, this might all seem a little straightforward, but, honestly, that’s what a dissertation should be, and yet they often aren’t. These are recommendations based on cultural anthropology dissertations, but they probably translate to a lot of the more humanistic social sciences and humanities — and there are always exceptions to be made. So these are recommendations to get people started on conceptualizing what they’re doing when they tackle writing up a dissertation project. As usual, what your specific committee, adviser, and institution expects may be different from what I lay out here — but this might still be a decent place to start a conversation.

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That’s R. Crumb’s Kafka struggling with something akin to a dissertation…

1) Start with a chapter that lays out the people, places, and things that you’re going to be talking about for the rest of the dissertation. This is not your introduction, which is much more conceptual (see below) — this is really just what it sounds like: who are these people, where do they live and work, and why are you writing a dissertation about them? These are all questions you should have answers for, and their obviousness might lead you to not write this chapter (I’ll admit: I didn’t) because you’ve been working on the project for so long that these things are just assumed. But they aren’t for your dissertation committee, nor will they be for any potential future reader of the dissertation and the eventual book. It doesn’t need to be high concept — in fact, it should be the opposite in the sense that all you’re doing is giving your reader a deep sense of context so that as you discuss these people, places, things, and events later in the dissertation, your reader has this background information in mind.

Now, you might have some reservations — say, you don’t have a specific place, because the project is multi-sited — but, let me assure you, there is a chapter to write that gives your reader context for the rest of the dissertation, whether it’s about individual people, a set of institutions, or a concept, thing, or event that the rest of the dissertation is tracking. If you think you covered this in your dissertation’s introduction, your introduction might be too long or you might be doing too much in your introduction. A solid contextual chapter can go a long way to making sure your dissertation is legible to your committee.

2) Pick a set of theory to work with. One of the nice things about graduate school can be that it introduces you to a wide variety of theorists and theoretical approaches — but when it comes time to write a dissertation, you really have to pick what you want to work with. One of the problems a lot of students seem to have is that their conceptual tool kit becomes overfull when it comes time to write a dissertation — there are so many possible conceptual explanations that it can be difficult to choose just one. But, choosing one explanation is at least pragmatically necessary: a chapter needs to come to some kind of conclusion. Knowing that Marxism is on the table, and psychoanalysis is not means that you can focus on one set of possibilities and ignore others.

A former adviser, Hai Ren, once recommended that you need three theorists to write a dissertation, and over time I’ve really come to see the wisdom in that approach. As I advise students, I’ve come to realize that limiting your conceptual concerns in this way provides you with a strong body of language to draw from and a delimited set of ideas to explore. This combination of theorists and ideas can be complementary or antagonistic — that is, you can draw from three staunch Marxists, or pit Lacanism versus Latourianism — but the most important thing is identifying what’s on and off the table for the purpose of theoretical explanation. And you might commit to this physically: box up all the books you won’t be using and put them out of sight for the duration of dissertation writing.

When I was writing my dissertation, one of my committee members, Bruce Braun, suggested that I come up with a list of terms I didn’t want to use as well as a corresponding list of replacement concepts derived from the theoretical interests I have. So, I drew up a list of problematic Cartesian concepts and a list of Spinozist replacements. Just doing that — coming up with the list — profoundly shaped my vocabulary and meant that I wasn’t inadvertently wading into troublesome terrain or mixing terms that didn’t fit together. Once you know who your pet theorists are and what theories you’re working with, coming up with such a list can be very helpful in identifying key ideas to explain and how to structure what you’re doing.

3) Structure chapters around an idea. It was once the case that anthropologists could legitimately write a chapter each about kinship, economy, religion, political structure, subsistence patterns, etc., but the discrete nature of these distinctions has been largely abandoned — as least as comprehensive rubrics for chapter-length description and analysis. That said, there should be a set of key ideas that you’re working with and that you can arrange your evidence to support. These might be ideas that arise from the project itself — i.e. you might structure chapters around ideas that the people in your field site find important — or they might be ideas that derive from the theoretical questions that you’re concerned with. In either case, structuring a chapter around an idea helps to delimit what goes into that chapter.

Alternatively, you might think about structuring chapters around specific cases — whether they be people, places, or events — and even when that’s the case, it’s important to identify what the case is a case of. Having some kind of identified structure can lead you to ask whether or not any particular set of evidence needs to be in the chapter (which is to say that it’s absolutely okay to leave evidence out of a chapter when it doesn’t fit — better to be short and persuasive than long and unmoored).

The other vital thing here is that when it comes time to write articles based on your dissertation, they too will need to be organized around an idea (or maybe two coming into contact with one another), and starting with this kind of framework can lead you to have a more modular dissertation that you can mix and match to produce articles, and, later, more complex book chapters (but they needn’t!).

4) Make sure all those chapter ideas and pet theories appear in the introduction. Dissertation writers are sometimes motivated to write their introduction before they write the chapters of the dissertation, but it’s usually best to start with the chapters and work back to the introduction, if for no other reason that there tends to be a lot of drift when people work the other way (which is to say that what you think your dissertation is going to be about before you start writing it is probably not what it will actually be about). Once you have the ideas in place for each of the chapters, and you’ve written most of those chapters, it’s worth sketching out the introduction to see how all the ideas fit together as some kind of conceptual package. And then you have to explain why they fit together for the sake of your committee…

Again, if you have a delimited set of theories that you’re working with, writing an introduction around a set of ideas can be pretty straightforward: you can explain the ideas, where they come from, and what your contributions will be. That way as you work through the ideas in the dissertation itself, your committee has something to fall back on as to why your interests are as they are.

Introductions also benefit from a taste of the empirical content of the dissertation — which is different than the contextual chapter mentioned above. Give your readers a sense of the kinds of situations, quandaries, or events that are of interest throughout the dissertation, and use an example or two to motivate your engagement with the set of theory and ideas you’re employing. This helps stop an introduction from being too abstract and can compel your committee to engage with your readings of a set of shared theoretical texts in a new way.

5) Go easy on yourself. Dissertation writers often get hung up on identifying the ‘big idea’ of the dissertation before they actually write it — but, it took me three years after submitting my dissertation to really have a sense of what the big idea behind it was (and that had a lot to do with teaching and realizing where what I was doing fit into the field more generally). I had a passable big idea — sleep and its relationship to industrial capitalism — but as far as how that idea could travel, it took a long time to flesh that out.

And, no dissertation is perfect: it won’t feel that way when you turn it in, and it won’t feel that way years later. The best that a dissertation can be is an archive of evidence, ideas, and experiments that you can use for years to come — for conference presentations, articles, and eventually a book. If it’s also coherent and persuasive, consider it a victory.

 

N=1 Article Writing Challenge

Are you up for a bit of a challenge? And interested in some professionalization advice testing? Do you want to see how quickly you can churn out a short article manuscript? Then you might be up for my inaugural summer break article writing challenge. Starting July 1st and ending July 14th, I’m asking people to read my series of blog posts on preparing article manuscripts and to provide me with feedback on their experience of following my advice. If you’re interested, send me an email and let me know that you’re on board.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been posting a series of entries about the production of academic articles, largely intended for first-time article writers, but applicable to us all. Over six* steps, I discuss identifying the right journal, analyzing an appropriate model to base your manuscript on, writing introductions, literature reviews, your evidence, and conclusion, and the final steps to prepare the manuscript for submission to a journal (but not in that order).

These posts grew out of an alternative spring break I’ve begun to offer for anthropology graduate students in the University of California system to spend a week talking about and concentrating on writing an article manuscript — a week-long event that has grown out of my ongoing professionalization workshop series (which you can read summaries of here). By inviting everyone everywhere to participate in this writing event, I’m hoping to gather feedback to add to and revise the Six Steps in future blog posts and professionalization events (which may be coming to a conference near you sometime soon).

As a means of thanking people for helping out in testing my advice, I’m collecting names and will facilitate peer review for those people ready for feedback by July 14th.  That is, if you email me and let me know that you’ll be participating, when your manuscript is complete, I’ll email it to another participant so you can get a round of peer review in the revision process. Before you email me, take a few minutes and read about publishing strategies and Step 1 and send me the name of the journal you’re planning on targeting. As we collectively work through the Six Steps, you can either email me your feedback on each step, or respond to the steps in the comment sections of the relevant post.

I’m looking forward to the challenge, and hope you’ll join me for it.

*It’s actually 7 steps, but the first step — on publishing strategies — was published a long time ago.