Dreaded Amazing “Revise and Resubmit”
Perhaps the biggest turning point in my career as a researcher and writer came the day that it dawned on me that receiving a “revise and resubmit” (or any kind of professional feedback) was a gift, not a curse and a condemnation. The first few times, it felt like, no matter what I did, some “authority figure” was going to tell me how wrong or bad or stupid I was. Sound familiar?
Then I showed one of my early R and R’s to a senior colleague (this itself was a big step), "Can you believe this sexist response? ..." I began to fume. Fortunately, my wonderful senior colleage, Professor Linda Wagner-Martin, the single most prolific scholar I've ever known in my entire career, stayed calm, heard me out and then asked to read the reader's report said something like: “Oh, how lucky! Someone was willing to take time out of their own obligations to make sure your work would be publishable—and is pushing you to be as good as you can be.”
Thank you, Linda. That was decades ago, a couple dozen books for me and maybe a hundred or two hundred for Linda (Google her!). We even did a few massive books together (see Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States). I’ve never forgotten that lesson from my days as a new, shaky assistant prof who came to my first tenure-track job after three years adjuncting all over the place. (I'll say it again, "Thank you, Linda Wagner-Martin.")
So… in the event that you are not lucky enough to have a “Linda Wagner-Martin” in your life, I’m going to pass on a method of dealing with R and R’s that works for me. Read it and think about it. Read it and use it. Read it and revise . . . It’s all yours, offered not as a solution but simply as one possible method for coming to grips with what someone says about your work.
The point is, whatever method you use, for you to take control of the revision process. For me personally, the mental shift from "dreaded" to "amazing" comes when I take over the reports, and translate them from "their critique of me" to "my action plan for me."
Here’s what I do (especially if there are multiple readers reports). I'm going to break it down into microsteps (for me, that makes it lots easier).
OVERVIEW OF an R and R METHOD:
I. Deconstructing the R and R. I begin by deconstructing the reader's reports, using a template in order to make the process as clean, clear, even mechanical (non-emotional) as possible. (Don't worry; I've provded the template I use below).
- I begin the deconstruction process by printing out the reader’s report(s) to make it easier to deconstruct them. (This is not the time to go paperless.)
- I make four categories into which I will put every single comment by each reader. I cut and paste everything from the reader's reports onto separate sheets for each category.
- I make each category its own sheet(s). I print these out and then I literally check off the boxes after I do something so I have a clear visual of completion and progress (unlike editing online where your work disappears and your faults seem to stay, and stay, and stay!)
Now, I turn to my manuscript.
- I keep a clean original copy of my full manuscript—exactly what the readers saw.
- I make a copy of the manuscript (I do this online) using a visually and distinctly different font or typesize or margins or color.
- I make my revisions (both by hand and online) on this new copy, leaving the original pristine. At some point(s) I also want a physical copy of the revision so I can see how much I'm acccomplishing and other times I don't want to see the process, only how the final version is coming along.
- Rewarding myself with progress is essential for an R and R.
II. TEMPLATE: Here are the categories into which I put every comment from each reader:
1. Praise (don’t you dare touch that, Cat—don’t even think about it, Cat!) Put in page numbers if they are available.
- Reader A
- Reader B
ACTION: Do not touch anything that both readers love. Be very careful touching anything even one reader loves if the other one doesn’t mention it. The easiest way to defeat yourself with an R and R is to revise the good parts that don’t need revision.
2. Small, easy, fixable things (typos, fact errors, run on sentences, clarity points, etc)
- Reader A
- Reader B
ACTION: I like to fix these first. I literally go through the new manuscript (in its new “revision 2 font” and make all these changes). Every time I make a change, I check it off on my “B Sheet: Small, Easy, Fixable Things.” This is a great psychological warm up for tackling C.
3. Large, conceptual, and structural revisions
- Reader A
- Reader B
ACTION: Sometimes I do this with a trusted writing group or friend. I like to make the revision first, then show someone the “before” and the reader’s comment and the “after” and get feedback. It’s easy to get lost. I do not have a method for whether to do the “both” or the “one or the other” first. But I like to get feedback on how I’m doing any time I feel stuck.
4. Paranoid Readings of Readers Reports, what I think is actually why they hate my work
- Reader A
- Reader B
Paranoid readings are not things readers' actually say but our deep suspicions of (a) our own deep insecurities and convictions of our own inadequacy (i.e. they've found us out, they see our real weakness!) or (b) projections of our fears about the field or profession onto this anonymous read. We think we hear what they aren't saying, but we are over-emphasizing their critique and under-valuing their support.
Vocalized, paranoid readings usually go something like: “I’m sure I know who Reader A was—he’s a misogynist; he hates my work . . . “
NB: I was Editor of American Literature for a decade and heard versions of this remark dozens of times. 99% of times people were wrong in their guesses of "who" read their work. Often it was not some enemy from a different critical camp but a friend/colleague who loved their work who was making good, strong critique designed to make the essay as good as it could be. (My partner is editorial director at a major press and he confirms this for book publishing.)
ACTION: The only thing to do with “d” is list it, put it out there in black and white, and then make this your mantra: “This is my paranoia. This is not in the reports. This is my paranoia. I’m going to just leave it there and not change a thing in the essay to feed this paranoia. It’s like trolls: Don’t Feed the Paranoia.”
LET'S GET STARTED...
So that’s the method I have used for a few decades, on both scholarly and trade nonfiction and on fiction too. You’ll find your own method. In the process, this might be useful to help you think about what you want to do to make the reports your own, to transform "dreaded" to "amazing." I thought it might be useful to see what someone who has written lots of books, articles, papers, and talks does. It is still difficult to respond to feedback but I know what a gift it is and I am grateful.
Good luck with revising that essay! If you have read this entire blog, you are already taking mental charge of the process and you are on your way!
Image credit: Scholarly Kitchen