Evolution of an Article

TypingIn summer 2010 I sat in the house furnished by Rhys Isaac in Colonial Williamsburg, and attempted to write my first dissertation chapter. I’d just finished my first research trip, to Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, and was in the middle of my second, at the John D. Rockefeller Library. I was trying to follow advice I’d read to write as I researched. There was no Wi-Fi in the house, which was a curse and a blessing. I couldn’t get distracted, but I also did not have instantaneous access to articles and books, which meant I couldn’t check basic facts and chronologies, which, turns out, tend to be missing from your research!

Fast forward almost six years and that chapter is now the first article based off of my book manuscript. I’m hoping that this post comes across less as an exercise in navel-gazing, and more as an attempt to reflect on the ways in which a dissertation chapter evolves into an article. I think it’s important to emphasize this process for the benefit of early career historians, but recent conversations with some of my students have also reminded me that we need to do a better job showing students that writing and editing are long processes; books, book chapters, and articles do not spring fully formed from our brains, and this fact should make them feel better about editing their own essays.

I think in a “normal” chronology, you write your dissertation chapter, revise it into a book chapter, and then revise it into an article, because we all know that a dissertation is not a book. What I also discovered, however, is that a book chapter is not an article, and if you’re trying to publish an article before you’re entirely sure what your book is about, peer review is going to be an adventure. I like to think of this adventure as the revise and resubmit route to writing your book. And although there’s been some ridiculousness with this process (not, I hasten to add, in the case of this journal), I’m increasingly coming to think that it worked well for me.

Basically, the revise and resubmit route to writing my book involved taking my first main chapter and final chapter (because they were where I knew I wanted to begin, and where I wanted to end up), revising them into articles, and submitting them to Fancypants Journals™. The Fancypants Journals ultimately rejected one article, and accepted another. I have mixed feelings about these peer reviewers, but pretty positive feelings about the process. I liked the process because what the process did was to give me a captive group of experts who told me what about my arguments were worth developing, what parts weren’t working, and what parts needed to be scrapped entirely. I listened to some of this advice and ignored other pieces, which is probably why Fancypants Journals number 1 and 2 rejected this article. This ended up being okay, because I’ve emerged with an article that A) made the argument I ultimately learned I wanted to make, B) landed at a journal I like and respect, and C) was most helpful to me in conceptualizing the book.

In sum, the article re-examines the 1800 event in Sierra Leone that historians have come to call a rebellion of black Loyalists. It suggests that the event may have been a food riot, and that even if you don’t agree with this interpretation, thinking about the food-related legislation leading up to the event changes a few things. It makes black Loyalists’ relationships with the white council seem more accommodating, and it reveals more tension between black Loyalists, Temne, and Susu. Here is that article’s long, arduous journey.

Date State of the Chapter/Article Actions
Summer 2010 A chronological narrative (based off of microfilm research) of black Loyalists’ food-related history in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, contending that black Loyalists’ experiences in both places were strikingly similar. Pat self on back for writing a dissertation chapter.
Summer 2011 Sitting in a growing computer folder of other dissertation chapters. Research trip to London. Realization that food laws are really present in the records at the National Archives.
Summer 2011 Chapter splits into two: one chapter now focuses on Sierra Leone, and the other chapter on Nova Scotia.
October 2011 Take Sierra Leone chapter and incorporate London (British Library and National Archives) records. Chapter now chronicles black Loyalist-white colonist relations, white colonist Temne relations, black-Loyalist-Temne relations, and Maroon food-related experiences. Do other stuff (IE, write other dissertation chapters) because your chapter is 65 pages long.


Also, panic.

2011-2013 Write chapters about how food is the most important thing evaaaaar! Go on the job market and write cover letters that help you figure out what sort of book you want to write.
Summer 2013 Pull out white colonist-Temne relations and revise into a chapter for an edited volume. Exhale because your long-ass chapter is shorter now.
Summer 2013 Revise chapter as article that argues: that the story of black Loyalist food battles with the Temne and white colonists is untold. Food battles show historians that black Loyalists brought some ideas from North America with them to Sierra Leone, and that they also created new ideas in Sierra Leone. Also, food laws!


Cut Maroon section.

Submit to Fancypants Journal #1.
October 2013 Fancypants Journal #1 suggests enlarging the scope of the article and re-examining events from the angle of food politics. Start reading ALL the food politics books and articles.
February 2014 Submit article, which now argues: that the story of black Loyalists’ food battles with the Temne and white colonists is untold. Food battles show historians some stuff about Atlantic history. Food laws matter because they gave the black Loyalists a way to develop their political rights. Some of these laws were new! Also, something about modernity here! Also, identity! And race! Let’s not forget race!
Summer 2014 Article comes back with a revise and resubmit. Make revisions, but (in retrospect) continue to argue ALL THE THINGS. Journal rejects it, suggesting that a focus on markets and regulation would be a good idea moving forward.


Begin reading ALL THE THINGS on markets and riots.


Cut bits about identity, race.

September 2014 Article now argues that food laws were an attempt to prevent hunger, that they illustrate more cooperation between black Loyalists and white colonists, and more tension between black Loyalists and Africans, and that the laws led to the 1800 rebellion, which was actually a food riot. Also some stuff about modernity and power! Submit to Fancypants Journal #2


Journal asks for revise and resubmit in January 2015.

June 2015 Submit revised article. Article now argues that the 1800 rebellion was a food riot. Reinterpreting the event as a riot reveals more extensive black Loyalist political activity in the 1790s, greater cooperation between black Loyalists and white councilmen, and increasing animosity between black Loyalists and Africans. Article traces the history of hunger prevention, then pivots at the end to analyse the 1800 event. Also, a bunch of comparisons to other colonization schemes! July 2015. Journal rejects article.
July 2015 Article begins with the food riot, and examines both sides of argument: was it a rebellion, or a riot? Then, it pivots to turn to the history of black Loyalist law-making, which reveals more extensive black Loyalist political activity in the 1790s, greater cooperation between black Loyalists and white councilmen, and increasing animosity between black Loyalists and Africans.

Also, a bunch of comparisons to other colonization schemes!

Submit to Journal #3.
October 2015 Journal accepts article with revisions. Bouncing in seat, gleeful clapping, frightening of non-academic family member who is over for a visit.
Reviewers think colonization comparisons need to be cut, and that the African history needs work.
October-December Do other crap because teaching kind of takes time, guys! Begin reading all the African history recommended by reviewers.
January 2016 Incorporate African history, revising argument accordingly. Marvel at generosity of reviewers.


Cut colonization comparisons.


Revisit National Archives to double-check sources because you’re paranoid and want to make sure you transcribed things right (mostly you did, but sometimes, you didn’t).

Submit article.

What did I take away through this thrilling romp through the wild and tangled forests of peer review?

  1. I like making TOO MANY ARGUMENTS in my articles. Figuring out that I cared less about food and more about hunger prevention was hugely important for reorienting the direction I moved with respect to book revisions.
  2. Submitting articles to Fancypants Journals was crucial in getting reviewers to tell me what I was arguing, and what was important.
  3. An article goes over well when it pivots halfway through. I’ve used this technique before in other work, but I’d forgotten why it can be a useful technique. I didn’t really find my pivot until July 2015, and even then it took until October to realize that I wanted the second half of the article to be the first half, and the first half to be the second half. I had to pivot my pivot. Pivot
  4. My work combines a lot of different historiographies, and I am always going to feel insecure about whether I’ve understood them to the extent that I need to have done. Submitting to Slavery & Abolition restored my faith in peer review because the process offered me reviewers who made clear suggestions about which historiographies were missing. The article was not specific enough in its argument for a more specialized journal the first time(s) I submitted it. Only once it was did I get the critiques I needed to avoid making numerous errors. Though, in reviewing the changes to my article, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that some errors remain—and those are my responsibility, not those of the peer reviewers. Hopefully if there are critiques, I can address them in the book.
  5. A dissertation chapter is not a book chapter! And a book chapter is not an article!
  6. This. Shit. Takes. Time.

6 responses

  1. Thank you. I enjoyed reading your analysis of the process. I don’t quite get what you mean when you say you like when a article “pivots” half-way through…

    • Thanks for your comment, Orla. By “pivoting” I mean that the article changes direction, either by taking a question asked in the first half of the article and asking it again in a different way, or by suggesting that a different question entirely offers a more profitable line of analysis.

  2. Pingback: Keep Calm and R&R « The Junto


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