Keep Calm and R&R

It’s August, and for academics hoping to get some writing done this summer, it’s go time.


In conversations with my writing group colleagues, who come from fields as diverse as information sciences, business, community health, and religion, we spend a lot of time discussing ways to respond to a revise and resubmit. Some of us charge right in, addressing comments the day we receive them. Some of us (in the more quantitative fields) make tables of reviewer comments and check them off one by one. Having spent years in the trenches as a writing tutor, and continuing to teach writing, I’m always fascinated by the different methods writers use to approach challenges such as interpreting and implementing reviewer feedback.

In the spirit of the many posts here at the Junto on the nuts and bolts of academic writing, I’ve written up my own process for tackling referee feedback in a revise and resubmit. It’s inspired, in part, by Wendy Laura Belcher’s brilliant Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.

Here’s what I do when a new crop of reader reports lands in my inbox:

Step 1) I read through the reports and get ready to process whatever emotional response I have to them. Even in a fairly positive batch of reports, there will always be a few sentences that get under my skin. Let’s be real, my first reaction to negative feedback is usually going to be negative. Processing these emotions means stepping away from the computer and going for a walk, or calling a friend to rant, or baking a cake.

Step 2) After a break—however long it takes to process those feelings so I can face the manuscript again—I get back in front of the computer. I read the reports through once more and mark them up with marginal comments. In my comments, I try to “translate” the reviewer’s words into something actionable. Even the most exasperating of critiques often contains at least a grain of truth. When Reviewer 2 writes “I literally don’t know why I’m reading this,” for example (alas, that’s a real comment I’ve gotten), I translate this into “rewrite statement of argument and add argumentative transitions throughout essay.” I still sometimes have emotional responses—“No, Reviewer 2, that fusty old body of literature you want me to cite is completely irrelevant!”—and those go into the margins too, because it’s satisfying.

Step 2a) If the reviewers completely disagree with each other about where to go with the manuscript, and the editor hasn’t offered suggestions for how to proceed, I fire off an email to the editor to ask for their thoughts. Usually the editor will give you some sort of hint—perhaps that Reviewer 1 raises some really important points and that while Reviewer 2 is being Reviewer 2, you’ll need to contend with their points about X and Y.

Step 3) Next, I draft my revision memo to the editor, which I will submit with my resubmitted manuscript. In the memo, I lay out the steps I am going to take to revise the manuscript, with revisions organized in order of significance—major changes to the scope or argument first, and smaller changes last. Belcher includes templates for these documents in Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Along the way, I explain how I am going to address reader comments, all with the height of professionalism (as opposed to the grumpier marginal responses I recorded in step 2). Belcher notes that a well-written revision memo might even persuade your editor to accept your article without sending it back out to the reviewers, which, hey, that would be great, wouldn’t it? This memo fulfills a dual purpose: it will eventually go to the editor, but for now it’s my to-do list for revising the manuscript.

From here on out, I’ll refer almost exclusively to the memo, not directly to the reader comments, which gives me a buffer from any icky emotions still lingering about Reviewer 2’s phrasing. Plus, having the to-do list in the form of the memo is very empowering—I have already written a narrative in which I’ve finished the revisions! Woohoo! Now I just have to get there.

Step 3a) Sometimes a journal will ask for a “revision plan” just to make sure that authors and editors are on the same page about where revisions should go. If this is the case, then I send the draft memo to the editor and ask what they think.

Step 4) From here, I go through the manuscript and revise it as I have laid out in the memo (and based on any conversation with the editor in step 3a).

Step 5) I finalize the memo—usually some tweaks have come up during the revision process. I also take one more glance at my marked-up reader reports, just to make sure I haven’t missed anything, and to bid goodbye to Reviewer 2.

Step 6) Time to resubmit the manuscript alongside the revision memo.

I find that I really can’t rush steps 1 through 3. For me, the experience of receiving, processing, and translating feedback into action steps, has the power to transform the revision process from “ugh” to “I can do this!” It also gives me multiple opportunities to revisit the reviewers’ comments, and to make sure I’m communicating clearly with the editor and reviewers. Earlier in my academic career, it didn’t even occur to me that I could reach out to the editor with questions, something I now do consistently.

This is my process, and I’m curious to hear how others approach the same challenges. Good luck to everyone tackling manuscripts as the summer comes to to a close.


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