RelationsInternational

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The Hard Way #1: Write Stuff Down and Send Stuff Out

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This post is the first in a series of professional development posts on RelationsInternational. I will write most of them, but accept guest posts and contributions from other members of RelationsInternational. This series of posts was inspired by some people in a conversation at ISA who suggested that there is utility in formally writing some of the stuff I’ve learned ‘the hard way’ over the course of my career down in case it would be useful to others. I in no way consider myself to be a guru-sort of anything, so take this advice or leave it, it has been useful to me over the years. 

The first time I was asked to be on a panel on how to publish, I’d barely secured my first job. I knew even at the time that I’d been asked because of the fairly voluminous amount of stuff I’d published in a wide variety of (including traditionally high-quality) outlets. I figured that I’d been asked to be on the panel because I had to have learned something from those experiences, and sat down to figure out what I’d learned. The list of lessons has gotten longer over the (many) years since that panel, and the first posts in this professional development series will try to address the list, one at a time. I still think, though, that the first lesson I came up with is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned (and relearned, and re-relearned) in publishing in the discipline.

Write stuff down. Send stuff out.

I know that this sounds like a silly lesson. But it is one we often forget to learn ourselves, and even more often forget to tell our students, menthes, and junior colleagues. Writing stuff down and sending stuff out seems intuitive, but, surprisingly, most people with publishing woes fail at one or both of these things.

Some people do not write stuff down and send it out because they feel like it needs to be perfectly straight in their head before they do, or perfectly organized, or path-breaking, or something like that. Here’s news: it does not. The second draft is always better than the first, but there can be no second draft without a first one. Even something you think is actually perfect is likely to get an R&R at a journal (if that, more on these things in future posts), so it doesn’t have to be the Sistine Chapel to go out to a journal the first time. While you don’t want to send something with a bunch of typos, or without a theory, or with bad data analysis, you also don’t want to keep it on your desktop stewing about the perfection of the final point forever. When it is close enough that a reviewer is likely to be able to read it and contribute to the conversation, it is ready to be sent out.

Others do not write stuff down and send it out because they get (justifiably) distracted by the million and five other things that we are expected to do. That will always be a challenge – especially for those people whose primary job responsibilities are teaching rather than research, or those people who have a significant number of responsibilities at home or within other family/friend structures. That will always be a challenge, but is also the time when this first cardinal rule of publishing is the most important to follow – because putting something away ‘to think about’ in those sorts of situations can turn from days to weeks to months.

For me, though I have been pretty productive, there have been various projects which have looked insurmountable before I forced myself to write them – whether it was one hundred words at a time or thousands. After I started writing, they looked conquerable. There have been times in my life where I thought, for one reason or another, I wouldn’t find the fortitude to accomplish my writing tasks. I have figured out over the years that incrementally getting the writing done cures the fear of writing. While every once in a while I still hide my eyes when I hit the “send” button, each time it gets easier, and each increment makes a project easier.

So, write stuff down. Send stuff out. That’s the first lesson I learned ‘the hard way.’ Stay tuned for post #2, wherein I tell you about how I learned ‘the hard way’ to send stuff out strategically.

  • Whooleyj

    Good post, one question though, isn’t it possible to burn out reviewers on something that is less than perfect if they see it multiple times? I would imagine the possibility of over-sending a piece could be damaging as well.

    • Laura Sjoberg

      I think that my advice is radically different for a second submission than for a first submission – which the advice shares that decisions should not be motivated by fear, I take a much more measured approach to resubmissions, including a serious evaluation of the work. When I write about where you send stuff, I’ll talk more about that. And, of course, there are people that write stuff down and send stuff out with too much haste, even originally. But compared to the number of perfectionists who sit on perfectly good work, in my experience, they are few and far between. Stay tuned for more!

  • Laura J. Shepherd

    I strongly endorse the advice given here. I have seen really *really* smart people confounded by their own perfectionism in both ways: people who can’t write because they can’t get it right first time; and people who write great stuff but then sit on it until the disciplinary moment has passed for fear of having it taken apart by reviewers. Having words is better than not having words, which is why I advise anything who will listen to throw words at the page on a regular basis and then see what sticks. I can remember how sick I felt when I sent my first article off into the world for consideration (and then how sick I felt when I got the reviews, but I imagine that is fodder for another post, the theme tune to which is Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDkVQvhZx04) but it can’t *get* out there unless you *send* it out there. I agree. Write stuff, let it go, be prepared to learn about how to make it better.

    • Laura J. Shepherd

      … Although I would add to the general ‘Write stuff down and send it out’ message: try to find a writing buddy/mentor if possible, someone you trust to tell you if your writing is pure gibberish. I think Whooleyj is right, reviewers get fatigued if they keep seeing the same unimproved paper in circulation (I have been on the sending and receiving end of that arrangement and been cranky about it both times, which really means I knew better than to send it…) so support, even if only at the ‘last pass before I hit send’ stage, is valuable.
      That said, like you mention in the post, even something you think is pretty hot is likely to get R&R or even rejected, but with suggestions that will hopefully make it better. Then you implement those changes and send it out again. So my question (maybe for post #2) is, what’s the etiquette on sending a paper that has the bare bones of the original in place but has been completely and radically overhauled, back to a journal that rejected it?

      • Laura Sjoberg

        I think that’s tricky, and depends on the journal – but I also think that journal editors are more than willing to answer that question directly addressing a particular submission, often honestly and helpfully.

        Another post in this series will be called “it takes a village” – in it, Laura Shepherd’s punchline about getting support features very prominently!