The Hard Way #5: Revising and Resubmitting

o, while I am not the foremost authority on this subject, I do have a fair amount of experience. In this post, I hope to give some advice both on revising and re-sending out an article that has been rejected, and on doing a revise and resubmit for a journal that has gifted you with that result. The first piece of advice that applies to both situations is to read the letter (and reviews, if they exist) immediately. In that immediate moment, get angry at the things that no one understood, or the parts of the result that you see as unfair.  Write an angry letter (but do not send it). Make a paper voodoo doll of the editor or of the reviewers. Make a list of ridiculous misreadings in the letter and/or the reviews. Call your non-academic friends and tell them how stupid and thankless your job is. Have a glass of wine.  Then throw away the voodoo doll, delete the letter, and walk away for at least a week. Blow off the steam. Allow yourself some negativity.

But then put an expiration date on the negativity. When you come back to the piece, letter, and reviews (if they exist), come back with a determination to learn from them. Sometimes, with a combination of good editors with the time to pay attention and good reviewers, it is easy to learn from the reviews. I’ve both written and received letters that explain exactly how to make something publishable, even when it is rejected from the journal. Those letters are a treasure – absorb every detail, and follow the instructions when they are clear. In a Revise and Resubmit letter, following the instructions increases the likelihood that the article is eventually published. That does not mean you have to agree with everything in the letter or the reviews – you can have reasoned disagreements with the prescriptions. In the best case, though, the letter and reviews will be easy to learn from and challenging but possible to engage. Sometimes, that ideal situation doesn’t exist, though – and whether or not it does, you need a plan. Here are some pointers, both about getting through hard letters and about making a plan.

Some letters, like the one that started my last post, are difficult to learn from. It was not because it didn’t have some useful information in it, but because it was so hurtful that it was difficult to even start trying to learn from. I’ll admit that took me more than a week. But in the end, I made edits to the piece based on the problems that the Reviewer found which made the piece stronger. Even though the Reviewer did not handle his/her job particularly professionally, s/he did see weaknesses that my article would be stronger for improving. Unprofessional reviews are not the only way that letters can be difficult to learn from. While the ideal letter is clear and manageable, not all letters come that way. I’ve also both written and received letters that amount to ‘sorry, the reviews sucked, we’re not publishing that’ – with not a whole lot more information. Or even desk reject letters that say ‘sorry, this doesn’t meet the remit of the journal.’ If you follow my advice in previous posts, you won’t get the latter one. But that does not guarantee that there won’t be something difficult about your letter. Sometimes, learning from a rejection or revise and resubmit letter requires concerted effort, an open mind, and a fair amount of humility. But it is (almost) always possible.

This is my process for doing that, and its worked well enough for me, so I figured I’d share:

  1. Make a to-do list. Taking from the comments of the editor and the reviewers, make a list of things that can be done to improve the article. If you got rejected, mark with a special mark the comments that occurred in more than one review. If you got a Revise and Resubmit, mark the comments that occurred in more than one review with one sort of mark, and mark the comments that the editor mentioned with another sort of mark. If the editor has specified which reviewers the article will go back to, put those in a different color or space on your to-do list. Make the to-do list as thorough as you can. And then don’t do it, yet.
  2. Get your to-do list read. Ask someone whose opinion you trust (read: someone who has had a fair amount of success publishing) to read your draft of the article and the to-do list, and to make suggestions about that to-do list: how to do it, if it is a good idea, how it might work, (if rejected) where to send the article next, and what (if anything) to add to the list. In other words, get a non-blind ‘peer’ review of your revision plans – both tailored to a journal from which you got a Revise and Resubmit, or more generally for revising the article for another journal. I’ll make another post on how to interact with mentors in the field, but this is a key place to use them.
  3. Edit the to-do list according to the feedback. Pay attention to others’ opinions. Make strategic (and non-egotistical) choices. Choose which comments you will disagree with (I try to think that they are 10-20% at most).
  4. Do the to-do list. It may be as simple as ‘send it to the right journal this time, dummy’ or as difficult as ‘use this method rather than that one,’ or ‘make a different contribution to the literature.’ Spend about half the time that you have for this article on the to-do list. Literally do the things in some order, and then check off each thing that you have done. Write about what you do to the article as you do it. If it is a revise and resubmit, that writing will become a detailed letter to the editor about the changes that you made to the article.  If it was rejected, the writing will become a note-history of the article that will be useful when the article gets a revise and resubmit at another journal, so you have a record of the evolution of the article as you have been working on it, and can see what changes pay off and which remain to be made.
  5. Get one more check. Have the person who read the to-do list and the old version of the article read it again to see if they think you have accomplished it. Provide them your writing about the article so they can come to understand what you think you are accomplishing.
  6. Resend the article. This is where it gets real different for a revise and resubmit and a reject, so I’ll break them up. For a Revise and Resubmit: send a couple of page letter (2-3) about the revisions that you made to the article and the ways that you adapted to the Reviewers’ and editors’ feedback on the article. In this letter, if there is a comment or two with which you disagree, identify them (rather than just ignoring them) and provide your argument (with a warrant) about why you decided that changing the article in response to those critiques. It is also appropriate to recognize where the Reviewers found strength in the article, and how your revisions have expanded on and/or highlighted those strengths. Also send the article completely formatted for the journal’s publication standards. For a Rejection: spend about half the time that you have for this article on the to-do list, and about half the time critically evaluating where the article should be published. Choosing the first journal that you send it to may be ‘aiming at the stars’ or ‘taking a chance’ – choosing the second journal that you send it to should be picking the one that is likely to publish the article. It doesn’t mean that will work – but getting closer is important too. One of the things that you and your mentor-reader should focus on is getting it to the right journal the second time. While you cannot explain the edits that you have made to a new journal, you can send in an article that you are confident will not get the same criticisms that it got initially, even from the same reviewers.

A last note for this post: note that I treat Revise and Resubmits and rejections fairly similarly in terms of the process that I use to deal with them. I learned this ‘the hard way’ early in my career, when I was treating Revise and Resubmit letters as virtual acceptances, and got too cavalier with some of them. A Revise and Resubmit is an investment of interest in publishing, but it is not a guarantee by any sense of the imagination. To me, considering a Revise and Resubmit as a rejection with interest in resubmitting to the same journal (which I generally wouldn’t do for a ‘real’ rejection, and can talk about in a later post) helps me to take the revisions seriously enough to have a generally positive result from each resubmission.