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Ask Dr. Editor

How to revise and resubmit without despair

A six-step approach for doing the (seemingly) impossible task of applying reviewer feedback to your journal article.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | OCT 14 2019

Question:

Dr. Editor’s response:

When feedback from a reviewer seems impossible – or when feedback from Reviewer 2 contradicts the feedback from Reviewer 1 – you can be left throwing up your hands in frustration. It’s a legitimate starting point, but it’s not helpful or productive to sit in that emotional space for too long. Typing is a challenge when your hands are up in the air.

Dear letter-writer, when you’re ready to return your fingers to the keyboard, I offer a six-step approach for doing the impossible:

Step 1: Detail the feedback you’ve received

Work through your reviewers’ feedback, rewriting their comments in your own words. You might list their points in a project management app like Trello or simply bullet them in Word.

My preferred strategy has always been making a spreadsheet of the revisions I need to make. In a spreadsheet, I can categorize my to-dos as major or minor, code the comments to enable me to create thematic clusters, and hide the most challenging tasks until I am ready to address them.

When you rewrite your feedback in your own words, you’re beginning to engage with it, and you can – like the University of Miami’s @CallaHummel – avoid needing to reread a letter from a reviewer while you’re still mid-revisions:

Step 2: Address minor revisions first

By dealing with your minor revisions first, you’ll make the light touches that can snowball into more significant changes. Trim any excess wordiness (my favourite strategy: cut “is”), and strive to cut the aspects of your article that are extraneous either to the core of your argument or to the specific audience of your target journal.

If you’re struggling to determine which aspects of your article are central and which are peripheral, try visualizing the structure of your argument.

When making cuts, you can always save sentences or paragraphs in a purgatory file – a document of well-crafted phrases excised from their original contexts, but potentially salvageable in future work. Keeping a purgatory file means that your hard-fought-for writing may be cut without being forgotten.

In addition to a purgatory file, you might also consider a ventilation file – one in which you write out and write through stalls and inertia. (A tip of the hat to David Sternberg for coming up with this concept back in 1981.)

Your ventilation file is your space to document and contain every frustrated, negative, and angry thought you have about your writing, your research, or your reviewers. For some, writing about sticking points can lead to problem-solving – but even if your ventilation file is just a list of increasingly vulgar swear words, you’ve still got your hands on the keyboard, and so are still doing brainwork.

When you’re finished venting and ready to write, save and close your ventilation file, and move on with your revisions.

Step 3: Make your major revisions

This may seem like the hardest part, but anyone who has made substantial revisions to a document will know that it can be generative. Cross off, tick off, or hide the bullet or row associated with each revision as you move through this work, so that you can measure your progress and celebrate your good work.

Track the page or paragraph number where you’ve made changes, because documenting your work as you go will make Step 4 easier.

With luck, dear letter-writer, the space that you’ve opened up in Step 2 will enable you to fit in the word count you need for Step 3’s new content. If you still need more room, though, you’ll have to cut more ruthlessly. Consider working with a friend, your university’s writing centre, or a professional editor as you trim, hack, and send your words to purgatory.

Step 4: Write your response to the editor

Begin your response, always, by thanking your editor and your reviewers for helping you to develop a stronger argument that will better address the readership of your chosen journal.

Then, working from the document you created in Step 1 and developed in Step 3, detail the changes that you made as you revised your document. Point to added passages and citations, explaining how these changes have addressed your reviewers’ concerns.

Ideally, this letter will outline a process of improvement in your work.

Step 5: Perform one final round of edits

Return to your manuscript to give it one last polish. As I’ve described previously in this column, I’m a fan of using free online algorithms to get fresh eyes on your text. Honestly, though, anything that estranges you from your own writing should help you to see your words afresh: you might try your text in a new font and ink colour, with different margins and line spacing. Give your work a final, thorough pass, then send it out into the world.

Step 6: Cake

The last step is always cake. Thank you, #ResearchCake.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at shortishard@gmail.com or on Twitter @lertitia.
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  1. Christine / October 16, 2019 at 13:56

    May I add as an initial step: never take reviewers’ comments as judgments on your person?

  2. Mary Valentich / October 16, 2019 at 16:39

    Dear Editor: I was convinced that my late partner, Dr. James Gripton, had a handout on how to deal with rejected articles or better yet, accepted with revisions. When I searched his materials, I found his STEPS FOR SURE FIRE PUBLISHING IN REFEREED JOURNALS, a topic for another day.
    What I do recall of his approach with rejections or acceptance with revisions, was to immediately tackle the task and simply work through all the recommended changes (sometimes making them in major to minor ways). The point was to write back to the Editor, possibly within two days, with a thank you and a statement detailing all the recommended changes and our responses. Almost without exception, Editors accepted our changes and the article was published.
    With rejections, we went through the same detailed process of making changes and then, immediately sent the article off to another journal for review. One just didn’t give up.
    Sincerely,
    Mary Valentich,
    Professor Emerita, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary