Thoughts on revising an academic article (an act of whimsy and procrastination)

I’ve got a revise-and-resubmit on my desk for an academic article I’ve been working on. The peer reviewers have been most thorough, but not unkind, which is indeed a blessing. The article is a how-we-did-it-good-here-styled-as-a-case-study kind of thing. Since I’m not quite at the point where I’m mentally  ready to actually, yanno, rewrite the darn thing, I thought I’d walk you through my current process in the hopes of being entertaining.

Right now, this includes printing out my article and the reviewer notes, and rereading what I wrote all those months ago alongside the commentary. While drinking hot cocoa and trying to figure out how to fix the article by posting on Twitter and blogging while the wheels turn in my backbrain. Like you do. Well, I do, anyway. For my writing and revision process is not a linear one.

I’m a backbrain writer. I don’t always know where I’m headed until I get there. I tend to read around the literature, and think a lot, and then put a bunch of ideas-that-may-be-related-but-only-in-my-brain down into a document. Then I spend a bunch of time moving those idea paragraphs or sections around until I figure out how my brain thinks they fit together. Then I outline from that, to see if I have actually drawn lines from A–>B–>C that are clear, rather than pointing to my jumbled thoughts and saying “but it’s right there! Don’t you see it?” when I’ve actually gone from A–>[meander]—>C–>Out for a mocha –>B–>*jazz hands* (jazz hands are essential to good writing, right?).

Once I have a through-line, I can usually come up with a conclusion by asking “so what?” My favorite mentor in library school always asked, “So What?” in response to any paper topic I suggested. It took me a little while, but eventually I figured out that he was trying to push me to actually come up with conclusions and ramifications, rather than just pointing out the existence of, say, nuns who produced medieval manuscripts in German abbeys. Yes, nuns who decorate manuscripts are cool, but what does it mean that they did so?

As time has gone by, I have found that to be a very useful question. If I can’t explain “so what?” –the actual impact on the field of study, on the players involved, on the world– after pointing to my observation, my work isn’t finished yet. This stood me in good stead in my English MA program, too.  For example, the history of the publication of the Lyrical Ballads is fascinating (there was much argument between Wordsworth and Coleridge between the first and second editions, for example). I wrote a paper explaining how the physical changes between the first and second editions (both in poetry placement and in physical production of the book) demonstrated that contention between the two poets. It isn’t enough to describe how the editions differ–I had to explain why that mattered. Which I attempted to do.

So. This is how I’ve spent my afternoon. Draw from my thought process what entertainment you can. I’ve put my thoughts in italics, and then what that means for this part of the writing process for me underneath.

*Opens article file*  “Huh. Who wrote this crap?” 

Translation: Since I wrote and turned in this article several months ago, the prose is actually quite fresh to my eyes. Which may make rewriting easier since I don’t have that glazed-over-by-my-words thing going on. I can be ruthless about my own prose. Which I need to be, because I spotted some I’m-being-academic-and-using-jargon-to-hide-my-fear writing that needs to GO.

“That’s funny, the reviewers seem to have pointed out all the areas where I was using handwavium because I didn’t have a good way to explain that without sounding self-aggrandizing”

Translation: Reviewers and readers can tell when you’re not being precise. Or when you’re being modest because you fear that you’re being self-aggrandizing. Or have imposter syndrome.  Stick to factual facts and go from there. What they want are details. Don’t tease them, tell them what they want to know.

*Scribbles notes on article*

Translation: That’s a good place to expand upon that bit that the reviewer wanted. (I really hope you can read your own handwriting later.)

“Huh. I don’t remember that article that I cited saying that.” 

Translation:  I’m going to need to reread my cited articles to be sure I didn’t miss something that one of the reviewers saw. And look for more, because more things have come out on this topic in the year and a half since I did my literature search and reading-around before beginning to write the article. (Yes, I have time to do this).

“What do you mean those two terms can’t be used interchangeably?” 

Translation: Pick a term and stick to it. Go ahead and refer to the other one if you like as something you’ve drawn upon, but if you’re trying to coin a phrase, be bold and just do it, define it, and use it consistently. It’s okay.

Well, at least I have my So What…

Translation: the issue isn’t with my conclusions this time around. Instead, it’s about bolstering and refining my argument so that it clicks nicely with my conclusions.

If I look closely enough, there may still be a place to insert jazz hands. We’ll see. In the meantime, if it looks like I’m staring off into space, know that I’m actually thinking really hard.

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About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a five time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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