The Revise and Resubmit Series, Part 1: Coping with Criticism

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Image: Fort Wayne Daisies player, Marie Wegman, of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League arguing with umpire Norris Ward, 1948 (State Library and Archives of Florida)

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Despite cutting my teeth writing for a daily newspaper, where critiques are often brief and harshly worded, I still react a tad poorly to editorial suggestions. First, I rant and rave; then I feel a little depressed that my writing wasn’t up to par; and finally, I sulk and eat an inordinate amount of snacks. I allow myself to go through that process because it gives me the much-needed time and space to get over the initial shock of being told that the thing I worked so hard on isn’t perfect. Of course it isn’t. It never is.

In some form or another, I’ve been a writer for more than 20 years. And in that time, I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or three about the craft, art, and (often frustrating) process of writing. And one of the things I’ve learned is how to cope with, and benefit from, criticism.

A few weeks ago, I decided to write a column on how to interpret typical reader comments on journal manuscripts and how to make the recommended revisions. In preparation, I canvassed friends and colleagues for their experiences. I asked them for any memorable suggestions they had received on the “revise and resubmit” process – comments that had either confused or completely baffled them.

What I expected to receive were specific examples that would then help me hone in on what scholars find most difficult about the article-revision process itself. Instead, I discovered that many – if not most – junior scholars have a great deal of resentment and frustration about the peer-review process itself. Reviewers are seen not as collegial or helpful readers, but rather as maddening and sometimes meanspirited gatekeepers. Their comments are often viewed with a fair amount of suspicion, fear, bitterness, or anger.

In short, many scholars see peer reviewers as “the enemy.”

While plenty of young academics I know are vocal about their disgruntlement with the peer-review process, I was surprised at just how deep and wide the vein of antipathy seems to run. A Google search of “revise and resubmit” reveals a palpable frustration with peer review – especially in relationship to negative reader comments. So before I can dole out friendly advice on rewriting, I need to deal with the biggest overriding obstacle to successful revision: the nearly unanimous adverse reaction to receiving critical feedback on one’s writing.

First, let’s get something straight from the outset: Negative feedback on your writing will always sting. It’s hard to read those comments even once, let alone to revisit them throughout the already arduous revision process. And it’s absolutely normal to have a bad response to a bad review.

But – BUT – that critical feedback is also absolutely necessary to the crafting of a better article, chapter, or book. Really. The trick is learning to take not-so positive comments about your work in stride. If you can do that, then you can use a negative review to your positive advantage. If not, then you risk letting that feedback derail you.

Because here’s the thing all successful writers know: Taking criticism personally is a death knell. It stalls your writing. It makes revisions nearly impossible. It stifles creativity.

Don’t take criticism of your work personally even if, or especially when, it is written in a condescending or confrontational tone. Peer reviewers – much like stereotypical brash newspaper editors – are often overworked and underpaid. Indeed, reviewers don’t get paid at all for the time and effort it takes to review an article. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the lack of payment excuses bad reviewer behavior. But I don’t expect reviews to be “nice” either. I do expect them to provide me with another vantage point on what I’ve written. And I promise you this: Even the meanest, nastiest review of your work contains a grain of truth, a point worth taking. The worst review still has something to offer you, but only if you are willing and able to discern its value. And that means you need to create a separation between your work, yourself, and your emotional response to negative critiques.

Otherwise, you won’t be able to see the good in the bad. Not to sound like Mr. Spock here, but you simply cannot learn anything from reviewer comments if you cannot set aside your emotional reactions to them. Understand that the comments are not about you; they are about your work. Keeping that in mind will help you see when and where a negative reviewer is making a smart, valid point about how you can strengthen your arguments.

Tips for coping with criticism:

  • After reading through a reviewer’s comments for the first time, do nothing. Or, rather, vent to yourself. Call a sympathetic friend and complain. Eat some chocolate or potato chips. Watch some bad TV. Allow yourself the freedom to wallow for a moment.
  • Whatever you do, do not respond to your editor or your reviewers immediately. Do not craft a snarky email and press send. (Don’t laugh. That happens enough that Sage – one of the biggest academic publishers – gives this explicit advice on their website.)
  • Read your comments again and again. Make notes. Repeat the mantra: This is not about me. This is not about me. This is not about me.
  • Read the next two parts in this series on how to translate and incorporate common reviewer comments.
  • Get back to work.
  • You’ve got an article or a book to revise.

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