Image: Advertising Poster for Ink, Encre L. Marquet (1892), by Eugène Grasset
So far in this series, I’ve covered how to cope emotionally with reviewer criticism and how to begin translating what those comments mean. In the final part of this series, I’m tackling the nitty-gritty of making changes with the reviewers’ or editor’s suggestions in mind. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my advice will require you to go back to the very basics.
But before we begin, let me take the opportunity to underline a key point: While revisions are always difficult, they are absolutely necessary.
Being asked to revise and resubmit is actually a big victory (though it doesn’t always feel like it). It indicates that your article or book manuscript has enough merit to warrant a request for major revisions. If it didn’t, it would have been rejected outright. Keep that in mind as you toil. It will make the revision process that much easier if you can accept that nearly everyone is asked to make a few major revisions before publication. (Your ultimate goal as a writer is to start receiving more acceptances “with minor revisions.” I’ll talk about strategies for better article design – and thus better initial drafts – in a future column here.)
Now back to the basics.
Organize Your Revisions. After you’ve read through the comments once or twice, go back through and highlight all the major points and suggestions. Now it’s time to map out your plan of attack: You have to figure out what you need to change and how to do it. Here are two strategies for approaching that task:
1. The Chart. How it works: Open an Excel file or Word document and list out each suggested revision. In a separate column, list the page numbers or sections related to that revision. Then fill in a column for the changes you’ll make. Make sure to leave a blank column where you can “check” that you’ve completed each discrete task. Having a chart can help you to organize your revisions and keep track of your progress.
Some very prolific colleagues I know swear by this method for planning out their revisions. Personally I don’t use this approach because I find it cumbersome. Instead, I spend time crafting a detailed response to the reviewers before I tackle the revisions themselves.
2. The Letter. How it works: Open a Word document and begin crafting a letter responding to each of the major revisions that reviewers want to see. Explain how you plan to fix the main issues. This process forces you to think through the similarities and differences in reviewer comments and decide how best to alter your article. It also allows you to take control of the revision process by deciding – before you even begin – what you will and won’t revise. (See below for specific advice on dealing with contradictory reviewer comments.)
The letter should never be longer than two or three single-spaced pages, which means that you can’t always respond to every point the reviewers make. Writing your response to a critique allows you to formulate for yourself how and why you’ll revise your text to strengthen your arguments. The letter forms the basic “outline” for your revisions. It helps organize the tasks ahead and assign them an importance ranking, so you don’t waste too much time on the small stuff or on figuring out how or where to get started.
Draft a Reverse Outline. Before you do anything else, print out your article and reverse outline it. By this point, you’ve already created your chart or written your letter. You know the discrete things you need to change and are ready to flag problem spots. Use color-coded flags for separate tasks. Cross out any weak paragraphs, marking them for deletion or major overhaul. Be ruthless. Especially if you’re being asked to add material to your manuscript, cut mercilessly anything that’s not directly related to your main argument. You’ll need that space back to stay under your word limit.
Tackle the Big Stuff First. Most writers have a tendency to futz too long with the small stuff. Making minor changes can make you feel like you’ve made “progress,” but really you’re just delaying the pain of overhauling your article. So if you need to make major structural changes -- such as moving, deleting, or adding in huge chunks of text -- do that first. You wouldn’t repaint a hallway before you’ve ripped up the wall to fix the electrical wiring, so you shouldn’t be perfecting sentences before you integrate data and theory or add in more evidence.
Make yourself do the hardest things first and the revision process will actually take much less time. I promise. You’d be surprised how much valuable writing time is wasted by, say, fixing the bibliography first.
How to Better Integrate Evidence with Analysis or Theory. This is one of the most common suggestions for revision. To begin fixing this problem, flag paragraphs that are evidence and those that are analysis. Look at the balance. Then consider where you need to insert either more evidence or analysis to balance out the paragraph.
If you have too much theory, go back to your data and mine it for more detail that supports your argument. Make sure you’re not using an excessive amount of theory to mask the fact that you’re still not sure what your own argument really is (this happens). To get rid of excess theory, follow the age-old writing rule: Show, don’t tell. An example or two will help to ground your theory.
If you have too much evidence, on the other hand, see where you can pause your narrative and dig deeper. For this problem, the general advice is flipped: Don’t just show us, tell us something about what we’re seeing. Explain why you’re using this data.
If you’re really stuck, start with a few key pieces of evidence and a few concepts or a theoretical framing. In a new document, try interweaving them together. Getting the right balance is tricky, but will come more naturally once you’ve forced yourself to pay attention to what each paragraph and sentence is doing.
Often an imbalance of evidence/data and theory/analysis is indicative that your overall thesis isn’t strong enough. You may have an “aha” moment when trying to fix this problem. Don’t be afraid to entirely reorganize your article as a result. It will be much stronger and your work will proceed much more easily if you don’t stubbornly stick to an original thesis that isn’t working.
How to Proceed When Reviewers Disagree. If you’re faced with multiple reviewers that have diametrically opposed suggestions for revisions, you must adjudicate the issue for yourself. When you’re charting your revisions or crafting your response, you need to decide – as objectively as possible – which reviewer is making the stronger case and why. You may need to reverse outline before it becomes fully clear which way to proceed. Keep in mind that, as an author, you do not need to make all of the suggested changes. You do, however, need to have a rationale for why you won’t make those changes.
Believe it or not, contradictory suggestions are a blessing in disguise. They allow us to see the weak spots in our article’s structure or argumentation. The best part is that we’re free to decide how best to fix things – without being tied to any particular reviewer’s point of view. Usually, you’ll have a gut instinct about which reviewer is “right.” Go with that feeling and don’t overthink it. We almost always know when someone has accurately pinpointed a weakness in our own writing because the critique feels “truer” than other feedback we receive.
Make this Process Fun. “Revise-and-resubmits are great.” Repeat that mantra often. Reward yourself for making progress on the hardest parts of your revisions. Try to have fun with this. Create space to rework your ideas and be creative throughout the process. (For instance, I use crayons to mark up my text. Really. You can’t take anything you do with crayons too seriously.)
Revisions are grueling but they can also be very rewarding. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker: I may hate revising, but I love having revised – and seeing my books and articles in print. So will you.