Five lessons I learned from rejections

My first attempt to write a scholarly journal article was a total disaster. I picked a journal with the highest impact; all because that was the journal I cited most in my papers during my master’s. Who would have known that The Journal of Pragmatics was in the top tier? I didn’t even know that there were tiers at all. And then, I picked an established professor to review my article hoping that I could show her a ‘different perspective’. I thought I was being clever. I built my research upon her findings and claims so I was thinking that she must be interested in my article. I was excited to present findings that went against hers, hoping that she would give me a thorough review and positive feedback, and possibly, you know, some compliment? Oh yes she did get back to me in full swing, with six pages of comments, but all sounded very unhappy, culminating in a major revision, some kind of borderline rejection.

I attempted to revise the manuscript addressing all the comments, but instead of making an improvement I seemed to have escalated the debate. After resubmission, which I sent together with a carefully crafted letter to thank the reviewer, the manuscript was, quite unsurprisingly, turned down. Only then I realized that I wouldn’t be treated as nicely as an international student, not anymore. In this business of writing research article, you’re a peer researcher and you have to keep up.

Lesson learned #1: Seek allies, not enemies

Had I suggested someone with similar views, the article wouldn’t have faced such a grim fate. A friend, who was doing a PhD at the UCL (and a reviewer), said that I should have sought allies, not enemies, because there will always be debates among scholars. One phenomenon could be examined from multiple angles, using different methods and approaches, generating different results, leading up to a differing conclusion. And if you happen to be involved in such a debate, she said, the last thing you want to do is to ask the person with the opposing view to review your article ‘cause obviously they will tear your arguments apart, especially if they have been in the industry for decades, and you’re just born yesterday. OK fine. Bye.

Wait but how do I know that the reviewer was the professor with the opposing view, or should I say, the professor whose view I daringly oppose? After all it’s double blind review. I have read her books and tens of her journals so I know exactly how she operates. Besides, I specifically said to the editor that I wanted this particular professor to be my reviewer exactly because our claims are conflicting. Trust me I wasn’t trying to be a dragon slayer. That was pure stupidity.

But honestly, how do we even decide whether a journal falls into a first, second or third tier? Some say it’s according to the impact factor (IF), and some say that a first tier just means broader coverage, while a second tier onwards means that they are flagship journals of each disciplinary society. Broader coverage like systematic reviews prompts more citations, leading up to a higher IF. Some also think it’s all about the unspoken consensus among experts in each discipline. Decisions rely on experienced members in the field, yes but who are these experienced members? And don’t you think that there would be a bit of bias here?

Lesson #2: Write in bite size

I tend to squish a huge amount of information to a tiny jar. The result is a messy article, with ideas branching out and explanation spilling over. Feedback has been uniformly stating that I must sustain the focus and that I must be able to decide what to retain and what to leave out.

Here is what I think is the process of researching as experienced by a rookie: you get an idea, you jot down the idea, you read the literature, but then you start to think that your idea is trash either because plethora of research has been done on the matter already, or you realize that you’re in the wrong direction. As you revise you find a more tangible research question and you start to shift directions, tweak and twist things, reshape the proposal until it looks like a lump of abstract sculpture.

Author’s guidelines everywhere though, mention very clearly what their word limits are. And if you’re writing an article based on your bigger project like dissertation, it’s very tempting to go beyond the limit because there is a lot to say. Experience taught me not to. Just stick to the journal traditions. They are there for a reason. After all, no body has the time to read any overly long articles. Sustain the focus. Write in bite size.

Lesson #3: Drop the ego

One time I withdrew an article to be included in a conference journal because I took offence at everything. It was supposed to be a blind review system. I received the feedback from the two reviewers, revised accordingly and resubmitted. It was a smooth sailing until the editor in chief decided that he was going to have a second look. Alas! He’s got a totally different view and request a major revision. And I just felt that it was unfair and so I showed myself out. Two years later, I looked back and the situation was not actually that bad. The editor did make a point, but I was too disappointed to see. It’s unfair that the editor second-guessed the reviewers but still, if I had dropped the ego a notch, persevered a bit; I would have seen the article find its limelight. So I think, at the end of the day, what makes authors reach the finish line is not just the speed or cleverness, but the attitude to keep on going and the strength to stay positive when facing a setback.

Lesson #4: Persevere

It’s easy to get lost in the process. This is a high stake business and you put your opinion on the line. You spend weeks and months to write an article and you invest so much. It’s your brainchild and now you present it to an audience, waiting to see how people would respond. And oh yeah responses may vary. Back to the article that was turned down by the Journal of Pragmatics, what did I do with it? I redrafted it and here is how I did it:

I left it alone for a little while. I carried on with life, got my mind off it for a moment and when I felt like I could face the mischievous little idea again, I sat down with it and reworked its structure. Did I succeed this time? Not quite. I hadn’t fully grasped lesson #2 and #3 by then. I only worked on its surface structure and not the actual problem. And that actual problem was the way I framed the argument. It was rather I must say, cocky. And the reworked manuscript was still, by all means, cocky. Here is the analogy: There was an apple strudel on the table. I came crushing it, claiming that I had a tastier apple pie. It’s not that I came in peace and placed the apple pie next to the strudel and let people decide if the pie I brought actually meant anything. Like seriously, I only learned to bake in three months and I went straight making enemies and waging war with chefs from Michelin restaurants. What was I thinking?

I sent the apple pie to Discourse and Society and reviewers immediately said no. It’s even worse than the first ‘cause at least I was given a chance to revise. Not this time. It’s just a plain no. Did it crush my spirit? No. Good thing about cockiness is that it comes in one package with stubbornness. What did I do then? I left the manuscript alone for a little while again and carried on with life. Half a year later I came back to it and realized what an idiot I was.

I sliced the apple pie, just about the right portion. Bite-sized apple pie sitting nicely next to the strudel cooked by the master chef. I didn’t come like a wrecking ball. I came smiling ear-to-ear offering a ‘different perspective’ to feature apples in a pastry. Did I succeed this time? Not quite. Reviewers came back to me with a lot of questions and criticisms. One reviewer though, went straight giving me a five star rating. Editor was presumably torn between the conflicting opinions but he gave me a chance to revise.

What happened then? I left the manuscript again, and came back to it again. Did I ever get tired? Oh believe me I could sense a taste of vomit every time I had to rework the manuscript but I was determined to get it out there so I persevered. There is no other way to do this.

Lesson #5: Minimize grammatical errors

I’m not saying this as a subtle marketing strategy for my editing service. Oh actually I am. Leave he grammar to us. Focus on the content. Lesson numbers five get a good proofreader like ours. That’s it. Problem solved. Thank you, next.

No seriously. Your manuscript is a subject to critiques. People will come at it from different directions. If the substance is okay they will start to say something about the style and presentation. If they don’t like the way you cook an apple pie, they’ll roast even the direction of the cutting. Because that’s what a reviewer does, making sure that an article is flawless and occasionally roasting people.

See the thing is, we are often blind to our own flaws and we find it easier to find the flaws of others. Getting a proofreader is one way but if you cannot afford one, get someone you trust to read it, even if they are not a linguist, they will still spot some errors that your tired eyes often miss. It’s so easy to get fixated and lost in our thoughts. As a writer we have spent so much energy putting ideas into being, so it’s only natural when we make grammatical mistakes. But taking time to work on this area will be worth the while. It’s better to invest time perfecting the language than undergoing an even lengthier process, sending the article back and forth just because the language is problematized.