My name is Dr. Crazy, and I have never recommended an article for publication. One time, I suggested that a revise and resubmit was appropriate. That felt pretty good. But just the once.
In every other case, in the eight or 9 years that I’ve been serving as a reader for a handful of journals, of greater and lesser prestige and selectivity, I have said that the articles that I have read are not acceptable for publication.
And honestly, that really hurts my feelings. I fantasize about the day when I get an article that I recommend to accept without changes, or to accept with only minor revisions. You think (or at least I thought) that when you finally get the chance to serve as a peer reviewer that it will be this exciting experience wherein you discover the next new most awesome ideas in your field, and you get to support them. But yeah, so far, not so much. And according to my Fb friends, they have similar experiences to report.
So, I’m writing this post as a public service for grad students or very junior people in literary studies (YMMV if you’re in another discipline, though I suspect this explanation might be quite appropriate in other humanities fields, especially, too) in order to offer some advice. Because it strikes me that when one first tries to publish, one really doesn’t have much idea of what a “publishable” piece actually is.
[Aside: I was VERY lucky as a grad student for two reasons: 1) my dissertation director, as well as some other profs in the program, commented on our seminar papers in "reader's report" form, which felt like abuse at the time, but when I finally got my first reader's reports back on stuff I submitted, it was totally clear to me that I had been trained to deal with that kind of criticism as well as to anticipate it; 2) for my first two publications, both completed in grad school and that appeared in edited collections, I had very generous editors who really worked with me to get my work to publishable standards and really explained the "why" behind what they were asking for. I know that everyone doesn't have the benefit of these things - not even everybody in my own PhD program did, depending on the professors with whom they worked.]
First, what an article is not:
1. A seminar paper that you wrote for a graduate course is not an article. Not even if you got an “A” on it. (All an “A” means is that it was a very good seminar paper, excellent student work.) Not even if your professor said that the paper has “potential” to be published and you should think about submitting it someplace. (Implicit in that piece of encouragement is that you will revise the seminar paper to turn it into a journal article. It’s not ready, as is.)
2. A dissertation chapter is not an article. First off, dissertation chapters in my experience typically run longer than article-length. Even if you tend to have “shortish” (like 30-40 pages) chapters, as I myself did. Secondly, they typically involve a lot of “lit review” that “proves” you read a bunch of stuff, but which is extraneous to a tightly woven argument to be presented to an audience of experts. Third, if your dissertation is anything like mine, you might be picking fights with some critics, or dismissing out of hand the work of some critics, or uncritically praising the work of some critics, who are your potential reviewers, or the very good friends or very respected enemies of your potential reviewers. (The pool of people who work in any given subfield is very, very small: you need to be judicious and generous-without-being-fawning in your engagement with criticism, and judiciousness is often not a feature of the dissertation-writing process.) Fourth, no, you can’t just cut out the lit review and think because what you’re submitting is 25-30 pages that it is an article.
3. A conference paper is not an article. Not even if you’re submitting it to a very small journal that expects you to turn in something at around 2K words. Something intended to be read aloud to an audience is not dense enough or polished enough to appear without revision in published form. And certainly not if you’re submitting it to a journal that publishes stuff that falls in the 7K-words range. No, you can’t just “add to it.” A conference paper may be a skeleton of an article, or a piece of an article, or an idea for an article. But it’s not, indeed, an article.
Ok, but so then what does an actually publishable article involve?
1. Every article needs a clear, concise, precise thesis statement. An argument, if you will. And every piece of the body of that article should support and advance that argument, and the argument should develop and build through the accretion of evidence (primary – the literary text(s) -as well as secondary – theoretical, biographical, and/or critical material) and your analysis. If you are using sub-headings in lieu of actual transitions? You likely aren’t doing this. (Note: I’m not saying sub-headings are “wrong.” I’m just saying that if they are a substitute for strong transitions from one idea to the next, you’ve got a problem.)
2. Your argument should actually be original. Not just original to you. (That’s student work, and fine as far as it goes, but it’s not scholarship.) Here’s what I mean when I say this. When I was an undergraduate, I did my honors thesis on Virginia Woolf and her androgynous aesthetic. Now, what I had to say was like totally original to me. But was I making an original contribution to the scholarly conversation on Virginia Woolf, and taking that conversation to a new place? NO! I WASN’T! What I was thinking about was “new to me,” and I learned how to write in a more advanced way by doing that project, but it was NOT scholarship! If you are “cherry-picking” quotes that “agree” with your argument, or that “disagree” with your argument, but you’re not deeply reading the body of the criticism and really thinking about it? You’re likely in trouble. Original scholarship is often ambivalent in relation to the body of criticism – it’s not Yes! or No!
3. You should be able to show where your original ideas came from. How do you build on, complicate, reject, or enhance the existing body of criticism? What are the foundations of your ideas, and how do you grow out of those foundations? How do you grow away from them? How does your close reading of the literary text(s) substantiate what you have to say about the scholarly conversation? As I tell my students, writing good literary criticism actually has a lot in common with doing geometry. It’s not enough to present a “right answer” – you’ve got to demonstrate the “proof” – you’ve got to “show your work.” Put another way, you need to articulate your thought process, and in doing so, persuade your reader that what you’re thinking is worthwhile, even if they disagree with your approach.
And what would you be best advised to avoid?
1. Avoid submitting essays in which you substitute quotations for your own ideas. Don’t create a collage in which other scholars, or, indeed, even Esteemed Great Writers of Literature, speak for you. And, no, it does not make a difference if you italicize phrases to “add emphasis.”
2. Avoid submitting sloppy work. Parallel construction of sentences matters. Punctuation matters. Citation style matters. Proofreading and spelling matter. And in this age of computers? If you have sentence-level problems like this I just think that you are lazy. No, I will not read past consistent errors with these things when I am reviewing for a journal to see your undying brilliance. I’ll think you’re an asshole who is wasting everybody’s time. Nobody is brilliant enough for this not to be irritating. It’s also worth noting: in non-blind-review situations, one sometimes gets stuff like this from Eminent Folks. It’s still fucking maddening, though one puts up with it because the person is Eminent. But if you’re not Eminent? Seriously, let the article sit a few days and then do some editing. [Confession: I know I submitted something like this (sloppy citations, baggy writing) in December that I am sure was maddening for my editors of an essay collection that I was “invited” (compelled, as a favor, and while I would never describe myself as eminent, I have earned the right to fuck up periodically at this point) to submit to. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t up to my usual standards, and I actually felt badly about it, but given the timing and that I hadn’t intended to write anything for this particular thing originally, I cut myself what felt like necessary slack at the time. The point is, though, I knew it was shitty even as I hit “send.” And when I revised the piece for the editors, I made damned sure that I didn’t pull the same shit again. I suppose this is one of the privileges of being “invited” to submit to something, and having the reputation to make that invitation worth it for the people putting the thing together, but what I did still sucks, and I want to note that I know it sucks and that I’m sorry for it.)
3. Avoid submitting to inappropriate journals. Seriously, do your homework. Just because you’re writing on a “novel” don’t think that your article is necessarily appropriate for the journal, “Novel: A Forum on Fiction” (a VERY selective journal). This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t aim high, but you should also be realistic about the quality of your work, the orientation of your work in relation to what the journal typically publishes, and the audience for whom that work would be interesting and significant. The article that I read today was for Fancy Journal (Comparatively) Related to Single Author (not the smaller “newsletter” style journal for that author). One of the major problems with that article was that it didn’t seem to realize that the only people who read that journal regularly are all experts on that author, who all have all the most famous passages of Single Author’s writing (not just the fiction, but also the diaries, letters, and all published materials) pretty much memorized, and they also have read ALL of the scholarship on Single Author. Submitting your work to the appropriate journal, and with that journal’s typical audience in mind, makes a HUGE difference. Here’s a tip: if you never cite anything from the journal you’re thinking about submitting your essay to in your essay? DON’T SUBMIT THERE. If YOU are not their audience, why would their readers be the audience for your work? Here’s another tip: if you’re thinking about submitting to the Fanciest Journal in Your Field, from which you cite articles consistently in your own work but which you know only has like an 8% acceptance rate, expect to revise and to submit it to a lower tier journal next. (And if you don’t know how to figure out the typical acceptance rate of the journals to which you submit, you need to figure that out before you submit anyplace – hint, the MLA publishes this info.) The best case scenario typically if you submit to one of the Top Journals is that if your work is good, you’ll get great readers’ reports to work from for your revision for a less selective venue, so it’s not a waste of your time or theirs, even if rejection is your fate. But rejection will likely be your fate, and you should know that.
1. Most of the people I know take their responsibilities as peer reviewers really seriously and they do their best to offer constructive comments for revision, even if they recommend rejection. They don’t JUST say, “this is a piece of shit.”
2. In submitting articles, even those that have been rejected, I would say that 95% of the time I received constructive comments that only made the article that I submitted better. Even if I felt on first reading that the comments indicated, “this is a piece of shit.” And yeah, sometimes I resist some of the comments, but I provide my rationale, and that has always been ok. Or I address a comment that I think is not central in a note, but it doesn’t HURT anything for me to do that, and it makes the reviewer happy. The point is, getting a work to publication is collaborative. And taking the criticism you get never (in my experience) makes the essay worse.
3. If you’re doing conscientious, non-sloppy, original work, you really will get feedback that improves not only your writing but also your ideas, and a lot of times you’ll end up with a publication. Nobody is out to get you. As I often say to my students, when they get all paranoid that a certain professor (other than me, or even me) is out to get them: “I promise you they have other things that they are much more worried about than you. They are not staying up at night because of your crappy paper. “ Nobody who is serving as a peer reviewer is staying up at night because of your crappy article. I promise you. But they will be over the moon if you write an article that they can recommend for publication. Seriously, that is a rare and wonderful thing.