So you’ve got reader reports back on your academic book or article and your peer reviewers offer a range of advice on how you might improve the manuscript. How do you decide which suggestions to incorporate?
In this second installment of our two-part series on responding to reader reports and reviewer comments, I walk you through how to read the sometimes conflicting advice that reviewers give on manuscripts and how to decide which reviewer suggestions to follow.
In part 1, I cover the big-picture strategy of approaching reviewer comments, and here I’ll tackle how to implement that strategy for the specific, detailed feedback you receive in peer reviewer reports.
Argument and narrative arc are key
Pay particularly close attention to peer reviewer report comments that substantially engage with your book or article’s argument as well as those that address the manuscript’s narrative arc.
Your narrative arc is the single story you tell across the entire manuscript—every sentence in the manuscript should explicitly contribute to that single story. If you have material in there that doesn’t explicitly contribute to the arc, cut it. You can always use that material in a different publication. A strong narrative arc ensures all the pieces of the text hang together and that the order of those pieces builds momentum from the beginning to the end.
In an article, the narrative arc is going to be smaller than in a book, of course, but there should still be a clear one.
If your narrative arc is unclear, readers will get lost. So pay particular attention to comments in the reader reports that identify unclear sections, note you need stronger transitions, question the order of your ideas (this comes before that, etc.), or misidentify your argument. These reactions indicate your narrative arc is weak and you aren’t yet telling a clear singular story.
Pay attention to what readers don’t (or mis-) understand
Note which sections confuse your reviewers. They will indicate this by either saying something needs more clarification or by misunderstanding your point. For instance, in their reader reports, reviewers may misidentify your main argument or use a different definition than you do for something.
Resist the urge to say readers are wrong and of course you already explain that clearly. As the author, it is your job to make your text clear and understandable to readers, not to yourself. You need to care about readers because without readers you can’t be an author. So try to resist the knee-jerk response of “you just don’t understand me!”
When reviewers (or editors for that matter) say they don’t understand something, they are giving you crucial information about something it is your job to fix. Responding productively to reader reports means taking this valuable information and using it to improve your manuscript.
Do you need to define your terms more explicitly? Do you need to stop burying your argument at the end of paragraphs or under other scholars’ voices? Do you need to use different terminology to explain a particular point? Do you need to craft stronger topic sentences or perhaps craft topic sentences for the first time?
Think about how you handle this in the classroom—when a student is brave enough to raise their hand and say they don’t understand something you’re talking about, do you dig your heels in further and say they’re just not trying hard enough? Of course not. You figure out another way to say that thing or provide another clarifying example because the goal in the classroom and in our written work is to clearly communicate our ideas in a way that audiences can understand and then use.
Claim the easy wins
Most peer review reader reports contain at least a few easy edits that you can do quickly. Things like adding citations, adhering to the journal style guide, deleting material, including another example, or swapping out word choices are super revisions.
Just do them. It doesn’t matter how small or silly they may seem, just do them. Save your energy for the bigger revisions.
Be pragmatic with new research
Sometimes peer reviewers will use reader reports to recommend you engage a brand new field of scholarship or add a new section about a new topic. These are revisions that would require a substantial time and energy commitment as well as new research.
When encountering these recommendations, first gauge how important that suggestion is to the reviewer and to the publisher. If it something one reviewer mentions in passing (e.g., “perhaps you could add this new topic” or “have you thought about engaging with X literature?”) and the acquisition editor indicates it is not a huge concern for them, consider doing a small version of it like adding a sentence or a footnote with resources.
If multiple reviewers and your acquisitions editor/journal editor all make the same suggestion or insist that you need to do something for your text to be relevant in your primary fields (e.g., if you don’t engage with a crucial field or barely cite anything published in the last 5 years), you will need to do it.
As I mentioned in my advice on planning out your revisions in part 1 of this series, you’ll need to identify how long that revision will take you and schedule time on your calendar to complete it. Be realistic when scheduling this, given your other professional and personal commitments.
If you’re working on a journal article, you often have the option of leaving that new research for the book version, but you’ll still need to acknowledge in the article itself that the new direction is relevant and you’ll be expanding on it elsewhere.
Approach with humility and confidence
Writing requires an intense mixture of humility and confidence. As authors we must be humble enough to identify what is important to readers and let their desires and confusions guide how we craft our manuscripts. After all, they’re the ones that are choosing to read our work, and that is a gift that deserves our respect.
But we must also be confident enough to think our voice matters in the world and thus clearly, boldly, and explicitly say what we mean, stripped of any obfuscating and defensive tricks.
Responding to reader reports productively means keeping this mixture at the forefront of your writing and revision process. It also ensures amazing scholarship that can actually have the impact in the world you are aiming for when you write.