Responding to Reader Reports: The Big Picture

by | May 16, 2017

So you’ve got reviewer comments 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 two-part series, I walk you through how to approach revisions on your academic book or journal article as well as how to decide which peer review report suggestions to follow. Think of this first article as the big-picture strategy and the next one as helping you implement that strategy for the specific, detailed feedback you receive from reviewers.

So let’s get started.

Re-read your book or article

I know you want to jump right into the reviewer comments, but before you do so take the time to re-read your manuscript first.

Given how painstaking slow the academic publishing process is, chances are it has been several months since you submitted your manuscript. Re-read to reacquaint yourself with the text so it is fresh in your mind when you approach your reviews.

Read the reviewer comments generously

Having people review our work is always nerve-wracking as we tend to fear rejection and criticism, especially in an academic culture that encourages it. But give your peer reviewers the benefit of the doubt and read their comments in the most generous way possible. This doesn’t mean ignoring critiques, but it does mean being kind to yourself and generous to your colleagues in assuming they are not all out to get you.

Most reviewer comments will address some developmental editing aspects of of the text—for example, “this part is unclear,” “this argument is underdeveloped,” or “adding these citations would help.” These comments are very helpful and you should do your best to address them in your revisions.

Occasionally (and unfortunately) you may run into comments that are ad hominem or oppressive, such as dismissing an entire field of study as irrelevant or attacking specific communities (e.g., “why would anyone study this?”). In that case, realize those are unprofessional, inappropriate comments, and they can be set aside.

If a reviewer notes, however, that a particular part of your text is confusing or you don’t fully articulate your point, take that at face value. That is a specific area in the manuscript you should edit and improve rather than assuming the reviewer is condemning your entire career.

Ultimately, remember that reviewers are commenting on the manuscript, not you. You are not your manuscript just as you are not your career—you are a whole, embodied person and this manuscript is merely one of your many contributions to the universe. Your manuscript may need a lot of work to become publishable but you are more than capable of making those changes and crafting a strong text that speaks to diverse readers.

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Take a break to marinate

After reading through the reviews generously, take a break. Go for a walk, hang out with your pets or friends, or eat a tasty snack—do something that gets you away from the manuscript.

Giving yourself this time lets the reviewer comments marinate. You might find yourself ruminating on some of the suggestions, brainstorming a response, or figuring out how you can make specific changes.

List the possible revisions

Listing out all the possible revisions is a step that many authors forget—and regret it later. Once you’ve ruminated a bit by taking a step back from the manuscript, list out the all the revision suggestions your reviewers provide.

This might include things like adding citations, defining specific terms more thoroughly, clarifying your argument, reorganizing some sections, deleting or adding specific material, or doing some new research. A professional academic editor is a great resource for figuring this step out.

After you’ve listed out all the possible revisions, calculate how long each revision would take to complete. Simple things like adding new citations or deleting material are quick (~15 minutes), while more complex revisions like doing some new research or adding material will take longer (several hours, perhaps spread over several days or weeks).

Now take a look at your calendar system and tenure timeline to see how much time you have to dedicate to revisions.

Decide which revisions to do

I explain how to decide which reader report suggestions to take up more thoroughly in part 2 of this series. But for now, I’ll just say that in deciding which revisions to tackle and which to leave aside, take into consideration that time calculation you did in the previous step.

Although time isn’t your only criteria for deciding, make sure to include it as one of the criteria as you are a busy professional with a lot of projects going on—not to mention an embodied human being with a limited number of hours in the day.

Articulate why you are doing those revisions and how

Now it’s time to communicate with your acquisition editor (for books) or faculty journal editor (for articles) and let them know if or how you will be revising the manuscript for further consideration.

For books, you’ll articulate this in a formal letter to your acquisitions editor, in which you’ll explain which revisions you’ll be addressing and how. You’ll also explain which revision suggestions you won’t be doing and why—tact is vital here.

For articles, the journal editor might not require a formal letter but it is still helpful to jot down a brief explanation of which revisions you’ll be incorporating, which you won’t, and why. Professional academic editors can help you craft this letter and justify your decisions on what you’ve chosen to revise.

Schedule your revisions and tell your editor

Now that you’ll decided which revisions you’ll be making, and calculated how long each of those will take, get out your calendar and book time to complete those revisions. Be realistic here and take into account your other obligations when scheduling revision time.

Once you’ve scheduled that time on your calendar, figure out the date you’ll have them complete and tell your acquisition editor or faculty journal editor the date you’ll be sending the revised manuscript. If you hire an academic editor to help you with the revisions, tell them as well.

Stick to this deadline! Acquisition editors, professional editors, and faculty journal editors juggle a lot of projects at once on very tight schedules so make sure the deadline you provide is realistic, and then keep your word. Doing so demonstrates you are professional, considerate, and mindful of others’ time.

If you blow your deadline, expect to get put at the back of their line of projects, if the editor is able to still take on your project at all.

Jump in!

You’ve reviewed the suggested edits, decided on the ones you’ll complete, scheduled time on your calendar, and confirmed a concrete deadline with your editor(s). Now you get to jump in!

You might choose to tackle the big revisions first to get them out of the way, or you might decide to start with quick and easy revisions to give yourself some small wins and build momentum. Whichever you choose, remember that revising is a chance for you to turn a rough draft into a piece of scholarship—research and writing makes your text good but revising and editing make it great.

Happy revising!

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Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire as well as the host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

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