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Responding to Reader Reports: The Big Picture

Responding to Reader Reports: The Big Picture

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May 16, 2017

Responding to Reviewer Comments - Person leans against a wall, writing on a tablet

You’ve got reviewer comments back on your academic book or article. How should you approach the revision process?

In this two-part series, I’ll talk you through how to approach revisions on your academic book or journal article (part 1) as well as how to decide which peer review report suggestions to follow (part 2). Think of this first post 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 reviews, but if you can bear it try re-reading your text 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 the developmental editing aspects of of the text: this part is unclear, this argument is underdeveloped, adding these citations would help. These are very helpful and you should do what 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. In that case, realize those are unprofessional, inappropriate, and 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 text you can edit and improve rather than assuming the reviewer is condemning your entire career.

Ultimately, remember that reviewers are commenting on the text, not you. You are not your text just as you are not your career—you are a whole, embodied person and this text is merely one of your many contributions to the universe.

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 text. 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 and Calculate How Long Each Would Take

This is a step that many authors forget and regret it later. Once you’ve ruminated a bit by taking a step back from the text, list out the various 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 these out, calculate how long each 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).

Decide Which Revisions to Do and Which to Not Do

I’ll explain thoroughly how to do this next week in part 2 of this series, so look out for that blog post. 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

For books, you’ll articulate this in a formal letter to your editor at the press where you address the revisions your reviewers and press editor suggest and explain which you’ll be addressing and how. You’ll also explain which revision suggestions you won’t be doing and why (and yes, tact here is very helpful).

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. 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 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 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.

P.S. Remember to check out next week’s post where I outline how to decide which revision suggestions to do and which to decline.

Happy revising!

Image credit: WOC in Tech Chat (www.wocintechchat.com). Check them out, they’re awesome!

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