Does it happen for you as it happens for me, that it seems that every paper I publish is better than the last? I had two come back from journals in the past couple of weeks both requiring very different kinds of revision. Complex revision, as it turns out. By complex revision I mean the kind of revision where the questions reviewers ask you, or the revisions they request, require thoughtful pondering in order to implement. It often means doing additional research, re-writing big chunks of text, or reorganizing the pathway of an argument.
Simultaneously, on Twitter, a conversation was taking place:
What do you prefer? To write first drafts or to revise an existing draft?
Someone referred to those people who like revisions as legendary or mythical. I, being solidly in camp revision, was curious to know if I truly was mythical as a writer for preferring to revise. So, I ran a poll and the responses were predictable. Half the sample preferred to revise and half preferred to write first drafts.
I would love to dig into what forms such preferences a little deeper, but that probably requires a research study. If I had to guess, I suspect that the preference is epistemological. I can only speak to why I prefer to revise. Having text there makes the next piece of text to be written more obvious to me. It gives me something to reflect on. I like filling in holes and crevices in my explanation of concepts. I like being clear. I also never think my writing is done so I can spend hours tinkering with phrasing, adding – or more often removing – adjectives, rearranging words and sentences. I feel the rhythm and cadence of my writing is important. I like to play, and this is fun for me. I find first drafts frustrating because I feel horrified by how little the idea I picture in my head resembles the words that come out on paper to represent those ideas. (Editor’s note: that last sentence was hell to get right, by the way. Its first iteration was twisted and a mess). First drafting feels like hell. Revising feels like passion.
First drafters may like outlining and filling in the blanks (a very structured, perhaps objectivist, epistemology). Maybe first drafters fear the blank page less because the blank page is a free-for-all canvass? With first drafts, you have control of the structure, with revisions, especially if they are coming from peer reviewers, you may not. Or maybe its people who revise as they write, making sure every paragraph, every sentence, every word is right before moving on to the next, who prefer first drafts. They’ve invested so much time up front with perfection, refusing to move on until the last sentence is what it is, they resist anyone who tries to make them go back and write it again.
Maybe people who hate revising are literalists. Maybe, because they can already see the richness that lies between the lines, they have a difficult time understanding how others can’t see it too, so they resist demands to explicate.
Or, maybe there is no relationship or meaning at all to preferences of revising versus first drafting. But I can tell you this, I’ve never done major revisions on a paper and walked away thinking the original version was better. Never.
Revision is hard. It is one of the last skills we learn to do well as writers. Perhaps passion for revision is a marker of writing expertise? Most undergraduate students don’t revise well. They are novices. The primary complaint I hear from educators is that our students don’t revise or they revise superficially and ignore requests to develop ideas. Feedback and revision go together and should not be separated. This is how the peer review system works, but how willing are you to tackle complex revisions when they are suggested to you?
I’ve had several, complex revisions I’ve undertaken in the last couple of years. I’ve also reviewed enough papers and then re-reviewed them after revisions to have observed how authors handle suggestions for complex, deep, revisions and most of the time they don’t handle it well, refuse to do them by citing some excuse, or they turn it into something superficial instead. I also find, when I have the opportunity to see the reviews that others submitted for the same paper, that many reviewers can’t see complex ideas within papers either.
Here are my thoughts on what I call complex revision:
- Reacquaint yourself with your paper and the previous passion you felt for the project. Here’s the problem with complex revision – the further away you are from the period of time when you were originally connected with the work, the harder it is to revise. For this reason, when I get a paper back with requested revisions, I tend to try and get them done as quickly as possible. I always print a copy of the paper and handwrite the review comments in the margin at the spots they are referring to. (Most of the review comments I get come in a numbered list of some sort, separate from the paper). I then always try and conquer the simple revisions first because the simple revisions feel like progress and they reacquaint you with the writing.
- However, the on the flip side, the distance might also help you see where your own writing is not clear. Two examples: I got asked some questions about something I said about one of my research constructs in a recent review, but when I read the sentences I had written many months before, I honestly didn’t know what I meant or where I was going with the point. The solution wasn’t to revise, it was to cut the sentences. In another revision, a reviewer suggested I cut a paragraph as it seemed to disrupt the flow of ideas. Being 8 or 9 months since I had originally submitted the paper, I could see what the reviewer meant, so I cut the paragraph.
- Don’t always respond to reviewers literally. Is there something the reviewer is not getting about your paper that prompted the comment they wrote but will be better fixed by editing something else the reviewer didn’t comment on? On a recent paper, a reviewer commented that I didn’t consider the importance of peer reviewing or talk about the value in seeing a rubric prior to handing in an assignment. No, I didn’t, but the literature on both those things weren’t critical to may study. Yet, the reviewer comment still didn’t make it appropriate for me to write new sections on peer reviewing or how rubrics improve (or maybe don’t improve) writing in my review of the literature. It did make me recognize that the reviewer was begging for more information on the context that my student participants were writing in so they could see why I wasn’t writing about those two topics. So, I wrote a section describing the writing environment in the program of study – where peer review was not standard in the courses being offered and thus was a self-selected choice of students, and the students always got to view the rubric prior to submitting an assignment.
- “You said you were going to talk about X but you didn’t actually do that.” I got a comment of a similar nature for a paper and my instant response was, but I did talk about X and it is RIGHT HERE. But upon reflection, that comment made me understand that what I was describing as X and what I actually did, was not what the reviewer had expected as X. That comment didn’t mean I had to re-write the paper to fit the reviewer expectation. I did have to go and re-write my description of X so it was a better match for what I actually did. No matter what, it is still your paper.
- Requests to redo analysis. Do it, if you can. I got a review comment suggesting a different statistical test than the one I had done. I had to go back to the statistician, reacquaint myself with a data set I hadn’t looked at in a year and a half, and I had to re-run my analysis. This was a frustrating review comment for sure. I was so tired of this study that I wanted it done. The last thing I wanted to do was go run more analysis. But it was worth it. The findings came out almost the same, but the testing method was more robust and it will add greater credibility to my paper in the long run.
- When reviewers criticize your method, they aren’t asking you to redo your whole study before resubmitting for publication, but they are asking you to explicate your study limitations a bit better.
- Read that whole new body of literature. Just a few articles. Reviewers suggesting a long list of literature for you to read probably doesn’t mean they want you to write the paper they would have written instead. But something you wrote triggered a connection with a peripheral body of work. I’ve had specific articles suggested to me. I’ve had author names dropped into reviews like bread crumb trails marking the pathway to some in-group. I take a moment to explore them all. In one case, it meant writing an additional 2000 words into my paper (I had the wordcount room via journal limits). That paper was ten times better than it was when I first submitted it. Sometimes you are writing about ideas, or writing on the periphery of ideas, that you know less about than your reviewer. I’ve seen authors respond to review comments advising they look at a peripheral area of work by writing new paragraphs about that peripheral body of work with absolutely no citations. This is BAD. Don’t do that.
- Take note of when a reviewer appears to be wanting to have a conversation with you rather than provide you structured concrete points for revision. How would you respond to that conversation and is the response you would give back something that should go into the paper? It can be daunting as an author when this happens because conversational reviews can be lengthy – I got one once that was 2000 words long. But a reviewer who was willing to write all that about your paper was really engaged with your work. You want to honour that engagement, not refuse to acknowledge it. Editors are smart. There is a reason that person was picked to review your paper. If you met that person at a conference you’d want to sit down over beer and talk to the wee hours of the morning. Answer them.
How do you handle complex revision? Share your thoughts and examples.