The Marathon of Publishing
I don’t know if the mistakes I note are exclusively made early in one’s career, but I would hope that as people gain experience, they would learn not to make them. First, when you send a paper to be reviewed by a journal, do look at what the journal publishes. That means more than just looking at the brief overview that the journal presents on its website. Actually look at the articles published there. It seems that many people do not. Thus, although The Journal for the Theory for Social Behaviour (JTSB) publishes pieces that are exclusively theoretical (i.e., conceptual) in nature, people still often send us empirical pieces that we reject without sending out for review.
Looking at what the journal publishes is important for another reason. If you send to a journal like JTSB, there are conversations that have gone on in that journal to which your piece ought to connect. To ignore them completely in a piece on the same subject is not likely to get you a positive review.
Although as journal co-editor I now leave more substantive comments to our reviewers, as a reviewer, one thing I always look for is a thesis statement. If such a clear statement is missing, then I am already alert to the probability that the paper is going to ramble incoherently. That is also the case when one employs a vague thesis statement like “The purpose of this paper is to discuss . . .” I am afraid that that sort of agenda for a paper leads nowhere. What is your point? What is the take-away message?
“Writing is like jogging. As both always require effort, there is always an element of pain. Your feeling this pain does not mean you are not good at it or not cut out for it. So as with jogging, run through it. As with jogging, it will always be there. You just learn sometimes even to enjoy it.”
When as a reviewer, I point this problem out to authors who seem mistakenly to think the problem is solved by the mere insertion of such a sentence. That solution is to miss the larger point. The point is not that such a sentence is missing but that its absence indicates a larger problem. If you as author have not articulated for yourself what the point of your paper is, the paper as a whole will likely not come to that point. Merely inserting the sentence afterwards will not it itself reshape the paper so that it comes to such a point. So my take-away message is to think to yourself the overall point you want to make, which could be expressed as a thesis statement, before you write your paper.
I imagine that early career scholars imagine that senior scholars, especially journal editors like me, no longer receive rejections of their own work. Not so! I often write papers with my doctoral students. I tell them that the papers they write with me will eventually get published, get published in good journals, sometimes even a top journal. I warn them, however, that with the heterodox or unconventional things I tend to say, we are looking first at multiple rejections. Like sometimes four!
“When you get your reviews back, especially if it is a revise and resubmit, after you scream at the reviews let them sit or “marinate”…. In other words, after I send you reviews for a revise and resubmit, I am not too happy to see you back the next day, especially if the reviews are major.”
As a senior scholar, I have learned to take rejections in stride, to regard them now as part of a process. I no longer expect what I submit to make it in the first time around. I have come to trust reviewers a bit more, not to regard them as out to get me or as impossibly ideological – although some are. But what I have found is that reviewers tend to react similarly to glaring problems, so that if you address the problem for one set of reviewers, even if the corrected version goes to different reviewers, your paper will benefit from the absence of the problems to which the first reviewers alerted you.
Of course, the more provocative or contentious your paper is, the rockier the road will be. I have been there. I am afraid that is just the cost of provocation. It is discouraging but keep at it. If you want to avoid this cost, switch to doing more conventional work that fits into established boxes. Your career will go more smoothly.
One more mistake regarding reviewers. When you get your reviews back, especially if it is a revise and resubmit, after you scream at the reviews let them sit or “marinate” as I hear younger people say. In other words, after I send you reviews for a revise and resubmit, I am not too happy to see you back the next day, especially if the reviews are major. Again, I am not just talking about form, about your now saying, “Oh, okay I will wait a few days.” No, the point is to let especially trenchant comments sit for a while so that you can address them more thoughtfully. When you do so, you will likely find as I have that addressing the criticisms actually does improve the paper.
Two more final pieces of advice. First, writing is like jogging. As both always require effort, there is always an element of pain. Your feeling this pain does not mean you are not good at it or not cut out for it. So as with jogging, run through it. As with jogging, it will always be there. You just learn sometimes even to enjoy it.
Second, I find that early career scholars assume they need giant blocks of time to write. And so they wait for them. They do not come often enough to be productive. Learn to discipline yourself to write or to work on writing – even if it is just outlining or thinking about writing – every day. Preferably the same time every day. It need not be a long time. I generally work on writing when I awake. Before the gym. I work for a couple of hours, sometimes now one, and if I produce a page, I am happy. If you do that every other day, you will have produced 150 pages, almost a book. After that session, I am done writing for the day.
In the beginning, I forced myself to do it, whether I produced anything or not. Nowadays, I do it automatically without much thought or effort. I start by editing what I did the day before, which functions kind of like calisthenics. Before I know it, I am ready to write the next page, which is all I expect of myself. Of course, I have already pictured and outlined the whole so that when I actually write, I am not facing a blank sheet in which anything might go.
I hope these various observations and suggestions are helpful to you. We all have been there, and actually some of the issues never go away. Have courage and a little bit of faith.