Handling Rejection in Academic Writing

Handling Rejection in Academic Writing March 17, 2015

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Beth Allison Barr, Department of History, Baylor University. You can follow Dr. Barr on Twitter at @bethallisonbarr

Recently I wrote an odd sort of thank-you note.

It was to a journal editor who had rejected one of my articles. The careful critique he had provided helped me reconceptualize my argument and revise the article into acceptance with a different journal (you can read this ‘revised’ article in the recent Journal of Religious History volume 39:1, March 2015). So I sent him a quick email of thanks for his constructive comments.

Of course, at the moment of rejection, my thoughts were not as benevolent. I was angry, confused, and embarrassed as a scholar. Indeed, one rejection so immobilized me as a young scholar that I deep-sixed my first rejected article and still have not resurrected it into a new submission. Time (and the accumulation of more rejections) has changed my perspective on how to deal with this unpleasant, but necessary component of the academic life.

First, I have learned that defensive posturing rarely helps.

Rejection often inspires us to hide the flawed work and pretend it didn’t happen or to lash out defensively (‘the editor is an idiot,’ ‘who are these readers?’, etc.). These impulses hinder revision as they discourage us from either seeking assistance from our peers or from seriously considering the reviewer comments (which is really free advice, if you think about it). Now, when I receive a rejection, I immediately send the article with the reviewer comments to a colleague and ask for their help. This keeps me focused on moving forward rather than succumbing to feelings of helplessness (‘what do I do now?’) and even despair (‘I’m never going to get tenure!’). I did this with an article in 2013, sending it first to my colleague in Baylor History, David Bebbington, and later to my colleague in Baylor Religion, David Whitford. I completely rewrote the article, based on their advice and the reviewer comments, and it has since been published in Church History and Religious Culture 94 (2014).

Library Stacks – by Nazareth College at Wikimedia Commons

Second, I have learned that the most soothing balm to heal rejection is an acceptance. My rule of thumb is not to let the sun go down on a rejection without doing two things: 1) telling a colleague about the rejection and, 2) outlining a plan to begin revisions. Why? Because telling a colleague keeps me accountable as well as providing encouragement. Everyone has been rejected in academia and their stories remind me that I am not alone. Moreover, if a colleague knows that my article was rejected, they often ask me about it. This motivates me to have ready an action plan for revision, which also forces me to seriously consider the reviewer comments. I make a list of the concrete suggestions from the reviewers, number them, and start ticking them off one by one as I rewrite (and sometimes re-research) my article.

Third, I have learned that having an established writing community makes dealing with rejection much easier. I joined a writing group in 2010 with three of my Baylor colleagues. We represent four academic departments and meet every three weeks to discuss one of our submissions. I have submitted 17 projects for review to my group and always send them my reviewer comments for rejections and/or Revise and Resubmits. Their community helps lessen the sting of rejection as they provide encouragement as well as specific ways for me to address the reviewer comments and revise my arguments. Together, we have read 65 pieces from each other (including several R&Rs and rejections) and can boast 25 published articles and book chapters since 2010.

When I wrote the thank-you note for my rejected article, I wasn’t really thankful for the rejection. I was thankful for what I had learned through the process: that moving immediately forward with revisions and soliciting the constructive critique of my colleagues (especially my writing group) helps me not only handle the anxiety of rejection but also helps me transform rejections into published articles.

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