• On 22/03/2020
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Thoughts on Revision

Over the last few years I have come to realize that we—academics in general and writing folks more specifically—have made some pretty big assumptions about what revision is.

Revision is the process of re-visioning a work. It means to go back to a work and examine it from a different perspective. Often, this process is completed with the help of feedback from others. In the publication process, this feedback comes in the form of peer review. While not an infallible process by any means, peer review is meant to provide two outside perspectives to help the author(s) in their work of re-visioning the manuscript. This outside feedback should help author(s) see where the manuscript can be improved.

However, from editing the journal to directing a graduate program, we aren’t directly taught how to use feedback to help us revise. So often we are taught (and teach). to read articles and critique them, but what is so hidden is all the work and the multiple versions that went into the published piece. Mostly, it’s assumed that authors will be able to interpret the feedback and make revisions to improve the work.

But there are all sorts of assumption embedded here that need to be uncovered so that the process of revision works better for all involved. Here I want to try and uncover part of the revision work and start to put words to the process of how to revise because graduate students and early career faculty, well, all of us, often struggle with knowing how to revise.

Setting aside your own view

The hardest part of revising is accepting that the argument you thought was ready and clear is in fact not ready and clear. This doesn’t mean the idea isn’t good. Feedback simply means that the idea needs work so that others see it the way that you do.

This process of setting aside your view is not easy, and some can do it easier than others. The issue is trying to pry apart your own feelings about the manuscript and the comments from reviewers so that you can approach the work of revision with an openness.

Recognizing that many folks take feedback personally, as if it’s an attack on them, revision becomes even harder. If you can train yourself to find the useful parts of a review the process of revising with the guidance of external feedback becomes easier.

Understanding what is meant by common phrases

Our decision at RHM to write decision letters (has examples of our letters and the author versions) was in part keyed to making sure we highlighted the most important things for authors, but it has also had an additional effect of helping authors better understand what a comment means. There are a number of common issues with manuscripts no matter what the reviewer may call them. Here are some of the most common.

Clarifying the main argument

This comment typically means that you have more than one argument competing for space and attention. Often an external review will be able to pinpoint what it is that you trying to argue, and then it is up to you to figure out what part you want to advance.

The other thing that this comment can mean is that you have not directly and clearly stated what the argument is. That is, you’ve left the reader to intuit because what you thought was the thesis is not actually the thesis. In other words, you need to go back to the end of your introduction and see if you can identify the sentence(s) that would tell the reader what it is you are doing in the essay. That sentence needs to be as clear as you can make it.

Expanding the literature review

Recognizing that there are lots of politics involved in with citations, there are still ways to signal to reviewers that you are aware of the conversations even though you are limiting or disagreeing with those conversations. This is one of the areas that will annoy most reviewers so learning how to do them (again even if you are not going to engage with things you don’t feel advance your argument) is vital for situating your positionality and your argument. And particularly in tech comm, there is lots of room for innovative or new direction with the nod to the existing research.

The other big problem with literature reviews is that they often do not move forward. What that means is that you have to do more than. summarize the literature. You have to describe how that literature works together (first move) and then with (or against) your own argument.

Clarifying the method/ology

This is pretty straight forward, but it causes lots of problems for folks because it is hard to put in words the basis for your research because we are often not trained to do that. For empirical research, the methodology should provide the disciplinary orientation, the justification for the approach and the methods, a description of the methods and then steps to the actual practice of the research. For theoretical or interpretative work, this section is still needed to help folks understand what texts you reviewed and some of the background in your goal. (Though, this could also be integrated into the literature review for some types of research.)

It is true that in many of our journals, we do not have space for the full descriptions of this profess. But, I would suggest that you write the full thing and then let the editor and the reviewers help with cutting it down.

Additional evidence

Depending on the type of argument you are making this can mean all sorts of things, but it does mean the same thing no matter the type of argument. This sort of comment means you’ve not made a persuasive case. You need to integrate more evidence and support for your broader claims. More direct evidence or support is key to bring forth your ideas and making them more visible. Though, the addition evidence is also closely related to the next point

Connecting the parts of the manuscript

This word “connections” is one that I use but many reviewers use a version of it when there needs to be additional explanation to connect big points in the manuscript. This can be directed to the literature review or the main evidence or the connection of the theoretical framework to the example used (or case study). What it means is that in your head you know how the theory works with your example, but the way it is on the page is missing.

Organizational issues

This is a catch all comment that means exactly what it says. That is, the parts of the manuscript are out of order. Or more narrowly, it means the sections are out of order. Organizational issues normally are closely. Related to some confusion with the overall argument and the integration of evidence. All of these things go together, and an outsider’s view will normally catch organizational problems (which uncover other problems) much quicker and easier than you ever will.

Process of revision

One of the most important first steps as you start to revise is to highlight what the main argument is and put that in a place where you can refer back to it. This will help you keep on task by helping you relate the comments and your plan to address them back to the main argument.

  • Make a table of the comments
  • Follow the order mentioned above and make yourself notes within the table
  • Have someone else read the comments and your responses

When you have some of your thoughts down, then you can start to work with the manuscript. This is the order that will likely generate some success.

  • Organizational things first
  • Literature review or framework issues
  • Evidence and support next or Additional examples
  • Additional connections
  • Smaller issues like language and adjusting citations

This order works because as you start to move things around you can see your work in a different way. By re-organizing it helps to make the other issues a bit clearer, and it also helps you sharpen your main idea so that it should be easier to do the bigger revisions around lit review, evidence, and connections (as applicable).

You can see an evolution of a manuscript that is forthcoming**:

In the world of academic writing, this example is one of strong reviews that were not overly difficult. Part of that was due to a strong, narrow argument that was 9 months in the thinking, writing, and revising before we ever submitted. But the versions here do show the changes that were made as responded to feedback (even from the copy editing stage).

To counter this relatively straightforward process, two articles I co-authored with my friend Joanna Schreiber** point to this idea of multi-stage revision in an important way. What are in published forms as a sustainability argument using the capstone course (opens in new window) and our continuous improvement model (opens in new window) for programs started out as a single manuscript. We knew something wasn’t right with it when we got to a point we didn’t know what it was. We sent it out for review, and it came back with useful reviews. The most important line from the review was actually a comment from the editor, who pointed out that we were trying to argue two things.

Dec. 2016 sent out original manuscript

Manuscript 1

July 2017 revision returned to original journal (got a revise and resubmit)

November 2017 to a different journal (minor revisions)

February 2018 accepted

Manuscript 2

April, 2017 Capstones sent to a different journal

November, 2017 Revise and resubmit

June, 2018 accepted with minor revisions

So 8 official revisions later, they were both accepted. But through that whole process, we did exactly what I described above. Admittedly, it was easier to do with someone else because Joanna and I are really complementary in the way we approach writing and revising. A big takeaway for y’all reading is that sharing reviews is always a good ideas cause others can help you parse through what is important to your argument and what are things you can say you’re not gonna do.

And finally, here is one more example. The final version of my embodied persona piece (opens in new window) also does not clearly show the revision process. Below you’ll find the

After the third revision, there are still a number of changes that went into the manuscript before it went to copy editing and being the piece that was published. The takeaway here is that sometimes a good idea needs multiple, layered revisions. This example also highlights things that I did in response to the reviewers’ feedback.

Revising needs to emphasize the re-vision

Even the worst review will have a nugget of truth in it. You as author really have to embrace (re) part of the revision process. You cannot be afraid to revise, to change radically your writing to bring forward the idea you really want to bring forward. Often, the harshest reviews are pointing to the fact that there isn’t a clear argument yet. And that’s hard to swallow because of all of the work that likely went into the manuscript in the first place.

The other big problem with revisions are that author(s) often lose sight of the fact that revision is a multi-stage process. Many manuscripts need more than one “revise and resubmit” to be publishable. Revision as a multi-stage and multi-layered process means that you have to consistently work at making the primary argument stronger for external readers (which is why I shared the timeline above). The first stage is likely the re-envisioning around your framework or your theory or how you position your argument in relation to the existing conversations and your interpretative moves. The second stage of revision is generally add more details, getting rid of stuff you don’t need, and making stronger connections between parts. The third part of revision is going through at the paragraph and sentence level and making those things as strong as possible. Those are the big moves, but during each of them, you may have several revisions within them.

Writing is hard. Revision can be even harder cause you have to work to separate the different parts of the intellectual work and the emotional and affective labor that went into it. I hope this helps some.

Happy revising.

**My lovely co-authors, Kara Larson and Carolyn Gubala graciously agreed to the publication of these reviews and our responses. Also, I add this story about this writing and revising process with Joanna’s permission.

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