Friday, March 9, 2007

Wordy bastard seeks advice

So, what is the "standard" length for an article in a literature journal? PMLA requires articles to be between "2,500 and 9,000 words (including notes but not works cited or translations)" --- is that a reasonable standard to assume? I have three or four journals I'm thinking of submitting to that do not list any guidelines for length on their web sites. (I know, I know, you'll probably tell me to just email the journal and ask them, but really what is the web for if not the random solicitation and offering of piddly advice?). And no, I am not a superpower who's about to shoot out four articles for publication; I have one very lumpy, bloated excuse for an article and I am planning out my submission and resubmission strategy.

You know, one of my committee members is the master of the backhanded compliment. S/he never ever says anything mean or negative and is always very nurturing. This is great to have on a committee, until you realize that not ever getting any harsh feedback can sink you if you happen to produce something bad. Luckily, my dissertation advisor, the Fascist, almost never gives compliments or nurturing, so the two balance each other well. F, the advisor, feels that her job is to "toughen you up" for whatever the academic world might throw at you by being far harsher than anything you might encounter later. I have impressed members of my cohort by saying she has said "good" and nodded in response to some of my ideas. Much more common is to nod along as you are speaking and then say "No. No, that is not what I expect at the graduate level. For speaking off the top of your head, perhaps. But remember that you will have to someday speak off the top of your head at a job talk and the professors there will not accept that because..." and then she proceeds to tear what you had just said to shreds. The good side is that, once you have built up some academic calluses, you know that when she says "ok, but..." followed by "then write it atgain," you know you have something pretty good.

What does this have to do with the Dr. Lefhanded compliment? Or my article? Well, one one of the (many) times I worked with this person over a draft of my article, Dr. L said "You know, a good article will really take the reader somewhere; it will, like a story, have a strong beginning, middle and end. And you've got that middle!" I was thrilled by this compliment for quite a while, before I really started to analyze it. And then it sounded worse and worse. Moreover, it's true.

I sent this article out long long ago and got back the rejection around December (the same time I started receiving rejection letters from my foray on the job market, in case you were keeping track). The rejection comments were blistering. (You'd think that Dr. Fascist's technique would have made me completely immune to harsh criticism, but oddly, no.) In fact, I read the letters and was too disheartened to even read the margin comments someone sent back along with the letter. So, now, much much later, I am steeling myself for yet another go-round of revision and rejection. And the general drift of their complaints? "So what?" as I like to write in my students' paper margins. Just as Dr. Lefthanded was trying to tell me, I have a middle and no ending (the intro is weak too, but I knew that. I got stuck and decided to send it off a little rough.) I seem to be improving; I can see the problems now so much more clearly, if not really how to resolve them yet.

Horace over at To Delight and to Instruct had a post a while back about grad students who do the obvious reading to an overdone text, something that my profs didn't necessarily care about one way or another in their grad seminars and something that I was never warned about. Now what I think I have to deal with is to take an article that's 20% new and original scholarship, cut the derivative crap, and say how my new stuff furthers the critical conversation. And how well is that going? Well, I'm blogging in the middle of the day instead of revising it, aren't I? This whole publishing-an-article-thing (which my department mentions you should do but doesn't give you help in doing it or even suggest you should start thinking about it early) is certainly making me rethink everything about what is scholarship and what I am doing and why we do things a certain way, and discover all the conventions and secret handshakes that seem to litter academic articles. It is definitely a learning experience. Fuckin' learning experiences; I hate them.


Horace said...

You know, I just revisited that very same essay this weekend, and was reminded of exactly the point that you're referring to--that a beautiful but predictable reading still doesn't go very far, but one that has an argument that needs to be made will get you further. This is why it's crucial to read (or skim) whole journals over a period of time--you get a sense of what the field is talking about.

Kenneth Burke's famous parlor metaphor still functions perfectly (though the parlor setting is a bit dated)--you've got to see the conversation, and situate yourself in it before your argument will be perceived as worth making.

As for lengths, 20-30 pages seems to be about right, though usually falling on the shorter end is better if you can do so completely--space is at a premium in academic publishing, and journal editors seem to be looking for ways to include as many contributions as possible without sacrificing intellectual heft.

Sisyphus said...

Ah, thanks for the help!

Now, if someone will only tie me down to the desk chair and prevent me from sneaking off to enjoy the beautiful weather outside...