Thursday, April 23, 2009

MMAP Challenge Update April 23: Review: Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks

(Warning: long post!)

This book was designed by Wendy Belcher for graduate-level writing courses. Her students, from a variety of humanities and social-science fields, familiarized themselves with the world of peer-reviewed journals and began transforming their essays into publishable articles. They didn’t just learn about the process: Belcher claims many of her students submitted their articles to journals and eventually got acceptances. The workbook is structured along a weekly plan with each chapter broken down into small, manageable tasks that are even laid out day by day, making the whole process seem clear and unintimidating — the format is designed to force students to work slowly and steadily at the process and forestall anxious meltdowns. Unlike Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes A Day, which the author, Joan Bolker, admits is not possible (it’s a technique to get the stuck writer unstuck by starting small, but the author urges the reader to increase the work time fairly quickly), Belcher’s 12-week timeline is reasonably workable — some people may be able to condense the first few weeks, and Belcher herself admits that some of the steps may stretch longer, but the 12 weeks is doable.

The careful reader of prose will infer from my first paragraph that the workbook is very basic and does a lot of hand-holding; I would characterize the tone as talking flighty, high-strung graduate students down from the ledge while still chivvying them into taking up consistent work habits. There is a lot of discussion here at the beginning about anticipating writing obstacles, avoiding procrastination and writer’s block, and the importance of persisting despite rejections or stumbling-blocks. If you have already read books by Robert Boice, such as Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing or Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus, you will find this section too general and derivative of other writing guides. If you haven’t already procrastinated your writing by reading extensively in the productivity literature, as I have, you will find these parts useful and encouraging.

The ideal audience for this workbook is the graduate student who has never tried to publish anything before — Belcher lays out in painstaking detail what one should consider when choosing which seminar paper to turn into an article, what type of article one could turn it in to, such as a review of the field or a research article (hint: usually only established scholars write review-of-the-field articles), and what specifically makes a publishable article distinct from a seminar paper. In this last topic Belcher has a lot of useful comments about what constitutes a worthwhile, new, intervention in the field and how this does not necessarily mean “completely groundbreaking” or “mindblowingly original,” which I found quite helpful — she points out that in our seminars we often read the “best articles ever” rather than the adequate, publishable articles, and thus beginning scholars can have an unrealistic concept of what is publishable quality.

Belcher also leads the reader through how to choose a venue (including what in general makes a good venue, and how to tell if the journal is peer reviewed), how to read and outline some model articles from the target journal, and explains how to write an abstract — something I had to reverse-engineer from published abstracts in the back of PMLA back when I was first doing conferences, and I really would have appreciated some instruction in this at the beginning of my grad career.

Some of the advice I found less-than-helpful or just nonpertinent — while she makes a case for querying a journal editor before submitting the article, I’m not convinced. If you’ve done the research she says about matching your article to the journal’s fit, and you have the article, just send it off. The points she makes about evaluating and citing “the literature,” particularly literary theory, I just found to be too basic — if you don’t know that you should go back to the original scholarly source instead of encyclopedias or popular magazines, you shouldn’t be in a grad program, or at the very least you should get up to speed on this in your first year.

Likewise, if you are one of those literature grad students who refuses to engage with theory (well, if you are I’ve got a bigger bone to pick with you!), and you want or need to deal with psychoanalysis or narrative theory or structuralism or what-have-you in this article you are sending out, I do not think you can get safely up to speed by just reading headnotes in the Richter or Norton anthology of theory. I don’t think theory can be faked, or name-dropped, or glossed over in a publication, at least not if you are a new scholar. My view has always been that grad school is the place to read widely and engage with theory and that you as a grad student have an obligation to take theory classes and familiarize yourself with major strands of thought at least enough to explain cogently why you are not using said theoretical framework.

What Makes Belcher Special: Specific to Journals

Some people on the Chronicle boards have questioned whether this book is worth it when it seems to do the same thing as William Germano’s books (Getting it Published and From Dissertation to Book). Belcher focuses on journals rather than the book form. The most helpful sections for me were “Common Reasons Why Journals Reject Articles” and “Types of Journal Decisions,” both of which included examples. While it is true that the fit, scope, and style of a journal can all be studied by reading back articles, journal responses are a “black box” to new scholars, for obvious reasons. Grad students get feedback on their essays, but not in the form of rejection letters or readers’ reports, so we have never seen them before. And since editorial correspondence is private and there aren’t piles of sample rejection letters up on the internet, it is very hard to understand whether we have gotten a devastating rejection or an encouraging one. Belcher breaks down the types of comments, explains the difference between a “warm” and a “cool” R&R (noting that it is difficult to distinguish between them) and points out which complaints are easily fixed and which ones are veiled damnations. This was so helpful to me, and I can see now not only that I had relatively mild criticisms, but that when the editor summarized them in his/her cover letter, they were considerably toned down, and I was very much encouraged to resubmit.

If you have published before, or if you are like me and have been trying to submit and resubmit articles frequently, you will probably find the book a little basic, and it may not be for you. I noticed that I read straight through the entire book and then just went off on my own — I know pretty much what I need to do because it is a revise and resubmit. This is a book for people who don’t really know what peer review is, which still provides a valid and necessary service to starting scholars. Only the last chapter, “Responding to Journal Decisions,” is directly pertinent to where I’m at in the process right now. I’m still glad I bought it, and I would still recommend it to other people — just maybe not to people who have successfully placed a couple articles. However, I will make one exception: if you are a professor who teaches in a literature PhD program I would strongly recommend you get hold of a copy (perhaps through ILL?) and take a good look at it. Even if you don’t teach a “methods” course, a publishing course or an “intro to grad studies” course, I would recommend you make your advisees buy a copy and read it on their own. This was one of the most mystifying areas of grad school for me, and the area I got the least advice on.


Sisyphus said...

Ok, I only worked on my article 15 minutes today, but I did want to get this out and stop procrastinating on drafting it.

Friday, Friday will be my Get Shit Done day.

Sisyphus said...

Ooh, also, I know I promised a post on "what the heck is a research agenda" --- stay tuned! I'll ask about that tomorrow!

Anonymous said...

i hope you know what a valuable and wonderful service you are giving us here. i have never tried to submit anything, nor have i ever gotten any guidance about submitting articles, which is embarrassing, so i'm really thankful for this.

undine said...

Thanks for this valuable post. I need to get this book for the library (and read it).

One thing about theory (and I'm speaking as a reviewer on this one): I've noticed increasingly that some manuscripts that come in use theory in discussing a text but completely ignore the previous context of scholarly work, including articles that have already made the same interpretive points minus the theoretical lens. I'm not sure why this is (perhaps it worked for a seminar paper?), but for theory to work, it has to add value to the piece, not simply give a name to a feature of the text that's already been interpreted successfully elsewhere.