Academic Writing II – Training Dragons

We all know about its existence. We fear it. We are called to arms against all the odds never in our favor, when it comes to Peer Review and facing the comments of our reviewers. So, what is this all about? Some say it is sheer dumb legend, others tell us stories of dragons slain and papers saved by it. Oh, and then there are the horror stories of #Reviewer2, true by every inch of sailor’s yarn.

Okay, I am exaggerating a little bit – I think I just read to many epic fantasy novels (again).
We all know about Peer Review. Technically, it should be useful to improve the quality of our papers, to improve our skills as academic writers – and yes, who am I kidding, sometimes the whole peer review process is just a huge pain in our … you-know-what. It is hard enough to write a good paper. It is hard enough to edit and revise a paper until you are ready to let it go and submit it to whatever journal you want it to be published in. It is even harder to deal with the dragons coming back from peer review.
Allow me a Harry Potter themed metaphor? When we finally submit a paper, it is like Hagrid having to say goodbye to Norbert (the Norwegian Ridgeback, and yes, of course, referring to the books, will you please just READ them!). We loose the baby dragon we saw hatching out of his egg.

And then peer review hits in and when we get our papers back they have turned in some very weird kind of bloodthirsty beast, a grown-up dragon without any training. Here we go, next pop-culture reference. I am a huge fan of the “How to train your Dragon” movies.

The topic today is an article my colleague Isabell and I wrote and submitted over … 2 years ago? I just looked up the date of the first call for papers, the deadline was given in April 2019. 2019? Wow, seems so unreal, right? Anyway, the CFP was designed for a volume on new theories and methods and new approaches of research in Archaeology. And we thought – at this time in the middle of our thesis writing and struggling with Resonance theory (no, not the one you think, but THIS one) and all the things surrounding it – materiality, things, objects, agency, … And because of the idea that we definitely should do something with this knowledge we decided that we hand in an abstract with a very provocative title.

We hit the submit button and waited. For a long time. And surprise: Our paper is part of the whole book project – but due to the great interest and the real high number of submitted ideas, there will be two volumes. So we started to write our article. Introduction, Isabell’s case study, my case study, summary and discussion. And again, we hit submit and again we waited.

Until, about a year ago, we were told that now the book volumes will be part of a really fancy open-access programm and that there will be a proper peer review. We were really flattered. Just think of it!
Our paper will be part of a prestigious volume, peer reviewed… every dream of an early career stage achaeologist has come true! And then we realised that our paper had its errors and weak points. Lots of them. We have never ever thought about a peer review because of the rather experimental touch in the CFP at the beginning. Nevertheless, we decided to wait for the review. After all, what can happen to us? They turn our paper down? So what? Nobody died. The only good thing about Archaeology, mark my words. Stones and bones. 😉 And at least, we tried.

Our review popped up in my mail account a few weeks ago. Our paper was not actually turned down, but – how to put this – torn apart and its weakest points exposed in a very cruel manner. And the weirdest thing – with most of the comments of my reviewers I can absolutely agree. I never had that feeling. I should add that they were very careful and checked our paper thoroughly. They added suggestions how to put sections in a better and more understandable way, how to re-write certain passages and they even gave a bunch of really good literature hints.
And after my first rushing through all the comments, I felt really confident that we can make this thing happen. But I am still feeling somewhat highly intimidated by all the mistakes we made, the sometimes harsh citations and the sometimes bumpy style of (especially my) writing. I told a friend about it and he – grown wise and knowing by all the years spent in academia – just told me to relax. Nobody will ever see this manuscript full of mistakes. Well, you, our readers, will know about it, but I guess you have some very bad written pieces too lying at your desk. 🙂

All set up and ready? (Image by Engin Akyurt at Pixabay)

And we were not just rejected, we were given the chance to hand it in again, to optimize and re-write some parts. We were told by the editors that they want our paper because of the new approach. And as my friend said – no rejection means success.

But, still, we have to do a lot of writing and corrections to make this article work. I will keep you posted, but I definitely want you to tell that this peer review is by many things one of the best I ever got. All the writing suggestions, the literature hints and the sometimes very helpful comments are something you would not find in every other review. Of course, some of the comments are a bit strange and I find myself wondering, if my writing is indeed that confusing or if the reviewer just didn’t get it. But I guess those things keep the scientific discussion going.

My personal strategy to deal with this review and to work on my paper is based on the Reverse Outlines-strategy by Rachael Cayley, posted on her Blog “Explorations of Style. A Blog about Academic Writing”. I wrote about the blog and her writing tips the other day – you can find my first part on Academic Writing here. I found it quite useful when dealing with some other articles I wrote and now had to check again after quite some time passed.

So, welcome to my new project – my self-discovery as an academic writer, with all the errors and difficulties along the road. There are so many things to write – articles, papers, talks and presentations (what, you don’t have a written outline when giving talks? How?!), oh, and grant proposals, various requests, … And again, I am no specialist, but I am trying my best to give you a small insight on the life of a postdoc behind the scenes of our epigrammetry jetset life. 😉

I hope this post finds you well and at you best health, be careful and stay safe.

If you have good writing strategies you rely on, sent them to us, discuss them with us – what works the best for you? What is your favourite writing time? What is your favourite writing snack (asking for my poor chocolate-addicted soul)?

All the best!
Astrid


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