Demystifying the Academic Article
This fall I taught a graduate seminar on the history of religion in the United States. I have long been committed to transparency as the centerpiece of my pedagogy, which means that I take students behind the scenes of the historical profession and show them how the ideas they encounter in neatly-packaged articles and books are produced. One of the ways I did this was to explain, step by step, the life of an article—from drafting to copy editing. In other words, I wanted to demystify the academic article. By thinking about how articles are produced, my reasoning went, students could better understand this particular genre of writing.
I brought in documents related to a single academic article that I began writing in graduate school and which was (eventually) published. As it turns out, seeing the actual documents—the drafts, the reader reports, the copy edits—was key to the exercise. It wasn’t enough to say how it’s done. Looking at examples, models, and mistakes is part of the learning process. I began with the premise that the students have finished researching a topic and have written a term paper or a dissertation chapter. Now they want to turn a paper into an article. Where do they start?
1. Finding the Right Journal
The first challenge is finding the right journal for your piece. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the journal, including the subjects it focuses on, the style and conventions of the articles it publishes, and the length requirements. Most importantly, think about their audience. Who will be reading your article? Who do you want to reach?
Should you aim for a major national journal, such as the American Historical Review or the Journal of American History? Or a more specialized journal dedicated to a specific subfield (the history of religion, for example, or history of medicine)? Or something interdisciplinary? Another way of phrasing this is: are you trying to establish yourself as a specialist in a particular subfield, as someone trying to gain broader visibility in your discipline, or to distinguish yourself as someone whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries?
There’s no right or wrong answer. And sometimes the research you have done will only fit into one of these categories and there’s really no decision to make. As you are thinking this over, consider the risks with non-specialized journals: the process is likely to take longer and, because they have lower acceptance rates, it may end without publication. The choice of journals may depend on whether you have a few years to see the process through or if you need an article out quickly. It may also depend on the kind of jobs you are applying for: ones that are tailored to specific subfields (e.g. history of religion), framed more generally (e.g. 19th century US), or are interdisciplinary.
I settled on the Journal of American History. I believed my work had something to say to a wide range of historians. And I had time to see through what ended up being a four-year process. Here is what the final version of the article looks like.
2. The First Draft
My students read my article alongside Matthew Sutton’s award-winning article on a similar subject. Back when I decided to submit to the JAH, I created a reverse-outline of Sutton’s article. Understanding what each paragraph in his article was doing helped me appreciate how different journal articles are from papers I wrote in graduate school and to think about how best to lay out my argument. I passed out to my students the very first draft of the article I wrote. It wasn’t the one I submitted to the JAH but the version I had circulated to advisors and other graduate students for feedback. As we discussed it, I made sure my students knew about Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.” We talked about why the opening of my first draft didn’t read well. There was too much detail before I sold you on the importance of the work. The big picture was not coming through.
The draft I submitted to the JAH was better. It had more metanarrative, which means that I tell you what I’m going to tell you. The language is punchier. The draft signals early on which big ideas and important scholars I am engaging with. It says to readers: this article speaks to big themes in the profession and it is worthy of your attention.
My cover letter accompanying the article was only one page long. It was formal. I wrote it on letterhead, and included addresses, the date, and a signature. The letter is your chance to focus the editor’s attention as they’re deciding whether the article manuscript is right for the journal and, if it is, which readers to send it to. My letter framed the key interventions of my article, it explained why it would be a good fit for the journal, and it mentioned specific parts of the article I wanted the editor to notice.
I didn’t get a decision letter for eight months, which is longer than normal. It was an R&R—revise and resubmit. The other options the editor could have chosen were 1) accept, 2) accept with revisions (it needs changes, but it won’t go back out to readers again), or 3) reject. It could have also been 4) a desk reject, which means that the editor won’t send it out to readers in the first place because they think it’s not right for the journal.
I received four reader reports (two is the norm for most journals) totaling twelve pages. As my graduate students read it, I was surprised by their reaction. They looked very uncomfortable, starting to fidget in their chairs and to breathe heavily. They were stressed out by the comments. Feedback like this is overwhelming even when it’s not your own work being criticized. We need to acknowledge that receiving criticism is an emotional process, especially when coupled with decisions that affect your career.
When you’re in this position, don’t ignore your emotions. Instead, talk about them with peers, your advisors, and others in your support system. This process is hard. It’s important to work out your feelings before responding to the comments so that you can see what the editor and readers are actually saying—not what you fear they are saying.
In my case, the readers gave good comments. Even the one reader recommending rejection had lots of helpful suggestions about ways to make the article stronger and was only suggesting that it would work better in a more specialized journal. And the reader had taken time out of their schedule to read my article carefully and offer feedback that proved valuable.
Twelve pages of comments from readers was more than I could reasonably address. The editor’s letter (about a page and a half long) helped me make sense of them. The editor curates the comments for you, telling what you should pay attention to and signaling what you can safely ignore (or at least to spend less time on). Ultimately, publication is the editor’s call.
I sent in a revised manuscript to the JAH and I attached a cover letter that was five pages long. I was a blip on the radar of the editor, who has many other responsibilities. I started by reminding them of who I was and what my article was about. I quoted positive comments from the reader reports to emphasize the big contributions of the article. I had to assure the editor that I was taking reader comments seriously and that this version is a substantial revision. In fact, it was—I had to do some extra research to address reader comments. After explaining the changes I had made in broad strokes, I replied to the editor’s (not the readers’) comments one by one in bullet-point.
4. …Revise Again
I received another R&R. The article was getting better and the readers’ comments were more complimentary. But there were a few points I needed to push back on. This was a delicate act. The difficulty was standing your ground on certain things while not seeming defensive, assuring the editor in a professional manner that you have good reason to keep certain aspects of the article.
So I led with gratitude for the editor and readers’ time and effort. I also signaled that I accepted and have made changes based on the new feedback, and that there are only a few minor ideas I wanted to preserve. Positive reader reports are your ally in this process: use their authority. Show the editor that some of the readers get what you’re doing and that you can’t make certain changes without compromising what one or more of the readers think is one of your major contributions.
I received a conditional acceptance after this. After some more edits and another resubmission came requests for images and then copy edits, which take place in several stages. I passed out examples of copy edits to the class. The editors may unilaterally change the language without telling you. It’s your responsibility to make sure your ideas are getting through clearly.
Luckily for me, I had time to go through this lengthy process. In the meanwhile, I had other publications coming out. I received lots of great feedback that made my article much better. I am very proud of the final product.
The graduate students made good observations about the life of an article: criticism can be hard to take but is invaluable. Academic writing can feel lonely but it’s a very social process. And your draft doesn’t have to be perfect to submit it to a journal—revising is part of the process. Don’t forget that most articles start off as “shitty first drafts.”
Gene Zubovich is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Mississippi State University. He is the author of the forthcoming book from the University of Pennsylvania Press, The Global Gospel: Christian Human Rights and the Fracturing of the Twentieth-Century United States. You can follow him on Twitter @genezubovich and find his writings on genezubovich.com.