I’ve been in the academic publishing game for more than thirty years, with a lot of success and failure. In all, the successes and failures have largely balanced out, yielding a strong Google Scholar profile and what I hope has been a significant impact on the field of learning, design, and technology. I’ve authored seven books and more than 170 publications of various sorts, and I have presented ideas widely across the globe. However, I have also had my share of failure. I have been passed over for promotions and raises, lost out on grants (the ideas of which were then taken up the next year by reviewers for the grants), and had many, many manuscripts rejected for many reasons. I believe successful academic writing is a skillset one can learn by:
- understanding the journals
- learning about readership
- citing appropriate foundational literature
- doing work that is significant, impactful, and meaningful
- drawing useful conclusions
- writing in an accessible way
- targeting your work
Perhaps the biggest lesson one can learn is how to get past the negative review—the dreaded “Reviewer #2.” One must be rejected a few times in order to learn how to “take it” and move on productively. Perhaps most importantly, authors cannot take rejections personally. Given the extremely mediated nature of anonymous peer-reviews, hurt feelings are not productive. I learned this through the following painful, but instructive experience:
When I was in my second academic appointment as a young assistant professor, I wrote a piece with several women about the aesthetics of computer hardware (Carr-Chellman, Marra, and Roberts, 2002). While it sounds like a simple success story, that does not reveal the reality of this case. The “round girls” (short for the longer title, “Round girls in square computers: Feminist perspectives on the aesthetics of computer hardware”) work commenced more than seven years prior, when computers were all putty-colored and boxy. Laptops were sleeker, but were either black or gray, and designers had little interest in what they looked like. This was well before Barbie and Hot Wheels computers hit the scene. We started the work in the fall of 1995, meeting as a group of critical theorists and strong feminist women to ask the question, “What would computers look like if women had designed them?”
It was a wonderfully fun and creative moment. We dreamt. The results were presented at a critical theory conference, where the work was dramatically debated and openly accused of essentializing gender. The debates were so hot that an audience member stood up and slung expletives, most notably the repeated use of the “F” word, during the presentation before we even got to the Q&A. It was a shock. We spent the evening after the drama debating whether what we had presented could damage the conversation. After we recovered from the presentation, we wrote what was to become the “Round Girls” paper. We reasoned that where there is heat there is light, and the fact that our presentation drew such a strong reaction reaffirmed the need for the paper to be published.
The article took great care to respond to the feedback from the presentation and avoid, as much as possible, gender essentialization. The paper was submitted to many outlets over the following six years or so. As co-authors, we continuously sought out new outlets. We kept updating the paper and as people started to pay attention to aesthetics of computer hardware, we included that evolution in the paper. We kept submitting the paper repeatedly, even when we began to think that the piece would never see the light of day as a published piece. Finally, about the time that it felt no longer relevant, like Barbie and Hot Wheels computers, it was picked up and published in TechTrends.
I learned a lot of lessons from the “Round Girls” experience. First, all writing is important, so never throw anything away. There were many times when all of the co-authors questioned why we kept trying with this piece, and we had to continuously encourage one another to keep at it.
Second, sometimes you are ahead of the rest of the world, and you have to wait for them to catch up, in terms of publishing something that takes a while to be accepted. Not all of my rejected work falls into this category—some of it needed to be improved, sent to a different outlet, or significantly revised, including additional data collection. It is important to not just assume that you are ahead of the curve, as doing so blinds you to the feedback you may be getting. However, occasionally you do hit on something that is just going to take some time for your colleagues to understand.
Third, persistence, persistence, persistence! We kept submitting the paper to multiple outlets before it was picked up. We never let it just sit, but we honored the work and the words as valuable no matter what others may have thought. If those words were valuable, they deserved, at least, our attention and ongoing efforts to get them out to the rest of the world.
Fourth, you cannot take the rejection personally. Taking reviewer comments, or even things yelled at you during a presentation, cannot be taken personally. People care about ideas, they care about their field, and they care about what their journals promulgate in the world. It is essential to respect that care and recognize it is not about you as a person. It may be about your ideas, which can also hurt, but if you can separate out the care for ideas from the lack of personal care, you can go on. If you get your identity tied up with the rejections you will inevitably suffer, should you choose to spend your life writing for academic audiences, you will be paralyzed by the hurt and that results in both a loss of ideas for fields and a loss of possible contribution by the author. With these four lessons, you are far more well-prepared for the processes of academic writing than most of us were thirty years ago.
Carr-Chellman, A.A., Marra, R.M., Roberts, S.L. (2002). Round girls in square computers: Feminist perspectives on the aesthetics of computer hardware. TechTrends, 46 (6), 4–10.