An American Editor

April 20, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 2

Geoffrey Hart

For Part 1, go to

Things to expect during peer review

If English is not your author’s first language or if the author has a foreign-seeming name or foreign address, you may encounter language prejudice. This is less often racist than it is the result of such authors believing they don’t need to be edited and submitting poorly written manuscripts as a result. Publishers who receive large numbers of such manuscripts naturally seek shortcuts to reduce their workload, and may only glance quickly at the author’s cover letter or address to form an opinion. If they don’t like what they see, they may reject the manuscript or return it for revision without ever reading it, and not because it lacks merit. Thus, authors should always have their cover letter edited, not just their manuscript.

Peer review has certain recurring themes that authors must deal with, ideally with an editor’s help:

· Multiple revisions: Reviewers are chosen because they are highly educated in their fields, and because they are highly opinionated. Thus, they’re asked to be critical of manuscripts and may insist on multiple rounds of revision until they’re satisfied.

· Contradictory reviews: Reviewers have different backgrounds and biases, and this leads to very different critiques by different reviewers. You can expect reviewers to agree on major problems, since such problems are hard to miss, but you’ll often find that something one reviewer loved is anathema to another reviewer.

· Academic politics: Academic fields have many theological disputes over different points of belief (e.g., the value of social construction), and it can be difficult to satisfy a reviewer who comes from a different academic sect.

Helping authors respond to reviews is something editors do well, since we have long experience with getting inside an author’s head, and that skill translates equally well to understanding what bothered a reviewer and what changes will remove that irritation. Editors are also skilled negotiators, and can help authors find ways to reach a consensus that satisfies both the author and the reviewer. Being aware of the prevailing dogmas in a field will help editors to guide authors around the worst minefields and to build bridges over holes that would otherwise trap the unwary author and provoke a reviewer. As you gain experience in a field’s language, ways of framing arguments, and standards of evidence, you can increasingly help authors revise their work to avoid these problems.

The review process can take a long time, and if you don’t submit the best-possible manuscript, a potentially important contribution to the literature may be rejected by a prestigious publisher without the option to resubmit. Thus, one important tip is to persuade the author to work with their colleagues before they submit their manuscripts for review.

There are two good reasons for this. First, the review is likely to be done faster. Second, a rigorous and critical review by a colleague may sting, but it has no consequences other than the need to rewrite. Solving those problems before a publisher sees the manuscript means it won’t be rejected because of those problems. (It may, of course, still be rejected for other reasons.) A publisher’s reviewers are also more likely to respond positively to a manuscript that has been edited professionally.

Academic vs. non-academic audiences

Early-career academic authors tend to have a laser-like focus on writing for their peers, since they know that their peers determine how successful they’re going to be in their chosen field. However, over time, authors may gradually expand their publishing efforts beyond their circle of fellow specialists. Often, they aim to turn many years of peer-reviewed publications into something a reasonably intelligent but non-expert reader can understand. They may be writing to funding agencies to beg for money, producing op-ed pieces for the general public in newspapers or on websites, or crafting textbooks for students. Yet unless they are professional writers and well-trained in writing for different audiences, they’ll need an editor’s help to make their thoughts comprehensible to an audience that isn’t dominated by their peers. I often joke that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to communicate with the general public without adult supervision. It’s funny specifically because it’s so true.

Editors understand that different audiences require different writing styles, and can help an author learn and use the most-appropriate style or modify their approach to account for a given audience’s unique characteristics. For example, academic readers expect and are skilled at interpreting formal, jargon-heavy writing that relies on many assumptions about what readers already understand — because the readers are experts in the author’s field. In contrast, non-academic audiences require less-formal writing styles, with less jargon, and assumptions must be explained — because general audiences are experts in a wide range of things, most of which are not the author’s field of expertise.

Note: Although most academic publishers now accept manuscripts in the first-person point of view, some are reluctant, particularly when they rely on older and more-conservative peer reviewers who haven’t yet entered the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Passive voice is no longer required, but you may be called on to help an author defend the choice of first-person. An acceptable compromise is generally to emphasize active voice wherever possible and minimize the use of “I” and “we” constructions; for instructional or procedural material, imperative voice is another good alternative.

That being said, one thing remains true for almost any audience: Write simply, concisely, and clearly. Although I once (true story!) had a manuscript rejected because “it was too well written,” that’s rare these days. Even the most turgid and constipated fields of study are increasingly willing to accept a well-written manuscript. The argument and conclusions may be complex and nuanced, but the writing never should be.

Responding to peer reviews

The end of the most-difficult stage in publishing an academic manuscript comes when your author receives the comments from the reviewers. These generally fall into three main categories: acceptance with minor revision, which will mostly require minor tweaks of the text; acceptance with major revision, which requires significant additional work (e.g., more lab research, more library time, reorganization) before the publisher will even consider reviewing the manuscript again; and rejection, which may be absolute or which may (if the author has a strong argument and a sympathetic publisher) be considered the equivalent of major revision.

As an editor, I’ve helped many authors persuade the publisher that a rejection really only requires major revision, or that an acceptance with major revision really only requires minor changes. A common reason for the latter is a reviewer who says, in effect, “I know that you wanted to write about dogs, but you really should have written about cats, so I reject your argument,” Most publishers will accept a counterargument along the lines of “No, I really can’t write about felids in an article about canids that was written for a journal that publishes only shaggy dog stories,”

Note: There is a thus-far theoretical fourth response, which is “acceptance without revision.” In more than 30 years of editing, I’ve never seen that response from the reviewers for a reputable publisher, largely because reviewers often go to heroic lengths to ensure that the publisher believes they rigorously reviewed the manuscript. To prove this, they will find ways to list some specific problem, however minor, that must be fixed.

Reviewers almost always have the final say — if your manuscript represents a hill they’re willing to die on in defense of some point of dogma. Because peer review is unpaid work, experts can easily refuse a request to review a future manuscript if a publisher irritates them — and ignoring their recommendation can be very irritating to a reviewer, especially one with an agenda. If enough authors stop agreeing to work with a specific publisher, that publisher will soon find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having no more peer reviewers, and thus, will no longer be able to refer to themselves as a peer-reviewed publication. They might even (horror!) have to pay experts to review their future publications.

Thus, publishers are reluctant to overrule a reviewer out of fear the reviewer won’t work with them again in the future, and may even warn their friends and colleagues to do the same. Sometimes you just have to accept a publisher’s verdict and move on. Fortunately, there are a great many academic publishers.

Most reviewers and most publishers are reasonable people who are willing to listen to an author’s responses and counterarguments. Although academic authors who have survived their thesis defenses tend to acquire a certain measure of skill at explaining and justifying their subject and responding firmly to critiques, for some reason, they completely lose that skill when it’s time to respond to a publisher’s review. Editors can be remarkably valuable allies when it comes time to respond to review comments, which is why I always offer to help my authors write their responses.

There are several things to keep in mind.

· Authors take their writing seriously, and are often offended or even enraged by critical comments. Although this is perfectly understandable, it’s unprofitable, because expressing those emotions to a reviewer is like throwing catnip to a cat: It only encourages a strong response. Help the author take a step back and seek ways to treat criticism as a means of improving their manuscript rather than a personal attack.

· Similarly, it’s unprofitable to argue with a reviewer, particularly if that argument can be seen as an attack. Instead, help the author find ways to acknowledge the reviewer’s point, explain what they were hoping to achieve, find a way to incorporate that point in their revision, and provide a persuasive response that satisfies both the reviewer’s objection and the author’s goal.

· Where possible, help the author find ways to implement each suggestion. The more suggestions they accept, the more willing a reviewer will be to listen to counterarguments for other points. For example, if a reviewer asks the author to cite five additional references, ensure that they have cited those five references. If the reviewer asks them to cite a specific journal paper (often one written by the reviewer), ensure that they have cited that paper. It costs the author nothing, particularly if the reviewer is correct that the references are relevant and worthy of citation.

· Never cave in on important points! If the reviewer is simply wrong, and won’t accept any argument to the contrary, move on and find somewhere else to publish. There are many, many publishers. If the manuscript has merit, some publisher will eventually see its value.

· Always thank the reviewers politely at the end of the response letter, even if you disagree with them. One standard wording that has worked well for me and that I encourage you to copy and modify to meet your needs: “Thanks for your efforts to improve my manuscript. I hope that my responses and the resulting changes will be satisfactory, but I’ll be happy to work with you to resolve any remaining issues.” This acknowledges the reviewer’s effort, and attempts to shift the review process from confrontational to collaborative.

· Only thank each reviewer once, at the end of the responses, other than for particularly important comments. If you repeatedly thank a reviewer for insulting your intelligence, critiquing your upbringing and moral character, and savaging your writing style, thanking them for each body blow quickly becomes seen as sarcasm, and that tends to make the reviewer more critical.

A final comment

I’ve been helping authors for more than 30 years by using these techniques, and as a result, have facilitated the publication of more than 6,000 journal manuscripts and scientific monographs, so it’s clear that these techniques work. Interestingly, they’ve also helped me greatly when I served as a peer-reviewer or as a journal’s review coordinator. The same approaches help me put my head in the right space to work with both authors and reviewers to achieve consensus and to change the review process from confrontational to a mutually supportive way to improve the quality of an author’s contribution to the literature of a field.

Reference

Hart, G. 2021. Creating truly effective outlines. NAIWE website (https://naiwe.com/).

Geoff Hart (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories so far. Visit him online at www.geoff-hart.com.

April 7, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 1

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:18 pm
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Geoffrey Hart

[This article is a revised and expanded version of a November 2005 guest lecture I gave to Dr. Saul Carliner’s graduate seminar in instructional design at Concordia University.]

Many clients and potential clients are writing academic papers that must undergo the Darwinian struggle known as peer review. The purpose of this struggle is to select only the fittest papers by improving the quality of the information. Academics being civilized beings, this doesn’t inevitably have to be “nature, red in tooth and claw,” but when the review is done well, reviewers provide insightful, focused critiques that help authors compete more strongly in the community of knowledge by improving the quality and clarity of their message.

Of course, academics being human, some reviewers see themselves as wolves, not helpers, and see their role as running behind the pack so they can pull down the slowest and weakest. They then scatter the bones of their victims upon the ground for all to see as a literary kind of memento mori.

It takes all sorts, I suppose.

Overstretched metaphors notwithstanding, academic discourse benefits greatly from peer review because the peer reviewers are chosen for their expertise in the author’s field, and most recognize that publishing is a collaborative effort in which everyone agrees on the same goals: to maximize the quality of knowledge that gets published and to improve the conversation. Quality is the first goal, both because of how important the published literature should be for guiding practitioners and future authors by providing a body of knowledge that enriches an entire field of study. The second goal is to make authors look good in print, which means helping them communicate their key ideas concisely and clearly. Third, and less-often mentioned, is the “they did it to me, so I’m going to do it to you” school of review — I’ve heard PhD thesis supervisors admit, off the record, that their supervisor made them rewrite their thesis 10 times even after it was long ready to publish, and that they were going to demand the same suffering of their grad students. Sadly, many carry this philosophy to the task of peer review.

There are many ways the peer review process can fail, including authors who recommend peer reviewers who owe them a favor and will give a favorable review, even if it’s not justified, or who promote papers that support their particular biases. On the whole, though, most participants take the process seriously and work hard and with integrity to help authors publish manuscripts they can be proud of.

You may have noted that most of what I’ve described sounds very similar to what editors do, so why do we need editors when we have peer review? (Alternatively, why do we need peer reviewers when we have editors?) There are three main reasons.

First, peer reviewers are unpaid volunteers, and it’s a poor and disrespectful use of their time to send them unclear, error-ridden manuscripts. Second, unless the manuscript is about editing, the reviewers are rarely editors, and therefore aren’t best suited to the job of editing a manuscript for clarity, even if they had the time — and most don’t. Third, eliminating all the many infelicities to which a text is prone makes it easier for reviewers to understand the author’s key points and identify subtle flaws that should be fixed, but that (without editing) might be invisible beneath a sea of typos, false cognates, and other problems.

That being said, how can editors help authors prepare their manuscripts for peer review?

Note: The approach described in this article works equally well for journal articles, monographs (e.g., a report series
published by a research institute), and books.

The review process

Writing for peer review begins with an understanding of the peer-review process. Fortunately, this is more similar to than different from other forms of nonfiction writing. The process generally follows these steps:

· The author completes their research, whether in a laboratory or a library, and analyzes the knowledge they acquired to create an overall mental image of their findings and where these fit within the larger context of a field’s collection of knowledge. Developmental editing can be very helpful at this stage.

· Based on this review of their subject, the author creates a strong outline to guide their writing (Hart, 2021). Again, developmental editing can facilitate this stage.

· Next, the author must choose an appropriate publisher — one that will be interested in the manuscript and will provide access to an interested audience. Based on that publisher’s requirements (usually made available via their website), the author writes a first draft that follows those guidelines. If the publisher lets authors develop their own style guide, developmental editing can produce a guide that eases the task of writing consistently.

· With help from colleagues and (ideally) a substantive editor, the author revises the manuscript to produce the most-polished story they can before they submit it to the publisher.

· The publisher hands off the manuscript to one or more peer reviewers. After some time has passed (often months), the author receives the review comments and the publisher’s verdict, and must then revise the manuscript to answer any questions or address any criticisms raised by the reviewers. Substantive editing and copyediting are often required at this stage.

· The author repeats the revise/resubmit/review cycle as often as necessary, with an editor’s help, until they either satisfy the publisher that their manuscript is worthy of publication, or they give up and send it to another publisher (where the whole process might start over again!).

Choosing the right publisher

Deciding where to publish a manuscript is a complicated task, since there are many criteria, some of which are contradictory or very subjective.

Publishing in a prestigious journal or with a prestigious academic press is important for an academic’s career because the publisher’s prestige is one criterion for evaluating an author’s work. The downside of prestigious publishers is that everyone wants to publish with them, which gives the publisher enormous freedom in choosing only the best of the best submissions. It’s not quite the writer’s equivalent of buying a lottery ticket, but the chances of success sometimes seem equally low. A less-prestigious but still perfectly respectable publisher may be a better option, particularly for authors who are still early in their careers and don’t yet have name recognition that would get them through doors that are shut to new authors.

Another decision is whether the author should write for their peers, which usually means a smaller but more-expert audience, or for a wider group of readers who are outside the author’s area of specialization, which usually means a larger but less-expert audience. The former may be important when an author is trying to make a name for themselves in their field; the latter may be more important when they have something to say that will be of broad interest to readers both in their field and out.

Note: Academics face an interesting challenge: Their work may be very important for the general public, but publishing general-interest manuscripts gains little respect from colleagues, and sometimes gains their contempt. One solution is to publish first in academic publications, and then recast that work for a broader audience later.

Editors who specialize in certain areas gradually acquire a sense of which publishers are a good choice. If, however, you (as an editor) are unfamiliar with a field, there are tricks you can use to help the author find a suitable publisher. First, examine the bibliography in the manuscript. If the author repeatedly cites papers from a specific journal or books from a specific publisher, than that journal or publisher is likely to be a good candidate because these citations prove the willingness of those outlets to publish similar manuscripts.

On the other hand, the lack of a specific publisher, such as a science journal, in the list of citations may be a sign that the author’s subject has not been published by that journal even though its readers would clearly benefit from learning more about that subject. Another way editors can help authors is by helping them argue for the relevance of a manuscript by explaining (in a cover letter) how it will benefit the publication’s readers.

Neither author nor editors should hesitate to ask colleagues for suggestions, both for publishers they’ve worked with and that have been helpful and have provided effective reviews — and publishers that are best avoided. Many publishers, and particularly peer-reviewed journals, report their rejection ratio at their author guidelines web pages. If they have a high-impact factor (i.e., if many of their publications are cited by other authors), they’ll report that prominently, too.

Publishers with the highest impact factors tend to have the highest rejection rates, so choosing a balance between impact and risk of rejection is important. This is a judgment call and a deeply personal decision, and editors can provide advice on the pros and cons of a given publisher, but in the end, the author must choose.

Note: Chapter 3 of my book Writing for Science Journals (http://geoff-hart.com/books/journals/journal-book.htm) provides a detailed discussion of this subject.

Style guides

Most academic or scholarly publishers receive more manuscripts than they can ever hope to publish, and as a result, they use a variety of screening criteria (some that are not so good) to eliminate the least-suitable manuscripts. One of the first and easiest is to check whether an author followed their style guide. An author who can’t be trusted to follow a simple, clearly stated set of instructions suggests the author will be more trouble to work with than the publisher desires. (That being said, having worked for more than 30 years in academic publishing, “simple” often strikes me as a one-word oxymoron.)

At a minimum, this suggests that the publisher will have to spend more of their tight budget on copyediting the manuscript than they would with an author who takes more care. Thus, editors should start first with the publisher’s stated style guide, then expand to other style resources if necessary. If the publisher doesn’t have a style guide, then — as I noted earlier — editors can help authors create a customized style guide during the developmental editing phase.

Note: Chapter 8 of my book Effective Onscreen Editing (http://geoff-hart.com/books/eoe/onscreen-book.htm) discusses how to create and use style sheets in considerable detail.

Each field tends to have a core set of style guides. For example, academic fields outside the sciences tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style; the sciences tend to use the Council of Science Editors style guide, Scientific Style and Format. There are likely to be more-specialized guides for specific disciplines, such as the APA Style Guide for psychologists or the Associated Press Stylebook for journalists. Learn which guides are most often used in a field, and use them to guide your editing. If you can’t find a sufficiently subject-specific guide, Google is your friend. Many professional associations publish their own official style guides for members, or provide recommendations of reputable guides produced by others.

Last but not least, always read an example of something published by the publisher. Whatever the stated preferences in their style guide, publishers tend to slowly diverge from their published guidelines. This may be because their acquiring or managing editors choose to follow a different authority (including their own preference), but neglect to inform their website manager that the guidelines should be updated. Unless the published guidelines have a current date and specifically supersede older guidelines, the proof of the pudding’s in the most-recent publication.

Geoff Hart (www.geoff-hart.com) (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories thus far.    

April 5, 2021

On the Basics: How networking can enhance success for an editing business

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 2:31 am
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Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A lot goes into launching a successful editing business, and networking can be one factor in that success. I’ll be talking about the practical aspects of such a venture in a May webinar for the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE). This post is about networking from an editing perspective and is adapted from a post I wrote for my NAIWE blog that focuses on writing and networking.

Editors might not think of networking as an element of their new businesses, but that could mean losing out on valuable ways to learn about craft and business, and to develop connections that could not only improve those aspects of what they want to do, but also lead to a greater likelihood of finding — or being found by — clients. It can also help editors help their clients.

All editors probably share a common goal: for our clients’ words, thoughts and perspectives to find audiences and outlets. Regardless of their stage of creativity, visibility or success, every writer wants — even needs — to be seen and heard. For the editor, helping a writer client make that first sale or be published in that first outlet can be almost as exciting as it is for the writer, and networking is one way to help them get there.

Whether your client is writing a novel or a press release, a poem or a white paper, a play or a case study, a how-to book or a personal blog post, an academic article or a memoir, and whether your client is an individual, company, nonprofit organization, university, government agency or publication, you want what they write to be seen and appreciated. Beyond being seen, we also want everyone who sees our clients’ writing to understand it, respond to it positively by publishing reviews or acting on it somehow, recommend it to others, and read or buy the next piece we write. Skilled editing and networking can help that happen.

Where networking comes into play is in finding and sharing resources for learning to edit better by joining professional groups and taking classes; identifying colleagues to learn from, advise and share opportunities or referrals with; avoiding scams and bad clients; getting paid; and related details of an editing business or the editing life.

Through networking, in essence, you can meet colleagues who will provide advice, insights and resources, and who might refer you to editing projects and clients. And you can be one of those helpful, respected colleagues.

It’s important to remember, by the way, that networking is a two-way process. In fact, that might be the most important aspect of networking. An editor needs to create a net of contacts and colleagues who can help them do their work better and enhance their likelihood of finding clients. One of the best ways to do that is to be a useful strand in the nets of colleagues.  

And don’t let being new to editing or networking make you feel that you can’t contribute to the networking process. You can! Don’t forget the old saying that there are no dumb questions. You might ask the one thing about grammar, usage, structure, client relations, payment, etc., that dozens of other editors have been wondering about, but didn’t dare bring up because they were afraid of looking foolish. By raising that question and eliciting responses, you help everyone learn something.

If you can’t answers colleagues’ questions yet, look for resources you can share — books, courses, blogs, organizations, etc., that you have found useful or have seen in your real-world and online activity. Keep in mind that we all had to start somewhere, first by actually editing something, next by seeing it get published (and paid for), and then by becoming visible and active in some corner of the editing world.

Even extroverts like me had to learn the ropes of networking effectively; it isn’t just a matter of paying dues and using the resources of an association to enhance our own work. If you ask questions and get helpful answers, look for ways to provide answers to other people’s questions. If you join a group, whether an online community or a formal association, be active and visible, not just what I call a checkbook member: someone who joins and then sits back silently, contributes nothing and waits for the group to hand them success.

In the continuing pandemic era, we can’t do much networking in person, so the introverts among us don’t have to worry as much about fitting in at events as in the past (and, we hope, the future). Nowadays, you can use the virtual world to your networking advantage by “lurking” in online communities and professional associations for a while, to take the temperature of the environment and decide whether it will be helpful, and you’ll be comfortable, before you spend money on a membership or speak up with your questions and suggestions. Oh, and as the owner of an editing business, anything you do invest in joining an organization is a tax deduction!

Learn and profit from networking, and try to give as much as you take. Your reputation will blossom as a result, along with your editing business and efforts.

How has networking helped you launch and build an editing business? Have you overcome a fear of interacting with colleagues through networking?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is a widely published freelance writer/editor and the creator of Communication Central’s annual Be a Better Freelancer® conference, now co-hosted by NAIWE and the An American Editor blog. Through her active participation in a variety of professional associations, she is often called the Queen of Networking, and she’s the Networking member of the NAIWE Board of Experts.

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