From the Fireplace to the Furnace: Journal Publishing from a Graduate Student’s Perspective

From the Fireplace to the Furnace: Journal Publishing from a Graduate Student’s Perspective
Devoney Looser’s recent article on journal publishing for graduate students and early-career scholars is as funny as it is informative. I certainly have fallen victim to imagining journal editors as either angels singing hymns of praise while reading my work or devils condemning my work and me to the furnace of eternal hellfire. As Professor Looser reminds us, however, editors are people—ones who sit at sometimes overcrowded desks rather than at fireplaces, and who do their best to balance the (far too often thankless) job of journal editor with myriad other professional and personal duties.

As useful as I found her article on journal publishing, I left feeling much more could—and needed—to be said to burgeoning academics about submitting work to journals. As a PhD Candidate who has tasted the glory of journal publishing success a few times and wallowed in terrible defeat many times, I would like to add some much-needed advice to the nascent or still developing scholar hoping to publish work in academic journals. Academic publishing looks quite different from our side of the table.
1.) Have Faith in Your Work
Far too often I have watched colleagues let publishable work grow stale for fear that they had not done enough research, or consulted enough readers, or edited the piece enough prior to submitting it for publication consideration. As Bonnie Wheeler once told me, there is no such thing as the perfect article: an article will never say what you think it says in your mind, and you will never stop an academic conversation regardless of your article’s brilliance. As Professor Looser notes, chances are that even your finest work will, if you’re lucky, garner a “Revise and Resubmit” from a journal, especially if that journal is among the most prestigious in your field. Most readers’ reports provide thorough and useful information regarding your argument and its place within the field.
While you should not let good work go to waste, you also must not submit unrevised seminar papers for consideration; editors and readers can easily spot the difference between a carefully crafted article and a seminar paper written for a graduate course. If you wrote an excellent seminar paper, rewrite the introduction and conclusion to place your essay within the scholarly conversation taking place in your field. You might also spend some time deleting footnotes and endnotes that offer little more than evidence that you have read every work imaginable on your text(s); stick to the articles, chapters, and books that speak to your paper’s interest. Editors and readers alike will recognize your mastery of a subject by the quality of your argument and its relevance to the subject at hand.
Submit your best work—work that you believe offers valuable information to an academic conversation—now.
2.) Own Your Work
Students who have little faith in their work also tend to rely far too much on committee chairs and advisors for opinions of their work. Dissertation committee members are there to guide you as you develop as a scholar—but you need to own your work. Writing-to-your-chair-syndrome, as I call it, might help you finish a dissertation, but it does not guarantee success with journals or in the academic marketplace. In fact, I have found that my most deferential pieces have turned out to be my worst, probably because they speak in a cacophony of voices rather than in my own voice. Do the work of understanding the conversation, and then add your voice, not your chair’s or your committee’s voice, to it. You live and die with your work—they don’t—so make sure people hear what you have to say on a topic.
3.) Submit only to Reputable Journals
Publishing your best work with a journal that has a very high acceptance rate might feel great at first, but it will leave you with terrible personal and professional hangovers. Southern Methodist University’s job-market task force teaches its graduate students that job search committees check the quality of the publications on applicants’ CVs, and that having one publication in a top-tier journal is better than having five in questionable or low-tier journals. Don’t know how to tell the difference? Locate prominent scholars in your field or subject area and look for their journal publications; chances are they are publishing in some of the best venues the field has to offer. If you are unsure of a journal’s prestige, run a search of its title in the MLA Periodical Database. The MLA Periodical Database offers basic but essential information about a journal, including its word-limits, acceptance rates, house style, blind submission policies, and even information concerning the number of reviewers and anticipated timelines for the review process. I would suggest graduate students note whether a journal is peer-reviewed (if it is not, move on), and if it is, check its current acceptance rate. Advice concerning acceptance rates and submissions varies, but graduate students would benefit most from submitting to journals that have an acceptance rate of 20% or lower. The most prestigious journals have acceptances rates between 6-12%, but do not be afraid to aim high if your work is excellent and contributes substantially to a conversation taking place in your field. Sometimes submitting is a matter of fit, too. An essay on the prosody of William Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven” might be too specific for the general audience that reads PMLA, but it might be perfect for The Wordsworth Circle, which is an excellent journal that has a more narrow focus. Once you locate the right journal, submit your work to the editor or managing editor.
4.) Work Well with Editors
Professor Looser touched on this subject and it deserves additional emphasis and further explication. Editors are the gatekeepers to your career—but they also are helpmates. Early in my graduate career I submitted an article to Early American Literature because I had faith in its significance. The journal’s editor, Sandra Gustafson, liked the piece but knew it needed extensive revision before it would be publishable. So we worked together on it. She presented me with lists of things I needed to do, and I implemented those changes and explained how I had done so. Stating clearly the ways in which your resubmitted work addresses editors’ and readers’ reports is perhaps the single most important aspect of journal submissions. Let the editor know that you read the reports, considered the issues, and addressed as many—if not all—of the suggestions presented to you. Know that an editor’s demands carry far more weight than a reader’s; you can justify not instituting a reader’s suggestion, but you should do your best to make any emendation an editor requests. Working with editors is part of the professionalization process—so do so as often as you can without becoming a nuisance. And for heaven’s sake, thank them—and their managing editors—for their time and hard work. Adding a brief note of thanks to readers and editors in an article or chapter makes everyone happy.
5.) Learn to Understand Rejection
Rejection is the single most mentally and emotionally taxing aspect of becoming an academic. Your current and future job prospects depend upon acceptance, so each rejection feels as though Caesar has shown his displeasure with your offering by issuing a vengeful thumbs down. Few things hurt more than reading a report written by a nameless person who seems to have a personal vendetta against you. Some readers can be downright rude. Learn to distance yourself from the critiques. (I admit that still have trouble doing this.) Read them once and put them away for a week; then come back to them and read their substance. Not everything you read will be useful or even correct. Some readers are blatantly egotistical and some are ridiculously wrong; the vast majority, however, sincerely want to help you develop a better argument by addressing a number of minor and major issues. As Angela Heetderks has recently suggested, you might also peer review the peer reviews you received. Doing so will help you differentiate legitimate criticism from seemingly gratuitous personal attacks. Ask a fellow graduate student who has published and a mentor, preferably from your committee, to review the reports you received and, with their assistance, make a list of issues you should address and implement them before submitting the essay to another journal. You don’t have to love rejection—but you must learn to understand it.
Graduate students might not be able to sustain the two manuscript, two works under review, two works in progress “productivity pipeline” that Erin Furtak recently described—but they should submit their best work early and often. The job market has become merciless—as many of us have learned—and even a well-placed publication or two (or more) does not guarantee an interview, let alone a job. If the publication process burns you—as it inevitably will—rise from the ashes of failure to become a better, more well-rounded scholar, and remember that you inevitability will go through the process again (and again).