That sick feeling after you submit an article

Gladiators

I’ve just completed an article.  I just sent it off.  I feel a bit sick about it.

Having just spent 3 days intensively revising my work, I thought this was a moment to reflect.  This involves some level of vulnerability .  I don’t get to be a teacher who knows, I have to be a flawed worker, who is all too likely to be sent a refusal. Unlike a thesis, where we’re all invested in you passing, where if you submit you will almost certainly pass, where your problems will be painstakingly identified and solutions found… the academic publishing market is often gladiatorial for Early Career Researchers.

Gladiators

So, I’m sending it out kind of expecting to fail, which is not my usual experience.

I like to succeed, and usually I’m sufficiently competent, hard-working and conscientious to manage it.  I work in a really supportive environment, where failures are framed as learning opportunities, and big failures are unlikely to happen because we have a team and back ups and support networks.  What’s more, I take constructive criticism really seriously, so I’ve been polishing, learning from my mistakes, and therefore consistently getting better at being a scholarly researcher for nearly a decade now. I help other people to improve their articles, which then get accepted. I’ve been a peer reviewer. My job is to help higher research degree students to refine their ideas, develop their writing skills, edit their writing.

So, by now, I’m good at this stuff.  But, but, but…

There was the time when the reviewer basically said, ‘No. This gap you have identified in the knowledge is not a gap. Go away.’  Ouch.

Or the time when one reviewer said, ‘So, there are a lot of issues with this article, it’s at a rather too basic level, but some good work too.  Read these books (with page numbers!), tighten up this argument, be more critical here.’ He was a great reviewer.  The other reviewer sat on the manuscript for 4 months and then sent a single, short paragraph that said,  ‘This is not scholarly.’  I revised and resubmitted, making it more ‘scholarly’, less ‘basic’; and the editor said, ‘Now it’s too abstruse, I don’t understand it.’  Ouch.

Or the time when I was invited to submit an article to the proceedings of a conference.  Nothing came back.  Nothing came back.  Nothing came back.  Two years later, they changed publisher and had to make the volume smaller, so they cut a number of the articles, including my piece. Ouch.

Ouch.

I have a full article, printed out, with the covering letter written, in the envelope, that has been sitting in a drawer for 5 years, because I keep feeling too distressed at the thought of it being rejected.  I know this is self-defeating. I know. This fear is lethal.

Since that article, I have written more than half a dozen others, that are out there with publishers or already published.  And of course I’m ignoring the time I was told by the editor of the online review journal Steep Stairs, ‘You write really well, we always love your contributions’, or my long relationship with British Writers, who have been publishing my work consistently for 5 years. I’m ignoring the waltz through the publication process for ‘Five Adolescent Paintings by F. Louis MacNeice’ for Notes and Queries, my only fully original contribution to knowledge and my only top ranked journal.

The publishing experience is inconsistent. Sometimes it’s brutal and eviscerating, chaotic, and opaque.  Sometimes it’s smooth, professional, and suppportive. This means sending out an article to a new journal is always full of both hope and trepidation. If you want to be published, you need to get that stuff out there.  But you also need a whole list of back-up plans.  I talk about some good back up plans in my ‘Third Reason’ (about Jobs that are Emotionally Difficult) in Why Procrastination is Not Your Fault.

Today, I’m not strong enough for a back-up plan.  Today, I need to feel fragile… and get a new conference proposal out by 5pm. The cycle starts again.

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9 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. Thanks especially for showing your vulnerability, not only because it makes it so gripping, but also because that is the evidence that of what an uneven, idiosyncratic, unreliable, impersonal world this publishing process really is!

  2. Thanks for this post! And good luck with your writing. Have you read Paul Silvia’s ‘How to write a lot’? Chapter 6 is on writing journal articles and well worth reading. Silvia estimates that the rejection rate for articles in Psychology (his field) is around 80%, and a minimum of 50% across all journals. This includes outright rejections and rejections with an invitation to revise and resubmit. I kept going back to this chapter through the 2 years and 9 revisions it took for a narrative literature review from my phd to be accepted!

  3. I must not fear.
    Fear is the mind-killer.
    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
    I will face my fear.
    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
    Only I will remain.

    — Bene Gesserit litany against fear, from Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert.

    You’d be surprised how often I whisper “Fear is the mind-killer” to myself. It helps.

  4. I’m glad that our quick conversation encouraged you to write this wonderful blog. I think you’re absolutely right about the harshness of publishing and the terror that accompanies. We will all learn to slowly overcome “the Fear”!

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