Welcome to the tenth Ought Experiment column, in which I lose my bet with Justin that people would get sick of me well before we reached the tenth column. And speaking of self-assured predictions of pending rejection, this week’s question comes from an assistant professor who always feels incredible approach-avoidance whenever s/he tries to respond to referee comments:
Like any good academic, I dutifully send out papers for publication. Of course, I’m happy when they’re accepted and disappointed when they aren’t, but I find my problem to be in the intermediate stage of having to respond to reviewers’ comments. The sight of all those comments that have to be read and responded to push me into a profound approach-avoidance complex: I vow to read and respond to them promptly in my car or the shower, but sitting in front of my computer I inexplicably refresh Facebook for the thousandth time. When I finally do respond, it’s only through brute force by myself against myself, conducted in response to the pressure of a deadline, and it leaves me exhausted. Any advice on how to make it a quicker and less painful experience?
Anxiously Waiting for your Review and Comments
Dear (Un)conditional Acceptance,
Yeah. Yeahhh. Truth be told, I find R&R writing to be just about the hardest writing there is. Why? Because suddenly there’s a chance, and that chance just about paralyzes me.
Sending a paper out the door the first time around is comparatively low stakes. I reach a point where I’m happy with it or simply ready to be done with it, so I release my grip and watch it lazily float away from me like a balloon in summer. It’ll be months before anything comes of that anticlimactic moment, and when I do finally hear back, it’s probably going to be a rejection. So I’ll send it somewhere else and wait anew. It almost doesn’t matter what I argue, because the paper isn’t real yet. It certainly isn’t a potential publication! It’s just hanging around some stranger’s inbox, the written equivalent of that awkward guest no one quite remembers inviting to the party.
An R&R changes everything. All that writing and waiting and writing and waiting instantly crystalizes into the possibility of a career-changing or career-securing or career-advancing publication. Now I have a sense of what my chances are. Now it matters what I say. Now I know exactly what kind of reader I need to satisfy, and exactly what I need to prove. The publication is mine to lose, and that means I’m in a position to totally blow my chance. So much seemingly depends on these publications early on, and here’s one now, almost within reach. I’m afraid of making any sudden movements, lest I startle the skittish thing and it bolts away.
The high stakes are what set R&R writing apart. It would be wonderful if we could find a way to lower the stakes for ourselves just by willing them to be lower, but human psychology doesn’t really work that way. So here are ten tips that will help you lower the stakes. And, err, help me lower the stakes as well. Like the old joke goes: “Take my advice – I’m not using it.”
- Read approach-avoidance tips
Take a look at the writing and mood-setting tips I offered in my column on approach-avoidance, because some of those will probably apply to your situation as well. And while you’re in the neighborhood, maybe some of the other Ought Experiment columns. Plus whatever else is new at Daily Nous. And the other philosophy blogs in your rotation, because there might be something new somewhere else. And the Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped! Facebook page. Also Wikipedia and tvtropes.org. Oooh, cool, Wikipedia actually has a page about tvtropes.org!
That sentence got away from me, yeah.
- Rushing into things doesn’t give you faster results
Maybe don’t vow to respond to the comments right away. Maybe don’t even read the comments right away. Seriously. Pat yourself on the back for getting an R&R, then close the email before you can scroll down any further. Do something else for a few days. Take the opportunity to bask or relax. Then, and only then, should you read the comments. It helps if your first impression of the task ahead isn’t being filtered through intense emotions and desperate desire. (Of course, don’t wait too many days before reading the comments, because they’ll start to loom large again, now a mystery box you’re not entirely sure you’ll be able to handle.)
- Smaller tasks have lower stakes
“Respond to the referees’ comments” sounds like a momentous undertaking. So break it down into doable steps. Here’s what works for me. First I organize the comments I received, either by section (here’s everything I need to change about the introduction…) or by kind (here are all the empirical issues the refs want me to address…). I create a Revision List document, and I leave spaces after every entry so that I can come back later and plug in my answers. I can always do at least that much, because there’s no pressure in that first stage – I’m just making a list of what other people said, with no input required from me at all. If a given R&R requires it, I also create a Quote Hunt file where I paste the new research that I might want to use. Gradually, all those blank spaces I left start to fill in, in no particular order and in no particular hurry, as the R&R percolates in my head. This second stage is more like keeping a diary of my thoughts than revising an article, and I can always do at least that much, because keeping a diary isn’t high stakes. The end result of this accretion? I have the entire revision mapped out before I write a single word of the new draft. And that takes the pressure off the next stage as well, because I’m just plugging stuff I previously figured out into the appropriate slots. Copy-pasting? I can always do at least that much. Wait, now all I have to do is write connecting sentences for the new bits so that they’re integrated smoothly into the old bits? That’s easy! And now I’m done? When did that happen?
- Harness the power of deadlines
You say you respond well to official deadlines? Then try giving yourself artificial, proximate deadlines. They have the same starting pistol effect, but without all the burnout you experience at the end. To be clear, I’m not talking about implausible deadlines like “I will be done with this draft 48 hours after I read the comments.” Deadlines like that will only exacerbate your sense of desperate urgency, and trigger feelings of disappointment and self-doubt when you inevitably fall behind. I mean low stakes deadlines. Set up a meeting with a writing buddy to discuss your draft-in-progress a week or so from now, in whatever state it’s in. If your department has a lunchtime series, sign up to give a talk based on the new version. If you have a good sense of your own pace and need slightly higher stakes to get going, commit yourself by giving the editor a rough estimate of when they should expect the paper from you. There are loads of ways to create deadlines, and the more incremental you make them, the easier it is to meet them without an intense and draining flurry of last-minute miracle activity.
- Don’t treat the R&R like an obstacle or a roadblock
One mistake I used to make was assigning R&Rs absolute practical and emotional priority. What do I mean by that? Well, if I was working on anything else, I felt guilty and anxious about the languishing R&R, which made me come to resent the R&R over time. It was the reason nothing else was getting done and the reason why I wasn’t having any fun. The bastard. So I would try to force myself to work on this thing I kinda hated by telling myself that I couldn’t write or do anything else until the R&R was finished. But in addition to trapping me in the past when I wanted to work on cool new ideas, that approach would cause other tasks to pile up on my desk, which would make me even more anxious, because suddenly I had two big tasks instead of one. So my approach-avoidance would deepen, and so would the piles. This is what happens when the unstoppable force of mounting deadlines meets the immovable object of a pending R&R. How can you avoid all that? Give yourself permission to work on projects in parallel. Give yourself permission to take guilt-free breaks. Create a schedule of what needs to get done, when. Do whatever it takes to avoid turning the R&R into a boulder in your road.
- Manage expectations
I understand that this next tip is very sensitive to career stage, given the role that publications play early on. But it’s important to manage your expectations for the R&R. Just because this one journal has given you a chance doesn’t mean they’re your only oasis in the desert. Pleasing that one, stubborn ref isn’t the bottleneck that stands between you and a career in academia. A rejected R&R doesn’t take your paper out of circulation, and for all you know, the very next place you send it could accept it outright. The structure of the market and the tenure track can make the job seem like a series of all-or-nothing, make-or-break bottlenecks, but that’s not how careers actually play out. Say it with me now: “It’s actually okay if this R&R doesn’t pan out. It’s the long-term that matters. This one journal doesn’t determine my fate.” When you give a ref that much psychological power over your entire future, of course you can’t write.
- Change the odds
Now, I get it, there’s going to be a lot of pushback on my last tip. Sometimes there are make-or-break bottlenecks, especially early on in our careers. But what’s actually creating these make-or-break moments? Is it really the nature of the profession, alone? Or is it something else as well? The best way to avoid bottlenecks is to have a number of papers under review, so that it’s literally true that your career doesn’t depend on any given R&R panning out. You don’t want to put yourself in a position where the entire game comes down to a single bet. Sometimes it’s not the structure of the market or the tenure track that forces us all-in, but rather the number of chips we’ve brought to the table. This can be an uncomfortable realization to have, and I know it was for me when I finally figured it out (embarrassingly late, I might add), but we often have more control over our fates than we think. We’re not at the mercy of a single ref’s unreasonable whims. The profession isn’t a nebulous, all-powerful gatekeeper that sits in judgment of us.
- Stop thinking of the R&R as a potential publication
Seriously, just think of it as any other piece of writing you have to do. When you think of the R&R as a publication that might actually be yours, something like the endowment effect can start to take over. (And yes, I realize that was my second Wikipedia link in a column about approach-avoidance. I’m rarely actually helpful.) When we think of a thing as belonging to us, we get attached, and grow very reluctant to give it up, whatever its original value. And when the thing in question doesn’t even belong to us yet, but is so valuable that we can’t help but fantasize about it being ours, we’ll invest incredible amounts of emotional energy into the idea of it being ours, and worry quite a lot about losing it at the last minute. Now watch those stakes climb. I know it can be hard to think of an R&R as just another piece of writing on your to-do list, but remember: your everyday writing was good enough to get an R&R in the first place. That means that you’re actually pretty good at everyday writing tasks. Whatever skills worked for you the first time around will work for you again, as long as you don’t get in their way by turning a routine task into a show-stopping, high stakes challenge.
- If ever you stall, return to Tip #3
No one is perfect, and in fact we’re often too hard on ourselves, beating ourselves up for things that almost everyone else also does. So accept the fact that at some point in the R&R process, you might stall out. The ideas might dry up, the anxiety might rise to prohibitive levels, or too much time might go by without any fresh progress, turning the R&R into something daunting again. But you can always decide to spend the next 10 minutes of your day completing a single, very small step. Even if the goal is as small as writing one sentence. Start somewhere. Start anywhere. And get the ball rolling again. Never declare, in a fit of frustration, that “Today is the day I finish that damned R&R!” Just write one sentence.
- Plus whatever else the helpful folks in the comments section will add
Aside from the routine malice of Referee 2 (which I’m starting to think is actually some guy’s name), people giving you comments are generally trying to be helpful. They want you to succeed. They’re not gatekeepers or antagonists or level bosses – they’re on your team, telling you how to cross the finish line. So in a moment we all saw coming given the nature of your question, I’m going to check out, and turn the discussion over to the folks in the comments section below. And they’re going to prove just how awesome getting comments actually is.
Plus, I’m busy. Fallout 4 isn’t exactly going to play itself.
— Louie Generis