The theme of this issue’s column will focus on stress and how it can intrude on the writing process from the standpoint of submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed journal. The column begins with some practical advice on how to handle, and possibly reduce, stress in daily life in general. The latter sections focus on submitting, rewriting, and resubmitting a manuscript.
Dealing With Daily Stress
There are several ways that writers and researchers can work to minimize stress in our lives in general. First, I would like to recommend an excellent book by psychologist Richard Carlson, PhD., titled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff. The book consists of 100 anecdotes and explanations of how they can be incorporated into one’s life. One especially relevant story is titled “Give up the Idea that Relaxed, Gentle People can’t be Super Achievers, too”. Within our profession, people often get rather frazzled and caught up in so many activities at the same time that it boggles the mind–all too often quite literally!
Let me give you an example. Many people try to combine lunch with meetings, perhaps for 30 to 50 minutes. Think about this: Eating lunch requires the combination of biting, chewing, swallowing, breathing, and drinking, and the process sends a lot of the body’s blood to the stomach. Think about adding a discussion to this task. Now each person involved is trying to eat, chew, swallow, drink, breath, listen to and focus on the speaker, think of a reply, and then comment without choking! Also, a lot of their blood, which would normally have been available to help the thinking process, is now in the stomach trying to handle the digestive functions! No wonder so many people finish such ‘meetings’ mentally distressed–almost certainly due to a lack of oxygen necessary for the healthy functioning of the brain.
Here is an alternative: Spend 10-15 minutes eating in a relaxed state, then when everyone has finished, clear the plates and focus on the meeting topic(s) only. Although this may be a more prudent alternative, many people cannot discipline themselves enough to do this, to their own detriment. One possible reason may be the overconsumption of caffeine–a central nervous system stimulant that often makes behavior erratic. Instead, by learning how to recognize your emotional state, you can learn to be in control of your feelings rather than allowing them to control you. Not many people can do this, but with practice, it is possible.
The Importance of Positive Self-Talk
We all have ‘self-talk’: That little voice inside our heads that analyzes everything, fantasizes about the future, and brings up the past (none of which exist outside of your own mind, by the way). Without getting into the psychology of it all too deeply, this ‘little voice’ exercises enormous control over our emotional state. Here is a simple task for grins and giggles: The next time someone says something to you, avoid replying immediately. Just look at the person and think calmly about what was said. If you are like most people, you will respond almost instantaneously before thinking. On the other hand, if you can take a moment to think first, you will begin to notice your ‘little voice’. And once you can do that, you will begin to be the master of your own thoughts.
Once you begin to recognize your own thoughts, you can begin to use them to your advantage. When you think about writing, try to realize what you typically say to yourself. Is it positive? Do you think ‘Oh, darn I have to work on that paper today….’ If so, try to focus on a positive outcome, for example, if you are interested in career advancement (for example, see Miller, 2013), try substituting a larger goal to focus on, rather than the immediate task of paper writing. In other words, it may be helpful to focus on the positive result of career advancement, which should be benefited by having your paper finished and submitted.
The Writing Process
Focus on Writing What You Want, When You Want
There are many different ways to get experience writing and publishing besides writing for academic journals. Conference reports, JALT Chapter reports, and book reviews are just a few examples of ways to accumulate experience. Be an early riser–for myself, I have found it much easier to get to the office early, review my writing, and then write what I want while my mind is still fresh. This may be easier than struggling to focus on a topic at the end of a long day when the body or mind is already exhausted.
Quantity of Outcome vs. Quantity of Time
In general, people like to quantify their time and the results of their efforts. In order to accomplish both, I highly suggest trying to sit down and write a predetermined amount of writing, instead of writing for a predetermined length of time. For example, try to write three pages in contrast to writing for three hours. At the end of the former, you have accomplished something tangible. Sadly, with the latter option–in this day and age of ubiquitous wireless distractions–the use of three hours often gets squandered reading emails, tweeting, checking out Facebook, or playing any of the myriad tableaus of online games.
The Submission Process
Organizing Your Submission
First, I strongly emphasize the importance of keeping your files organized. This means both organizing files on your computer and keeping a clear file for each paper you are working on. In the clear file I suggest keeping journal submission guidelines for easy reference. Many journals use an online submission system, which will require you to provide a user name and password. My advice is to write down your user name and password on a sheet of paper and put it in your clear file along with a copy of the paper you wish to submit, submission guidelines, and any other resources you consider necessary.
However, if you are targeting a specific journal, just submit the paper when you are ready and inform the editor exactly how you feel in very direct, clear and polite language. Let the editor know that you would welcome the reviewers’ comments if the editor agrees to send it out for review. Also, politely request the editor to explicitly state any reasons for deciding not to send it out for review. Then relax, cut back on the caffeine, and start to work on something different so that your anxiety gets channeled into something productive.
When the editor responds, I recommended printing out the email and setting it aside for at least an hour before reading it. When you do read the message, read it from the perspective that the editor does not know you personally, and is responding to your submission only. Also, never forget that everyone involved is at least as busy as you are and is volunteering their time. The submission process is also about building professional relationships.
Handling Reviewer’s Comments
Finally, before you even look at the reviewer’s comments on the paper, remember that it is your choice how you respond. Don’t take it personally. Think of it this way: You buy a new shirt and wear it to a party, where someone makes a positive comment on your new shirt, essentially complimenting your taste in clothes. How do you feel? Pretty good, probably. But have they actually commented on your taste in clothes, or are they just talking about the new shirt you bought? This is an example of how the human ego works–believing nice things said about one’s apparel are personal compliments. Unfortunately, the same thing happens when negative comments are made about our writing; we tend to take the comments as personal, when they are not. Instead, by taking a more detached approach and recognizing that the reviewer does not personally know you and is commenting impartially on your work, you can save yourself a lot of unnecessary self-abuse.
Resubmitting a Manuscript With Corrections
Start at the beginning of the paper and go through and make the corrections that you agree with, and ignore those you do not agree with, leaving those corrections unchanged. Then, copy and paste all of the corrections you were asked to make into the right side of an Excel file and then list the changes you have made on the left hand side. Believe it or not, several journals require this second step when dealing with reviewers’ comments. Finally, I suggest doing any edits and re-writes in private, as this will allow you to specifically focus on the task.
Submitting a Rejected Manuscript to a New Journal
Finally, what should you do if your manuscript is rejected? Remember, just because a specific journal rejects your paper for publication or doesn’t even send it out for review does not mean the paper is unpublishable–it simply means that it is not appropriate for that journal. It is then time to roll up your sleeves and target another journal, keeping a record of the journal(s) to which you have submitted the paper, perhaps on the same sheet of paper with your user name / password that you have kept in your clear file for this manuscript.
Lastly, it may be wise to keep a list of all journals to which you have submitted a paper so as not to resubmit the same paper a second time to the same journal after having been rejected once. Also, never give up! To use a basketball analogy, ‘keep bouncing that ball until you get it through the hoop’, then put the points on the old CV and keep moving forward. Good luck!
Carlson, R. (1997). Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it's all small stuff. Hyperion: New York, NY.
Miller, R. (2013). Publishing options to enhance your CV. The Language Teacher, 37(3), 72–73.