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How to Get Over (Article) Rejection

Rose Ernst
May 8 · 4 min read

We’ve all been there.

That journal editor’s email appears in your inbox.

Here’s one I received a few years ago:

“I regret to inform you that our reviewers have now considered your paper, but unfortunately feel it is unsuitable for publication in the Tiny Trolls Review [not the real title!]. For your information, I attach the reviewer comments at the bottom of this email. I hope you will find them to be constructive and helpful.”

How do we move forward, especially when reviewer comments are harsh or even spiteful?

1. Make a pact with a close colleague

This is a great technique for reading teaching evaluations, too. Ask a loyal and close colleague. One you trust.

Commit to reading each other’s reviews and extracting constructive feedback. It can be just a simple list. This much less painful than reading the comments yourself and you gain an additional perspective. Your colleague might interpret the feedback differently than you, which is also valuable information.

Then celebrate your cleverness with a favorite delicious beverage, as Meggin McIntosh, the Ph.D. of Productivity says.

2. Understand feedback

Tara Mohr, the author of Playing Big, has this to say about feedback: “FEEDBACK DOES NOT TELL YOU ABOUT YOU. IT TELLS YOU ABOUT THE PERSON GIVING THE FEEDBACK.”

She wrote this in all caps for a reason. I can make this statement over to myself, my clients, and my friends, but we have a difficult time really believing it.

What also makes this hard is that article feedback is often anonymous (double-blind peer review and teaching evaluations). How can we even evaluate the feedback if we don’t know who is providing it?

There is hope!

Recently, I had (ahem) a challenging review of my academic book manuscript. Infuriated, I ruminated for a while, pacing around my apartment. Then I let go. I just needed to make the revisions to satisfy the editor. Once I realized these critiques were not comments on my self-worth, it became easier to move forward with the revision process.

This realization also made it easier for me to say no to some suggestions. I sorted through what I needed to do to satisfy these people’s needs and my own as well.

But how do you really know the feedback is about the other person?

I’ll tell you how.

J. K. Rowling’s pitch for Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before it was accepted.

How many times have you resubmitted the same article to different journals? And then finally had it accepted? How is it possible all those journal editors were wrong and somehow just one was right?

The answer is not that literary agents are idiots or that the journal editors and reviewers are evil; the answer is that the audience couldn’t hear your message. It had nothing to do with you.

It’s easy to interpret Mohr’s quote about feedback as a narcissistic or even paranoid view of the world as “everyone else is wrong and I’m right.” What it means, instead, is that you must find your audience.

That’s it. It’s not about you, and it’s not even about them. It’s about the match between you and the audience.

3. Vent and move on

Write a furious email…but do not send it!

Rant into a voice recorder.

Or just talk to your cat or dog. They’ll understand.

4. Put yourself in the reviewer’s shoes.

Editors and reviewers are often just as overworked and stressed as you are. As a result, they may be cranky. I’ve been less than charitable as a peer reviewer, once or twice. I wasn’t rude, but I was terse.

Looking back, I was pressed for time. I’m not proud of it, but I’m sure I’m not alone. Reviewing articles for our peers is not something that is rewarded in our profession — or at least not equal to the time it takes. We agree to it because we want to be of service.

I’m not asking you to feel bad for the editor or reviewers. I’m just trying to help you understand why they didn’t spend the time (they should have) to make their comments constructive.

Plenty of reviewers are kind and constructive, so be appreciative when they provide comments.

5. Go to the casino

Yes! Your department has just given you $10,000 to go to Vegas.

Just kidding.

If you understand Tara Mohr’s quote about feedback, then shopping your article to different journals becomes a game. To be clear, I don’t mean tenure, your identity, or your livelihood is a game. I mean that if you see journal submission as largely a game of chance — one that you can improve your odds at by having an edited and well-written manuscript sent to a matching journal — then it becomes much easier to just submit the article to another journal as soon as you receive a rejection. You can use the feedback (if you think it’s useful) to send to another journal.

Give the roulette wheel another spin!

And while it’s spinning, write your next article.

Dr. Rose Ernst is an academic editor and consultant who loves to support scholars in sharing their brilliance with the world. Find her at roseernst.net.

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Rose Ernst

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Academic editor and writing consultant. Former tenured professor and chair of political science. Happy fiction author. Find her at roseernst.net.