Tag Archives: writing tips

Professional Writing 101: Dealing with Rejection

This is how it goes.

You read, gather background information, do research, and carefully write a manuscript. You put in so many hours or days or weeks that you lose track of how much time you’ve put in—which is a good thing. You re-read, edit, get feedback, revise, and do your best to produce an excellent manuscript. You upload it a portal where it magically finds its way to a professional journal editor. Then, because you can only submit a manuscript to one journal at a time, you wait.

A month passes.

You keep waiting.

If you’re lucky, you hear back from the journal editor via email within two months. You click on the email with a mix of anticipation and dread. Then, ta-da, you learn your manuscript was REJECTED.

The editor is polite, but pointedly informs you that this particular journal doesn’t recognize the magnificence of your work. To add insult to injury, your rejection is accompanied by critiques from three different reviewers. These reviewers were apparently named by Dr. Seuss: Reviewer 1, Reviewer 2, and Reviewer 3.

Some rejections are worse than others. Maybe it’s because your hopes were too high; or maybe it’s because the journal’s impact factor rating was so low. Getting rejected when the journal has an impact rating of “0” can bring down your self-esteem to a similar level.

And then there are the reviewers.

It’s important to remember that reviewers are busy, fallible, human, and unpaid volunteers. They’re also purportedly experts, although I’ve had experiences that led me to question their expertise. Many appear to have a proverbial axe to grind. Perhaps because they experienced scathing critiques in their professional childhood, they feel the need to pass on the pain. Sometimes they just seem obtuse. I’ve wondered a time or two if maybe a reviewer forgot to actually read the manuscript before offering an off-point “review.”

If you sense bitterness, it might be because over the past several years I’ve experienced an extra-large load of rejections. When the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) rejected my manuscript in less than a week, I was disappointed. But because the NEJM is the most prestigious journal on the planet, I didn’t linger much on the rejection, because rejection was expected. But when a decidedly less-prestigious professional group rejected all my proposals to present at an annual conference, I was deeply hurt, saddened, and angry. Reading the reviewers’ comments didn’t help.

At one point last summer, in a fit of self-pity, I decided to count up my two-year rejection total. I got to 20, had a flash of insight, and stopped. It was like counting cloudy days. My advice: Unless you’re especially serious about depressing yourself, don’t count up your rejections. If you’re into counting, put that energy into counting the sunny days.

One time, back when I was immature and impulsive, I received an insensitive and insulting rejection from a low tier journal. My response: A hasty, nasty, and indignant email lambasting the editor and his single reviewer for their poor decision-making process and outcome. Sending the email was immediately gratifying, but, like many immediately gratifying things, not reflective of good judgment. I never heard back. And now, when I see that editor at conferences, it’s awkward.

More recently, I responded to a rejection from a high-status conference with humility along with a gentle inquiry about re-consideration. Less than 24 hours later they discovered “one more slot” and I was in! It was a paid gig, for an excellent conference, and at a convenient venue. Bingo. Let that be a lesson to me.

Last month I received a different sort of journal rejection. It was an invitation to “Revise and Resubmit.”

Put in romantic terms, revise and resubmit is lukewarm and confusing. The message is, “I kind of like you, and you have potential, but I’m not ready for a commitment.” But if you’ve been casting out and reeling in a raft of rejections, revise and resubmit is a welcome flirtation.

I had submitted a manuscript focusing on suicide risk assessment to a reasonably good journal. It was a good manuscript. In fact, Reviewer 3 recommended publication. But Reviewer 1 spoiled my day by offering 23 substantial and picky suggestions. The editor, who wrote me a long and rather nice email, decided to go with Reviewer 1’s opinion: revise and resubmit.

Given that I’ve been reviewing the suicide risk assessment literature for a couple decades, I assumed I was well-versed in the area. But when I read through Reviewer 1’s suggestions I was surprised, humbled, and eventually pleased. Reviewer 1 had many excellent points.

Looking back and forward, I think this is what I like best about submitting manuscripts to professional journals. Basically, you get a free critique and although some reviewers are duds, others are experts in the field who provide you with a fabulous educational opportunity. There’s always so much more to learn.

The moral of this story and blog post is that the attitude we have toward rejection is far more important than our fragile egos (at least it’s more important than my fragile ego). In response to the revise and resubmit verdict, I’ve graciously accepted the feedback, engaged a co-author to help me, and we have now systematically plowed through the 23 recommendations. The result: Last week we re-submitted a vastly improved manuscript.

Now we wait.

Although I have hope for success, I also realize that Reviewer 1 may have a bit more educational feedback to offer. But this time around, I’m looking forward to it.

 

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Paper Writing Tips for Grad Students in Counseling and Psychology

I recently had the honor and privilege of reading the first set of papers submitted to me by graduate students this semester. The papers were generally of good quality, but a few repeating patterns inspired me to provide the following list of basic tips for graduate students seeking to become mental health professionals.

  1. There’s nothing quite like a clear and concise topic sentence in academic writing. The topic (or focus sentence) introduces the content included in the paragraph. When used well, it’s a beautiful organizing force that brings joy and comprehension to the hearts and minds of many a reader (especially moi).
  2. Although I absolutely hate the saying “More is less” (because, in fact, “more” is always “more” even though “less” can better), it’s a good general rule to make your sentences shorter rather than longer because all too often I find students, like myself in this particular sentence, trying to fit too much information into one sentence when it would be clearer and better to break it up into two or three sentences. A corollary to this rule is that fewer quotation marks and exclamation marks are better than more of those particular “Marks!”
  3. A transition sentence or two that describes what you’ll be covering in your paper and placed at the end of your opening paragraph or in your second paragraph is very helpful to your reader.
  4. Unless you’re a Brit, you should put your commas, periods, and ellipsis inside the quotation marks, “Like this. . .” Think about it this way: commas and periods like to be on the inside; they don’t like to be floating outside the quotation marks because, unless they live on the British Isles, it increases their existential sense of isolation.
  5. You don’t need to use a comma when you have a short list of only two thoughts because all you need in that case is the word “and.” For example, notice the absence of a comma in the following sentence: Max was feeling quite spry and decided to post a smiley face to his Facebook status. In this case we do not need or want a comma after the word “spry.”
  6. Keep in mind that in most cases it best to maintain consistency between singular and plural within the same sentence and paragraph. For example, if you write: “The counselor should work to have empathy with their client” it will cause me to wonder why you didn’t go with: “Counselors should have empathy with their clients.” Note: There is also a good reason to use what is now commonly referred to as the singular “they.” Using they or their as singular (representing an individual) is perfectly acceptable–especially when referring to individuals who are averse to the gender binary. However, in most cases, it’s easier and IMHO maintains better grammar-flow to shift to plural-plural whenever reasonable.
  7. Remember that your professor really likes the appropriate use of the Harvard comma. What this means is that when providing a list of more than two items, you should place a comma after the first item, second item, and before the and. An example: John very much enjoys running, walking, and dancing. If you leave out that last comma, it seems like the final two items are somehow joined together. Remember also, that although journalists don’t use it, the Harvard comma is consistent with APA style.
  8. When you’re quoting someone you should use the past tense; this is because the person whom you’re quoting has already said it. For example, in his book Working with challenging youth, Richardson stated: “Yada, yada, and yada.” Although it’s tempting to write, “Richardson states” the past is the past even though Gestalt therapists might want us to bring everything into the here-and-now.
  9. Please include the page number or numbers when you’re quoting someone so your reader, if so inclined, can confirm the accuracy of your quotation. This is also APA style. Always avoid anything that might be viewed as plagiarizing.
  10. In contrast and opposite of how I’m writing in this list of writing tips, APA style doesn’t like contractions. Instead, just like Commander Data in the Star Trek series, you do not use contractions when writing in APA format and you will see a little red mark on your paper if you write with the casual contraction.
  11. You may recall that Michael Jackson sang: “A, B, C is easy as 1, 2, 3.” Well, APA actually thinks that (a), (b), (c). . . is better than 1, 2, 3. . . when it comes to in-paragraph list-making.
  12. If you use capital letters when you don’t need to, I will think you’ve freshly arrived from Germany. Words like counselor and psychologist should not be capitalized and even though specific mental disorders like major depressive disorder are often capitalized, we shouldn’t privilege particular words just because we feel like it or just because the American Psychiatric Association would like those words to take on greater significance.
  13. My old statistics professor always used to say that you write numbers just like you write words. What he meant by this is that justlikeyouwouldneverwritelikethis, when writing an equation you should always put a space between the operation and the integer. For example, it’s always n = 1 and never n=1.
  14. Although corporations are people (according to SCOTUS, not me), people are not corporations. This means you should use “who” when referring to actual people and “that” “them” or “it” when referring to non-people. When it comes to addressing corporations, make no reference at all, just bow your head in deference.
  15. Although it’s very cool and good form to cite your professor’s work in your paper, you should do your best to spell his name correctly.