Revision suggestions: When and how to say no

Defense and flexibility are both important in writing, especially with editors and, for academics, peer reviewers.

Editors and peer reviewers are the gatekeepers. They hold the keys to our publishing potential, so many writers hesitate to question anything they say or protest even the most unreasonable request. They control what we want and the idea of even shyly raising a soft voice in discord to a suggestion seems sacrilegious at the altar of the byline.

This hesitance is ill-conceived and you should re-consider your attitude about it if you resemble my description.

You can say no to an editor. You can also say no to ridiculous requests made by peer reviewers who don’t seem to have read paragraph ten where you explain exactly what they say you didn’t explain. Here’s how.

Most importantly, be flexible. This is vital. You don’t want to approach an editor with a sledgehammer of an attitude and demand that Your Muse Knows Best! Because gatekeeper.

Instead, if you find the suggestions loathesome, step away, have a beer, go walk around your garden, maybe nap. And then return to the revision suggestions with fresh eyes and the aim to narrow that list down to “yes, I can do that no problem,” “yes, I’ll do that but my way,” and “no, I won’t do that because it doesn’t make sense/will ruin the effect I’m striving for/will make me sound stupid, etc.” Honestly, your first list should be huge – the vast majority of editorial and reviewer requests fall into this “no problem” category. Are they sometimes repetitive and frivolous and based on someone else’s personal preference and knowledge? Yes. But who cares? If those changes won’t substantially and negatively impact your work, just do it and stop bellyaching.

The second category will have several things in it. Changes that you are making under some duress. They will be things that you think skews your work in a way you don’t really want. Or, the changes will seem to contradict something you’ve already suggested. Or, stylistically, the changes run counter to what your intentions are. These are the trickiest changes to accept and make. You’ll have to spend some time with each one, deciding whether to add that name where one doesn’t really belong, or use that white male scholar the reviewer wants when you would prefer a non-white female scholar’s voice, etc. I’ll give you an example. I just revised a book chapter for which one of the reviewers asked me to include the works of two white male scholars. The important issue here is the additional scholarly voices, not necessarily who the scholars are. The suggestions were obviously individuals the reviewers were familiar with, but one of my jobs as a scholar is to introduce people like that to the people I prefer to privilege. So, instead of going along with the suggestion 100%, I did add another scholar’s voice to the mix, but it was a female Anishinaabe scholar in order to privilege the Native voice and add more balance to an already male-heavy text. I doubt the editor or reviewers will question my wisdom on this.

Editors like to work with confident writers. And peer reviewers will respect you more if you do most of what they ask and then take a stand on the rest, as you should because you’re the expert, remember? So, make those revisions after careful consideration of what exactly the editor and reviewers are asking of you. Adjust as necessary.

That final category is the easiest list to create and the easiest to dismiss. Notice I used the word dismiss. Whenever you re-submit anything that an editor or reviewers ask you to change, you should always provide a list of the things that you changed (and why, as in my case of using a different scholar than those recommended). And then just don’t mention the items you are ignoring/dismissing. I’ve used this approach for academic work and consumer publications and I have yet to see it fail. You control the narrative when you re-submit, so draw their attention to the elements you want them to see and just don’t mention the other stuff.

See? Easy. 🙂


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