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Turn bad editing into good writing

Whether soliciting advice from friends, family, or colleagues, on the receiving end of letters and track changes from journal editors, all authors have received bad editing. Bad editing is part of the writing game. Not everyone who is an editor is an excellent writer, in fact many are not. Although we’d like to think that our manuscripts are read by people with an interest or specialization in the material our articles or books cover, that’s not always the case. Readers can have bad days. Professors can be bogged down by exams; student editors may be more concerned with tests.

I’ve received bad editing from peer reviewed and non peer reviewed journals alike. No journal has a monopoly on good editing nor does any journal have a monopoly on bad editing. As author’s we’re often inclined to dismiss criticism in frustration and then after a little reflection labels ourselves as obviously defensive. I argue that is not necessarily a constructive way to engage the editing process. Sometimes the writer will be correct and the editor will be wrong. But, it is still the author’s job to learn from whatever criticism one receives.

What might the author learn? Assuming the criticism/edits also result in a rejection this might tell you that you chose the wrong journal. If you tried for the best journal in your field, perhaps you simply should have tried for a middle of the pack journal. Perhaps you write conservative economic articles and you submitted to a liberal-leaning journal. Maybe what you wrote is more public policy than it is political theory. Understand that harsh criticism/editorial comments do not always mean that an article is unpublishable. Redirect your energies and think about the choices you made the entire way through the authorship process.

Authors might also recognize the need for a new article. How many times have you looked at edits and wracked your brain over comments only to realize that what you needed to do was rework the current article and write another article to more fully address the arguments of your editors? Maybe the very process of editing inspires you to write an article about the peer or non-peer review editorial process. Even the worst editing might be a pathway to new arguments and new articles.

Lastly, even bad editing likely has some redeeming qualities. Do not reject editing you do not like simply because it offends your sensibilities or literary integrity. Do not retreat from your thoughts and research, but be amenable to working with them in slightly different ways. There may in fact be times where you cannot bear to make certain changes in an article for fear of losing the argument that you wished to make, but editing that significantly alters your argument to such an extent that you feel it forces a different argument is likely rare. Look for the useable and use it to produce the publishable.

Everything we write is not the greatest material ever conceived. Sometimes we know this when writing and sometimes it takes others to tell us. All the comments and edits we receive are likewise not the most helpful or thoughtful constructive criticism. The challenge for authors is to holistically evaluate their edits and criticisms and move forward to write more and write better.

Nick J. Sciullo writes on critical race theory, rhetorical theory, and public policy. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. The author may be contacted at