Picking flesh from bones

I woke up this morning thinking it was Saturday before remembering with a thud that it was only Tuesday. For a moment I wanted to pull the doona over my head and pretend it was the weekend. Maybe I should have done that. Instead, I did what most of us do, lie in bed, check our phones and our email. During the night, whizzing across from overseas came a rejection email for a paper I’d submitted 6 months ago. It was a one line rejection saying the reviewers felt the argument could have been clearer. That’s it. No more. No less. Deleted from the system, my little papery bird was unceremoniously dumped back to me, wings snapped, feathers ruffled, neck possibly broken.

Do we ever get used to the rejection that comes with academic life and writing? I read this blog post the other day from Raul Pacheco-Vega on rejection and it was this I was thinking of this morning as I read my rejection email. At the end of the piece he argues that we need to accept the rejection as part and parcel of academic life, and yet, there is such a sting when we get our work back. I’ve written before about having my papery birds rejected and yet, I’m not sure that I’m getting any better at responding to the rejections when they come. Some might wonder why I put the moments of rejection up in lights- why advertise that you had something rejected? I think it’s important to make comment on the fact that rejections will come. If they are ‘part and parcel’ of academic life as Pachecho-Vega says (and we all know they are), then I think it’s important to consider the process of how we go about dealing with the next steps. How can I encourage my higher degree students to experiment with writing, with rejection, with failure, with success, if I am not going to share the process in all its mess and complexity?

I find it all too tempting to delete the file from my computer never to be seen again, cast it adrift and set it down as a bad piece of writing. It’s not as simple or as hard as that though. This morning, I set my phone aside, and lay in bed beneath the warmth of the doona for another 20 minutes. When I got up I grabbed my laptop, located the file, opened it and began to read. Eyes like a vulture, I began picking over the bones of this rejected paper, looking for plump pieces of flesh that I could carve off and begin to shape into something new. A couple of lines in particular struck me, half-formed ideas that might be developed into something more substantial. I selected, I copied, I pasted into a new document. I now have a new document composed of ideas, phrases, paragraphs that I don’t want to abandon just yet. I printed it off and slotted it into my diary to look at later. The full paper I filed in my ‘other writing’ archive folder. Maybe I’ll return to it, but it is unlikely. Instead I’ll take these new fragments and begin the writing process again, bearing in mind the short feedback I received about making my argument clear. I’ll return to the ‘so what?’ question and I’ll write a new tiny text. The process recommences.

Maybe I am getting better with dealing with paper rejections when they come after all. Perhaps this is the process and strategy I will use from now on? What about you- what do you do?

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4 responses to “Picking flesh from bones

  1. Thanks for linking to my post! The questions you ask regarding how to deal with rejection AFTER are important and timely.

    I recently got rejected by the American Political Science Association (APSA) where I had submitted 2 proposals to present. I’m not someone who enjoys or even feels competent at dealing with rejection. What I thought was “what I’ll do is I’ll plan these papers as components of a larger research programme, write a grant, get some grant money and start moving forward on them. I’ll use whatever progress I’ve made on this to turn it around and see what can I gain from this.”

    The process you mention of “picking flesh from bones” is exactly what needs to be done. What can we get out of our rejection?

    Great post!

    • Thanks Raul – I think it’s important that we think about the process and strategy we use in dealing with rejection – something that doesn’t come naturally for many of us! Good luck with using your papers in your research program plan 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed reading about your rejection response, though I’m sorry you had cause to write it.

    In my 8+ years as a freelance writer and editor, I got very used to receiving rejection letters. I developed a thick skin and the habit of targeting a new publication right away. I really believed that my ideas were good but perhaps just hadn’t found the right home yet. This even worked for my book, which was rejected by 16 publishers before being published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2010.

    However, academic markets are funny things. So far as a grad student (first year MA in English), I’ve encountered only rejection, and it stings in a different way than it did when I was freelancing.

    Your approach of copying and pasting snippets, phrases, or sentences from the rejected piece to function as seeds for new pieces of writing inspires me to try a similar approach with my recent rejections. So thank you!

    • Thanks Janel – academic writing is a funny beast. I agree with you about finding the right home for papers -I worked as an editorial intern on an academic journal for a while and I saw papers with great ideas and great writing that just weren’t right for our target readership, so sometimes it is about trying again until you find the right fit. Other times, like the paper I got back, I look at it with fresh eyes and decide that I want to cut my losses with the current paper and begin anew – and then this strategy works for me. Glad to hear you’re going to give it a whirl – let me know how you go!

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