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Review is the process of taking your writing away from you

I’ve had the idea in this post for a while, and putting what I wanted to say in conversation with Badenhorst et al’s paper is going to make for a richer and more nuanced conversation. Because I just went through a process of being an editor (on The Chief of Staff journal) and of being peer reviewed for an article I submitted (and got rejected), and I found both experiences to be actually helpful and positive.

I was recently reading a new article by Badenhorst et al. (2021) in Higher Education Research & Development, that explored the experience of ‘being reviewed’ by 11 female academics. The paper focuses on mostly negative experiences of peer review: feelings of shame and exclusion and confusion, leading to silence, withdrawal and conformity. These experiences are widespread and I’m glad they are being discussed in papers like these, which build on conversations I regularly have in workshops and collaborative meetings.

Badenhorst et al. identify peer review as part of what they call ‘a rite of passage’ in which the individual voice is ‘homogenised’ to be more ‘similar’ to the way other scholars in the field are writing. This is experienced as a negative thing, a wearing down of the writer’s individuality that ‘undermined’ their creativity. That was fascinating to me because as Chief Editor of a new journal, I’m working really hard to develop and sustain a ‘house style’ across all the articles. As an academic writing advisor, I’m also often teaching authors how to identify a journal’s style and replicate it in their own writing. The originality should be in your contribution to knowledge, not in your style, is what I’m often trying to say. I don’t disagree with the fact that there is less individual creativity, I do want to dig deeper into whether that is “undermining” or something else.

Rather than the metaphor of ‘homogenisation’, my metaphor is of ‘smoothing out‘. As I think about this idea, my fingertips rub together, as if I am rubbing butter into flour, or testing the texture of cloth. I want the writing to be smooth, fine, even. One of my co-authors and I say that a section of academic writing is finished when it’s ‘like glass’. When I put together a journal, I want there to be flow, I want the reader to glide, not to stumble on spelling or grammar or punctuation or formatting.

There are two reasons I want this kind of fineness, this kind of glide. First: I want people to be able to engage with the substance of the content. If I am presenting new knowledge, complex arguments, difficult theories, or lots of data, people need to keep their brains free to easily move around the text. Clarity, organisation and confirming to recognised elements of ‘style’ make it easier for me to see through the writing, as it were a window, to the information.

Difficult, clunky, awkward, experimental or individual writing styles can make it feel like fighting through thorns. For the post-structuralist theorists–whose whole point was that we should disrupt the simple model of words giving direct access to a reality–the words resist comprehension on purpose. This is not now the fashion for most academic writing, and it’s not my preference for my own writing or the writing I edit.

Secondly: I want to show the the writing has been refined to a high gloss. Academic writing is a prestigious, elite, highly-developed kind of writing, it demonstrates expertise and it communicates to experts. Like wearing academic regalia to a graduation, the silk helps show that I belong and that I have credentials.

***

But there is another reason why my writing becomes less and less like my own voice, and more and more like the rest of the field, and that is because the process of peer review, editorial comments, copy editing, laying out and finally publication, means more and more other people are involved in co-creating your work.

Each revision, taking on board questions and concerns and advice and changes, takes my work a little bit away from me. For me, this is a good thing! Unlike this blog post, which I wrote, editing and published myself (hence the fact that there are often typos!), academic writing for publication has been read and commented on and changed by multiple people over multiple stages. The article or book goes from being ‘my’ work, to being, in some way, ‘our’ work.

Moreover, as the process of getting feedback and revising goes on, my work orients itself more and more towards the community of scholars for whom it is written. When I am writing and editing, I am both the author and primary reader. But I already know what I know–the purpose of publication is to get my work into the hands of readers who aren’t me, who don’t know this stuff yet.

And so I see the various rounds of rejections and reviews and edits as a process of slowly giving my work away to a wider and wider circle of people, until it is ready for readers.

***

It took me years to get here! And I partly have this feeling of equanimity about review because I now have a strong track record of getting things published. When I was just starting out, my experiences were much closer to the negative ones described by Badenhorst et al. But I wonder if this framing that I have now might have been useful to my earlier self. Would I have been more at peace and ease around suggested edits and revisions if I understood that what was happening was my work was being taken and made into something collaborative between author and reviewers and publishers and eventually readers? Since my PhD was all about collaboration, compromise and commissions, I rather think I would have appreciated such a frame.

Perhaps this way of thinking about review is useful for you. Or you might want go and read the Badenhorst et al. article and jump off into another thread of thinking with or alongside its rich data. I have focussed here on the short section ‘Rites of passage’ on page. 927, but there’s plenty else to unpack or consider. I’d like to thank the authors for such a thoughtful and generative article–as well as the reviewers, editors, copy editors, layout people, and printers who worked to get the article to me, the reader.

Photo by David Watkis on Unsplash

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