How Not To Be: Peer Review

This post is modified from the original, which appeared in 2012 on Peachleaves.

Back in my hoop-jumping early years of grad school, I sent an abstract of a seminar paper to three editors of a proposed volume. The road to revision never did run smooth, but the process for this volume was more painful than it really should have been–not least because the three editors offered three different sets of comments with no overarching vision to help reconcile them. Five years later, after as many job changes and a fundamental overhaul of my academic philosophy, the book was bound for publication and, suddenly, the contributors received a quality review courtesy of an anonymous scholar who was said to be eminent in the field.

I should point out that we had done at least three rounds of revisions and two major citation changes at that point. We had already done copy edits and switched everything into Harvard style at the publishers’ behest; we’d been told there wasn’t anything more to do. It was a bit late in the process for a quality review, and I suspect the volume editors were inclined to agree; the one who contacted me had a conciliatory tone, and noted that the reviewer said my piece was well-written and in good shape, so there shouldn’t be much action necessary.

This was mostly correct; there weren’t many notes, and some of them were for perfectly sensible revisions, although other suggestions were rather nasty and sarcastic. At the same time, there were many other comments that did not seem to be aimed to revision at all: the reviewer dropped random comments in the margins, as though reporting the thoughts passing through his or her head; he or she disagreed with me on some pretty crucial points, but didn’t seem to think that those should be changed or better defended; meanwhile, he or she dedicated multiple sentences to word choice issues elsewhere; worst of all, he or she responded in many places simply by highlighting words and leaving question marks.

I repeat, this is the last step before publication, and some anonymous reviewer is going through the manuscript there putting “??” in the margins.

If it’s not clear why these responses caused me such self-righteous pain, let me lay out a list of Editing Don’ts. Don’t do these things to your students, your coworkers, your friends whose manuscripts you’re correcting. If you do, they won’t have enough information to make significant corrections; further, they’ll lose faith in your powers as a reviewer, and will be less inclined to take even the advice that is well-said and well-meant.

Don’t just write what you’re thinking in the margins–or, rather, if you do, make sure it’s clear that you’re just remarking, e.g. “This reminds me of…”  It’s pretty neatfor writers to have a chance to know what’s going through their readers’ heads while reading, but if you’re editing, then all of your comments accompanied by the expectation of your judgment.  Thus, your benign marginalia may be utterly confusing to an eager-to-please writer if you don’t clarify whether or not you expect the writer to make a change.

Don’t leave vague notations like “Awk” or “??”. or just circle or highlight.
That’s why.  You’ll never know.  You’ve just been writing “Awk” in the margins like it’s a meaningful phrase, and now I’m vaguely indicating to you that you shouldn’t, but I’m not telling you why not or what you should do instead.  You know what you’ll probably do now?  Keep writing “Awk.”
Students and writers put words down on paper because they think those words have meaning.  If you don’t get the meaning, or if the meaning is garbled through wonky syntax or confusing word choice, you’ll need to use your Word Person skills and figure out what’s throwing you off. Otherwise, the student or writer is unlikely to read your mind any better than you could read theirs.

Don’t get married to style rules; they will not love you back. All rules have exceptions.  If you are a diehard loyalist of a particular rule, not only will you miss out on some expressive modes of wordplay, but you’ll also occasionally be wrong–the opposite of the “broken clock is right twice a day” idiom. Two separate examples from beyond my anthology chapter: one, a writer-friend’s beta reader insisted on making the dialogue in my friend’s manuscript grammatically correct, and it looked pretty silly.  Two, one of my press’s authors insisted on changing all the passive constructions in her promotional copy back to active constructions.  Sounds fine, right?  But my press uses passive construction when describing common perception: e.g. “it was widely believed.” If you use active in such instances, you’re forced to point fingers (“scholars widely believe”) or worse, be inelegantly vague (“people widely believe”).

Don’t be sarcastic or unkind. Mainly because it makes you look bad.  You’re editing because you want to help, not because correcting grammar makes you feel superior, riiiight?  Also, in some cases you may not be the first editor to trample over a person’s writing–who knows what placating concessions have been made in response to a previous reviewer’s comments?  In an early round on my article, the volume editors insisted that I change some term I no longer even remember to “agentic.”  (Adjective, I suppose, meaning “possessing agency.”)  When the finished article was read by the quality reviewer, he or she circled each use of “agentic” and commented ” Find a real word to use! Agentic isn’t a word!” Which of course I know, but neither are half a dozen other words we all use regularly, and it wasn’t my word to begin with, and also give me a break.

I’m sure we can think of others, but in general, good editing advice will fall under “be specific” and “do no harm.”


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