Dear Graduate Scholar: Adventures in Publishing

by Ariel Nereson, PhD

I think most graduate students, particularly PhD students, know that publishing is a critical element in the profession, and an expectation when it comes to the academic job market. But how do you actually do it mid-graduate studies career? In my experience, a combination of doing the work and getting lucky resulted in a strong publication. My advice here is based on a sample size of one. I will be grateful for whatever you find useful here for your own path.

I published an essay, “Queens ‘Campin’ Onstage: Performing Queerness in Mae West’s ‘Gay Plays,’” in the December 2012 issue of Theatre Journal, midway through my PhD (I graduated from Pitt in 2014). I was honored to receive the Gerald Kahan Scholar’s Prize in 2013 from the American Society for Theatre Research for this essay. I never dreamed that such an outcome would result from what began as a seminar paper for Bruce McConachie’s Performance Historiography course in fall 2011. Moving from seminar paper to scholarly essay was a steep learning curve for me. I hope that sharing my experience can smooth the path at least a bit for others.

An obvious statement: journals can’t consider your work if you don’t send it in. Don’t send them work you wouldn’t give to your professors, but don’t feel that your writing has to be perfect before you submit it. I have had many essays turned down, but I have also had my fair share accepted. Given the current job market, I recommend that graduate students approach research papers for coursework with an eye to publication. Of course, these papers might serve many other valuable purposes, such as exploration of critical theory, conference presentations, etc. However, it’s very difficult to be both writing seminar papers and sending out (wholly separate) essays, so try to double dip if you can. If you create a pattern of submitting your work early in your scholarly career, it’s a huge help.  Submitting work for publications becomes a regular element of your scholarly practice, as opposed to a giant event for which you have to mentally prepare.

One unexpected thing I learned in my publication experience: it can be (not will be!) more possible to get your work out there in a special issue. Most journals publish both general, non-themed issues where they cull the best essays regardless of topic, and special issues devoted to particular areas. When a journal puts out a call for a special issue, your essay might have comparatively less competition for that issue. (Think competing with 30 essays centered on a particular topic instead of the 100 essays backlogged on the editor’s desk, plus however many more that come in for a general issue.) This does not mean that you submit something subpar – the quality standards for special issues are of course the same as those for general issues. Nor does it mean trying to shoehorn your work to fit special issue calls. It does mean that your essay might receive at the very least a focused reading if it relates in clear ways to the issue theme. In my case, I submitted to Theatre Journal’s call for a special issue on Queer Research in Performance, edited by the wonderful Penny Farfan.

In terms of timeline, I submitted my essay in April 2012. Be aware that special issues often have a more compressed timeline than general issues because they must appear at a given time, and the editor cannot simply move your essay into another issue if it is chosen for the special issue. I heard back from Theatre Journal in July 2012, and here I will repeat what has already been well articulated, particularly by Karen Kelsky and in this series by Theresa MacPhail. If you get a revise and resubmit, DO IT. I received a revise and resubmit that included significant revision (further archival work, a substantial re-tooling of the argument, etc.). I dithered around for a couple of weeks before committing to the revision. I wish I hadn’t. The revise and resubmit I received was not a guarantee of publication upon receipt of the revision; it was an offer to reconsider the piece for the issue. Thus by the time I got my first-round revision back to Penny and she committed to publishing the essay (pending the further suggested revisions), I had FIVE DAYS to get the next (also substantial) revision back to her. So don’t dither, especially when you’re working on an inflexible timeline with a special issue.

A few things I learned:

  1. The kind of show-you’ve-done-your-reading citation (usually of theory) in seminar papers should not be in an essay for publication. You are not writing to be graded on your comprehension of the course material. I ended up taking quite a bit of this writing, if not all of it, out of the essay. I was lucky in that my editor was willing to teach me this, since I did not make this change before my initial submission. But not everyone will be this generous. Sometimes you can footnote this kind of material if it’s important to you.
  2. Footnotes/endnotes are very important for publication. You must write thorough and accurate notes, which provide breadcrumbs for other scholars reading your work. I noticed a big difference in my footnotes from seminar paper to publication. I ended up including substantial language pointing readers to further sources on issues that were tangential but related to my own argument. You don’t have to argue every possible offshoot of your thesis, but you do need to point people in the right direction.
  3. Journals love images. But they love them most when you have done the work of securing the rights to publish them. I didn’t get high-quality images until very late in the game (the pleasures of microfilm), and it was pretty stressful trying to track down the rights and secure them on a tight timeline. The best advice I can give here: try to integrate images into your writing from the start (when appropriate, of course). When you have a piece that is strong enough to send in for publication, send a query about rights to the appropriate party. This will make your editor happy because you will be able to inform her or him that you’ve done this work already if the piece is accepted.
  4. I got extremely lucky in my editor. She approached our relationship with professionalism but also in the spirit of mentorship. I am sure it was abundantly clear to her upon her initial reading of my essay that I was a green grad student with potential who needed a lot of help (and this was a totally accurate assessment!), and she was willing to do this work with me. Not every editor will take on this kind of work. It is really important to recognize and be grateful when you do receive this above-and-beyond attention to your work.

The positive relationship I developed with Penny turned out to have a significant public consequence as well: she nominated me for the Kahan Prize. Don’t be like me, in the sense that I did not even know this prize existed prior to receiving it. Know what awards are out there for your work in your professional organizations, and send your work in for them!

Resources I like:

  1. Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, Wendy Laura Belcher: A great resource and kind of spendy, but there are lots of worksheets inside so I think it’s worth owning your own copy. Also a great template for starting a writing group using this text. At Pitt we had a wonderful writing group focused on dissertation writing. It strikes me that one could perhaps start a writing group even earlier in the PhD process focused on getting pieces out for publication using an anchoring text like this one. If you try it, let me know how it works out.
  2. Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword: I cannot recommend this book enough. It is amazingly clear and helpful, and has the bonus of being one of the few books on academia I’ve read that actually motivates you to write. It makes me think, “what a great idea, Helen, I will put your book down and open my manuscript right now.” I pretty much never feel like opening the manuscript, so this is a major victory. Get this book.

Ariel Nereson holds her PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. She is an Assistant Professor of Dance Studies at the University at Buffalo – SUNY.



Series Editor: Esther J. Terry