Behind the Scenes: Editing “Studies in Romanticism”

Back in June, I posted some rambling reflections about my current position as Editorial Assistant with Studies in Romanticism. Over the summer, I had the pleasure of communicating with SiR’s current Editor, Charles Rzepka, about his own experiences and expectations with publishing the journal. I asked him to provide N-GSC Blog readers with some insights into the journal’s submission process, editorial decisions, and the dreaded reader evaluations. Here, I offer you some highlights from our conversation:

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Q: What makes an essay stand out for you and for the outside evaluators when you’re deciding whether to include an article in SiR?

Rzepka: We’re looking for something that seriously engages with a common way of thinking or point of view and changes it fundamentally, or something that adds to our knowledge and understanding of a topic or writer in ways that effect such a change. That means that neither the evaluators nor I are particularly interested in essays that simply add information to what we already know, without showing us why or how that information is relevant to the present critical discussion.

The questions on our standard evaluation forms touch on these criteria. We ask our readers to think about the following questions as they review an essay:

  • Is the essay’s focus wide enough to engage the interest of Romanticists in general, and not just those familiar with the author’s specific topic or subspecialty?
  • Does the essay address current and/or longstanding issues, debates, or controversies of significance?
  • Does the essay have something both original and important to say?

In addition to deciding if a submission is well-organized, persuasive, and convincing as a piece of engaging and argumentative writing, these are the main features we’re seeking in an essay.

Q: What tends to turn evaluators or editors off from an essay?

Rzepka: The evaluators want to see that a writer has done his or her homework. They’ll be patient with occasional omissions of relevant criticism (and gladly supply these omissions) as long as the writer demonstrates comprehensive familiarity with the critical legacy and the most important secondary literature. Many of them will also be alert for signs of carelessness and haste that betray second-hand knowledge of materials, primary as well as secondary, or a bias in handling them. They’ll wonder, did the author read what she/he cites, or just read about it? Does the author represent others’ critical opinions fairly and accurately?

Q: Are there common trends that you’ve noticed in essays being submitted today—trends in terms of approaches, methodologies, authors being studied?

Rzepka: Media, disability, transatlantic,
and climate studies seem Cover_Summer2014to be trending at the moment. Among single authors, the most popular—judging just by volume of submissions—seems to be Austen, but this represents a sense of pluralities, not majorities. Austen submissions still form only a small portion of the total we receive. We’re also seeing fewer submissions in theory and methodology than we did ten years go. Regardless of approach, single-author studies remain the dominant form for criticism.

Q: Do you personally find certain kinds of arguments or methodologies to be the most exciting or compelling?

Rzepka: It’s important to preface what follows by saying that what I find personally to be the most exciting isn’t always worth publishing, and that submissions often have virtues that I’m not prepared to recognize—that’s why we have wonderful outside readers whose feedback I depend on in making editorial decisions.

That said, I enjoy essays that show some understanding of the subtleties of detail, the uses (and dangerous misuses) of ambiguity, and rhetorical adroitness in the service of a significant and transformative interpretation, whether the subject of analysis is a work of literature, art, or music, or of philosophy, theory, or criticism. I like arguments that are comprehensive and not selective in their use of evidence, that have a thesis, and that introduce evidence to back up that thesis in an order that makes sense. This sounds like advice most of us give our freshman writing classes, I know, but it’s advice we should never assume we’ve outgrown.

Cover_Fall2012I hold no bias (that I know of—and that’s the worst kind, of course!) against a particular methodology, approach, or theory, but I am skeptical of subordinating the work of art to any of them, feeding it into one end of the sausage machine just to make more smoky links. Much more useful, and interesting (to me), is the essay that shows how a poem, institution, painting, sonata, frieze, dance, or arena of discourse forces us to re-evaluate a methodology, approach, or theory that, for lack of this datum, falls short of its claims or has yet to realize its full potential—something that forces us, in effect, to retool the machine. My colleagues are sometimes better at telling the difference between making sausage and retooling machines, so when in doubt I defer to them. Sometimes a new theory or approach can reveal unexpected features in a familiar work or artist, and that’s useful, too.

In terms of pure enjoyment, there’s hardly anything I like better than a writer with a sure, smooth command of the resources of the language—diction, sentence construction, rhythm, figure, rhetoric—as long as she/he has something to say.

Q: Have you ever had a situation where you loved an essay but the evaluators wanted to reject it? How did that play out?

Rzepka: Yes, I have, and I’ve deferred to the readers’ judgment in those situations. Editing is a humbling experience.

Q: How has being editor of a journal changed your own experiences as a reader? Do you find yourself reading publications differently now?

Rzepka: What an interesting question! Oddly enough, I don’t think I do, except in one respect: I am more appreciative of all the work the editor did in bringing the essay to fruition.

Q: What should grad students know about submitting to the journal? Is there something that would make their essays stand out, either positively as strong criticism or negatively as naïve student writing?

Rzepka: I’m usually quite impressed by our submissions from graduate students. They often show a high degree of critical and historical awareness. They also show that thesis supervisors out there have been extraordinarily conscientious lately.

When there are mistakes, they tend to fall into one of these areas:

Not reading the submission guidelinesCover_Spring213
Submitting work that doesn’t conform to the style sheet or length requirements, e.g., that requires lots of reformatting or that’s way over the word limit, gets you off on the wrong foot. First impressions are important—if your editor and outside readers get the idea you don’t take them seriously, they won’t be inclined to take you seriously.

Not reading the journal to which you are submitting your work
This expands on the previous concern. You have to have some idea of who is reading the journal and what they are reading it for, and then revise your essay to appeal to that audience. Which topics have been “hot” lately? Which critics relevant to your topic have appeared in the journal? Is there a methodological or theoretical center of interest that has emerged over the last several years? Does the journal have a mission statement or explicit philosophy?

Submitting dissertation chapters with little or no revision
I see less of this than I did a few years ago. It shows an inability to grasp the necessity of contextualizing and focusing your argument, especially if the argument derives its significance from its relation to a more comprehensive thesis. Typically, the contextualization of any dissertation chapter takes place in the introduction. Your job is to jettison from that introduction anything that has no bearing on what you wish to argue in the chapter you’re submitting, and seamlessly incorporate what remains. This is a difficult, time-consuming chore and can’t be avoided.

Careless writing
While most of our outside readers are willing to cut an author some slack on this issue, none of us is immune to the negative effects of repeatedly being forced to correct, in our heads, errors in agreement, parallel structure, citation, grammar, diction, spelling, and punctuation. Even with the best of intentions, your readers will feel irritated at the lack of concern displayed by these errors, and for readers sitting on the fence, that irritation may make the difference between tipping one way or the other. Like ignoring guidelines, careless writing betrays a careless attitude toward the journal and its staff, as well as its outside readers and ultimate audience. Respect your work at least as much as you expect others to.

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With sincere thanks to Professor Rzepka for sharing these insightful (and elegantly worded) responses for our readers, I look forward to seeing more submissions from members of the Graduate Student Caucus passing through the hands of SiR’s editors—and into the hands of our colleagues and readers!!

If you have any questions or wonderings about Studies in Romanticism or the editorial, publishing, or submission processes, please comment below! I’d be happy to follow up with more answers in the future. Until then: Happy writing!